The music has been playing for over three months now, and 11 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams are left dancing. On Wednesday, Apr. 12, the music will stop, and eight will remain.
Four teams have guaranteed their position, which leaves seven teams fighting for the final four slots. The Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, and Chicago Bulls are on the outside looking in, but are no more than two games behind the eighth seeded Miami Heat. Moving further up the ladder, the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, and Indiana Pacers are all tied at 37-36.
Winners of five straight and six of their last seven games, the Toronto Raptors have built a healthy cushion above those 37-36 teams to all but guarantee themselves home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Who that first round will come against is a mystery, and that could be a benefit for the team headed down the stretch. Toronto can’t identify what position is best to sort out a matchup beneficial to them, and therefore have no choice but to focus on themselves and try to maintain their positive momentum.
Perhaps instead, it’s better for the Raptors to look at what stands above them. They are one game behind the Washington Wizards now, and the next four games could very well determine who finishes with the third seed.
Toronto plays their next four games at home versus:
Meanwhile, Washington plays their next four games on the road against:
The Wizards picked up a huge win in Cleveland on Saturday night, but they will be hard pressed to maintain their lead over the Raptors by next Monday. Barring the ultimate revenge game from Terrence Ross, both teams should handle their business against the Magic and Lakers respectively. Thereafter, the Raptors have a considerable advantage the remainder of the week and should expect to at least tie the Wizards in the standings, and move ahead of them by virtue of holding the tiebreaker.
But does the three-seed even matter for the second round?
The Cleveland Cavaliers appeared to be a lock for the top seed in the conference a couple of weeks ago, but have gone 8-9 since the all-star break with a defensive efficiency that ranks second-to-last in the league. Head coach Tyronn Lue indicated this is all part of a master plan to Cleveland.com.
“We’ve got to hold back,” he said. “We can’t show our hand early because… these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do.”
The Boston Celtics now find themselves tied for first place with the Cavaliers, and have a strong chance of taking sole possession with Cleveland taking on the mighty San Antonio Spurs tonight, followed by a Chicago Bulls matchup on Mar. 30 where the Bulls own a bizarre record of having won 18 straight games on TNT Thursday nights. The Celtics and Cavs will matchup on Apr. 5, and what was once possibly considered a date that the Cavs could clinch, is looking increasingly favourable for the Celtics to strengthen their position.
So, the Raptors now look primed for the third seed, and the Cavaliers are staring at the possibility of second. In theory, this would imply that the three-seed matters a lot. But the honest truth is, it doesn’t.
When Toronto fell to Cleveland in six games last year, the goal this season was to narrow the gap between themselves and the NBA Champions. Masai Ujiri’s goal is to make the Raptors a winner, and so whether they measure themselves against the best in the East Semis or Finals is irrelevant.
Measuring their progress by whether or not they take the series to at least six games would also be a poor marker. In the third and fourth games of their series last year, Cleveland didn’t show up for either of those first halves. They bludgeoned Toronto so badly in the first two games that it already appeared the series was over. They never came close to winning a game at the Quicken Loans Arena either.
Winning 56 games earned a level of respect, but holding their own in those two second halves in Games Three and Four earned a different level of respect. Toronto became the hunted.
Legitimate title contenders heading into the season would have been viewed as the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors, and the San Antonio Spurs to a lesser extent. Those teams have come hard at Toronto this season, and have combined to win all seven contests they’ve played against the Raptors. The tier below has come at the Raptors just as hard, but with nowhere near the level of success. Against Houston, Boston, Washington, Utah, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Memphis, Toronto has gone 11-6.
What this goes to show is that regardless of how wild these final two-and-a-half weeks are, and no matter how many times Toronto’s matchups change, the measuring stick remains the same.
All roads lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Toronto Raptors will ultimately be defined by how much closer they are to knocking off the king from his throne.