Are you ready for the stretch run?
The NBA season resumes on Thursday with a pair of Western Conference match-ups with legit playoff implications before things really pick back up in earnest on Friday.
Arguably the biggest game on the docket for February 20 – the day after the NBA Trade Deadline, incidentally – is a battle between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks and your Toronto Raptors.
Right now, the Raptors sit in second place in the conference – 6.5 games back of Atlanta, but only 2.5 games clear of the third-place Chicago Bulls. A second consecutive Atlantic Division title is a sure thing and the playoffs are guaranteed, which means these next two months are going to be about (a) playoff positioning and (b) figuring out whether this team has the chops to win the whole damn thing.
Entering the break with wins over the Clippers, Spurs and Wizards showed that the Raptors are capable of beating quality teams, but it’s the next five games that will go a long way in determining whether this is a squad capable of advancing to the NBA Finals and being the last team standing at the end of the year.
Friday’s game is important, but not the biggest test the Raptors will face the rest of the way home. They’ve already taken two of three from the Hawks this year, so a loss isn’t the end of the world. Toronto isn’t likely to catch Atlanta for home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, so coming away with a split while accounting for two of the Hawks’ 11 losses has to be a confidence booster.
More than the date with Atlanta, it’s the next four games that will really be telling as the Dinos head to Houston, New Orleans and Dallas before returning home to take on the Golden State Warriors the following Friday. That’s a murderous five-games-in-eight-nights stretch that will test this team’s mettle and give everyone a clearer picture of their chances.
But those aren’t the games that will ultimately determine this team’s fate. Those games come on March 4, March 20 and March 25 – the first against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the second two to close out the season series with the Bulls.
Toronto may be 2-1 against Atlanta heading into Friday’s four meeting, but they’re a combined 1-4 against the Cavs and Bulls, everyone’s pre-season picks to make the Eastern Conference Finals.
After waxing Cleveland early in the year when the team was struggling, LeBron & Co. have rebounded with back-to-back wins. In both games with Chicago, the Raptors have held halftime leads, but come up short down the stretch. If they can’t show they can beat those two teams, making it out of the East is going to be a chore and make hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy impossible.
All that being said, Toronto actually matches up well with a lot of the top contenders.
If they can steer clear of Chicago in the East, a trip to the Finals isn’t out of the question. They’ve played Atlanta level all year, swept Washington and have the talent to hang with Cleveland in a seven-game series, although the Cavs would likely be favoured.
Out West, there are a few more troubling teams, primarily Golden State (The Splash Brothers), Memphis (Z-Bo and Gasol are nasty down low) and Portland (Dame and Alridge), but they’ll only have to worry about one of them should they make it to the last series of the season and while they’d be the underdogs no matter who they played, anything can happen in a seven-game series.
Is it likely to happen? Hollinger’s Playoff Odds gives them a 16.2% chance of reaching the finals, the third best odds in the East behind the Hawks and Bulls (and 1.6% greater than the Cavs), but slightly less than a 5% shot at winning it all.