With 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Raptors in possession, the Knicks blitzed DeMar DeRozan at the top of the key. As he was forced to back away to the right, he found Cory Joseph, who then swung the ball to Serge Ibaka at the left elbow three. Nothing opened up for either player, and the ball was promptly swung back to the kid from Compton.

Taking a page out of his usual backcourt mate, Kyle Lowry, DeRozan pulled up from about 30 feet, and calmly sank a three-pointer that gave the Raptors a two-point lead. DeRozan capped his late-game heroics with a final nail in the Knicks coffin with 1.9 seconds left, sending a strong message to those salivating at the thought of facing a Lowry-less Raptors.

It’s the type of resolve the Raptors will now need from their best active player, as the news of Kyle Lowry’s surgery leaves the team in a precarious position.

The Boston Celtics have a fairly light schedule remaining, and should take both the second seed and the Atlantic division crown. 15 of their final 20 games come against teams under .500. Their 20 games are split evenly at home and on the road, and unlike the Washington Wizards, they’ve actually been very good away from home, compiling an 18-13 record thus far.

Struggle down the stretch, and Toronto will face the possibility of a Cleveland matchup as early as the second round. Continue in the same vein as they have since the All-Star break, and the goal of back-to-back Conference Finals will remain firmly in place.

Photo Courtesy: Demarderozan.com

In four games without Lowry, DeRozan is averaging 37.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. To boot, he has shot 51.5% from the field, and his efficiency is even higher when factoring in his steady diet of free-throw attempts, scoring 1.54 points per shot. For some perspective, current betting favourite for MVP, James Harden, scores 1.55 points per shot.

Above all these glittering individual statistics, is the fact that the Raptors are 4-0 in those games.

There is reason to curb one’s enthusiasm though, as the combined record of the teams they’ve faced without Lowry, excluding Boston (38-22), currently stands at 57-120. Teams will continue to come at DeRozan and dare him to either trust his teammates or pull off heroics like he did last night.

Is there reason to believe he can sustain this level of play, and the Raptors theirs?

For starters, there is that historic start to the season DeRozan had that put him in the rarified air of a certain Michael Jordan. He scored at least 30 in 10 of 12 games to start the season, and that’s the player Toronto will need once again. If he can finish the season the way they started it, Toronto should put themselves in position to beat the teams they’re supposed to.

Just how many teams do they face down the stretch that they’re supposed to beat?

After the upcoming home-and-home set with the Wizards (more on them later), 13 of the Raptors’ final 20 games come against teams below .500. Of those 20 games, 11 will be on the road. After starting the season 19-3 versus teams below that threshold, Toronto lost seven of 10 to those teams. They appear to have righted the ship of late, winning three straight since the slide. If they are to nab the third seed, they will likely need to win at least 10 of these games.

Outside of that, the Raptors will play six games (Hawks, Thunder, Bulls, Pacers thrice) versus teams that are between the .500 and .600 bracket; four at home, and two on the road. These are teams that are capable of limiting DeRozan through the likes of Thabo Sefolosha, André Roberson, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George, and will the onus will be on the role players to step up.

In the three games since the All-Star break, the Raptors have shot 31.1% from three, and the loss of their two highest volume three-point shooters in Lowry and Terrence Ross has left a hole that they don’t have the resources to fill.

At the point of attack, none of Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, or Fred VanVleet present a consistent outside threat. At the two-guard, DeRozan and Powell are both more adept at driving and creating either for themselves or others. At the three, DeMarre Carroll has blown hot and cold, while PJ Tucker has shot 33.8% on the year. Serge Ibaka and Patrick Patterson actually serve as the most credible threats from beyond the arc.

Winning three of these games should be satisfactory. Anything more would be a bonus.

The Raptors will finish the season on the road in Cleveland, and this is a bit of a wildcard game. Cleveland should have the top seed in the bag by then, and have already clinched the season series against Toronto. Rest could likely be a factor for both teams, and so it’s hard to have any expectations of this contest.

So, back to the home-and-home against Washington that begins tonight. The Wizards have been terrific at home and are coming off the back of a big-time win over the Golden State Warriors. For Toronto, protecting home court on Wednesday would be enough to clinch the season series and move into third, and would also ease the pressure heading into enemy territory on Friday.

You need your best players to be at their best in big games, and Toronto will have that expectation of DeRozan and Ibaka. Someone who has quietly played well against the Wizards is local boy Joseph, and how he fares against John Wall could well be the deciding factor in the matchup.

Wall and Bradley Beal have made a run back into the conversation for best backcourt not named the Splash Brothers, and Otto Porter is having an all-time contract year. The additions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings combined with the return of Ian Mahinmi will improve their bench productivity, and bolster their run to avoid LeBron James in the conference semis.

Looking at their schedule, 15 of their final 22 games after this home-and-home set with the Raptors will be versus teams below .500. However, 15 of those 22 are also on the road, where they are currently 10-15 on the season. They still have two West Coast road trips as well, and this is why the Raptors, in theory, should have a legitimate shot at third place.

Vivek Jacob

Written by Vivek Jacob

Vivek is a freelance sports writer from Mississauga. Contributor to the NPH team, he provides Toronto Raptors and general NBA content. He also contributes to Raptors Republic and BBallBreakdown.

Website: https://twitter.com/vivekmjacob

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