It’s March, and therefore crunch time. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With 20 games left stuck in the heat of the eastern seeding race, the Toronto Raptors are on standings watch.
Some say the All-star break marks the second half of the season even though it really marks the beginning of the last quarter (look out for the third quarterly awards next week). The Toronto Raptors are officially knotted with the Washington Wizards at third in the eastern conference and two games behind the Boston Celtics.
Kyle Lowry‘s surgery on his right wrist, has him out 4-6 weeks, but that doesn’t mean the Raps are going to slide down the standings. Contrary to popular belief, the second seed is still in play.
Norman Powell flourished in his starting role — the ramped up minutes means ramped up Norm. Meanwhile Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl were going from DNP-CD’s to 10-15 minutes a game as stop-gap catastrophes.
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Dwane Casey’s hand was forced, though. Bizzare four guard lineups, with two centres or without shooting (dis)graced the floor, just because he had nobody else to play.
The first month and a half of 2017 was truly a dark time, resulting in the ugliest stretch of basketball the Raptors have played in a very long time. Fortunately Masai Ujiri remedied that at the trade deadline.
Being able to bring in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker for Terrence Ross and a hand full of second rounders is a glorious boon for the Raptors’ postseason chances and their regular season flexibility. Ibaka is flipping between the 4 and 5 faster than a kid reading Captain Underpants and Casey finally gets to justify playing Patterson off the bench.
Tucker is providing switchability coaches dream of and the Raptors’ defence is finally gaining form. They are flexible like never before.
Jonas Valanciunas never sees the floor in the fourth because he’s a liability and the Raptors have options. Ibaka almost always gets the 5 at the end of games and now Casey can mix and match Patterson, Tucker and DeMarre Carroll on the frontlines, depending on matchups. Big, small, shooting or one-possession defence is all at Casey’s finger tips.
The Dino’s once thin front line, now staunch and filled with flexibility, is followed by a deep guard rotation. Delon Wright, Cory Joseph and Fred VanVleet are waiting in the wings and rearing to play.
There’s an abundance of guards on this roster — Lowry’s injury will serve as a proving ground for minutes this season and moving forward. Play well when Lowry is out and you could see promotion through minutes and role, fail and watch your minutes shrivel like a sponge on the beach.
Don’t forget, DeRozan still exists and is still good at basketball, too. The Raptors have romped opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the floor, and are outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. The three-time All-Star is the heart of the Raptors, but you can always get a transplant.
The Drakes’ have the chance to become a “nobody believes in us” team for the rest of the season. Lowry has always been lauded as the better player between the two guards, but this is the chance for the DeRozan to prove that thinking wrong.
DeRozan idolizes Kobe Bryant and there is nothing Kobe loved more than a challenge. A chance to put the entire team on his back and make the heroic attempt of carrying them to win after win against the odds.
The surrounding parts to the stars have never been better and every podcast, panel, TV show, radio show, roundtable, co-worker, bathroom stall, college kid, barber, brother, father and mother were proclaiming the Raptors as the clear second best team in the east. Now, it’s not completely assured, although it’s still possible.
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The Raptors’ schedule isn’t tough moving forward. They split the series with Washington during the home and home, but 12 of their final 20 games will be against opponents under .500 and the only heavy hitter that’s left is Cleveland in the very last game of the season.
The Celtics are floundering in the weirdest way — with a bench stacked of young prospects it remains barren of present day talent. The over reliance on Isaiah Thomas could be catching up to them, as they have stumbled out of the All-star break with losses to the Raptors and Hawks, and narrow victories over Cleveland and Detroit.
Boston’s next three games are against Phoenix, the Clippers and Golden State, A couple of losses and the Celts can find themselves back into the muck of the race.
The East standings always resembles mom’s jambalaya — one spoon full is chicken, peppers and sausage, while the next spoon is all Shrimp, onions and rice. Week to week the standings seemingly try to generate as many permutations as possible before settling on a final alignment.
Teams swooning with three-game losing streaks can find themselves dropping a seed for each respective loss and in the meantime a winning streak with the same amount of games can have you sitting pretty right underneath the Cavs. It’s going to take a herculean effort and sprinkle of luck from DeRozan and co. to reach the second seed in the East, but only two games back with plenty of basketball to play, it’s still within reach.