Whether the Toronto Raptors make the playoffs or not remains a very open question, and kind of a new one for a team that has typically had its trajectory sorted out by the three-quarter mark of the season.
From 2013-14 to 2019-20 the Raptors not only made the playoffs seven straight years, but they also headed into the final stretch of the season worried only about how well they might finish, rather than whether they would get in or not. In each of those years the Raptors were a home seed in the first round at minimum.
During the Tampa Tank year in 2020-21, the reverse was true: by this stage their fate was sealed; they were heading to the draft lottery. The question was where they would finish in that process.
Even during last season’s surprising playoff push the Raptors were seven games over .500 and in seventh place, three games clear of eighth on March 1. A spot in the play-in tournament was all but assured, and that the Raptors were surging and just 2.5 games out of fourth place boded well. A 15-7 record to finish the regular season got them to fifth and was the source of so much optimism heading into this season.
Things haven’t quite worked out as planned and unlike most of the past decade there are a wide range of outcomes still on the table with 19 games left, but the best-case scenarios are now exceedingly unlikely. Toronto is 7.5 games behind fourth-place Cleveland and got whomped by the Cavs on Sunday. Catching Donovan Mitchell’s crew seems like a bridge too far, and the way the New York Knicks — winners of six straight and thriving since the addition of Josh Hart at the trade deadline — are going, fifth probably isn’t happening either.
So. Can they grab sixth and assure themselves a first-round playoff series with the added bonus of avoiding Boston and Milwaukee — the class of the Eastern Conference all season — with a big finish like they had last season?
It’s doable, but there is almost no margin for error. Toronto is in ninth place, four games behind sixth-place Brooklyn, who are fading quickly after trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. They might be able to catch the Nets who — it should be pointed out, do have the tie breaker over Toronto — but they’ll have to leapfrog Atlanta and Miami, which might prove the real problem.
A more realistic goal is a seventh or eighth place finish which comes with the right to host a do-or-die play-in game and the security of having two chances to win one and secure the seventh or eighth seed in the first-round of the playoff tournament.
It’s not particularly glamourous — Raptors president Masai Ujiri has been dismissive of the play-in tournament format in the past — and not what the Raptors were aiming for coming out of training camp, but hey, it’s the bed they’ve made for themselves.
Still, after a season full or injuries, listless play, some self-proclaimed selfishness, and a long period where the trade deadline seemed to hang over everything, the deck is clear and there is a clear-eyed focus on what’s next.
“It’s great for us. It’s that time of year,” said Fred VanVleet, who struggled shooting the ball during Tuesday night’s win over the Chicago Bulls but provided nine assists without a turnover and just enough lubricant for an offence that is still creaky as they try to integrate their full post-trade deadline roster.
“With the league going to (the play-in format) now, every game now has playoff implications and there’s going to be a heightened sense of urgency for both sides, for every team (and) for teams that are locked in, they’re still going to be trying to tighten up for the little home stretch here. So it’s great for us and it’ll put us in good position. We gotta play good basketball going down the stretch … we gotta keep it up.”
In that context, Toronto’s visit to Washington has a playoff feel. The Wizards are in 10th place, just one game behind the Raptors and — like Toronto — can look at their season wishing for more. A strong finish could smooth over a lot of frustration. Sweeping both games would vault them into ninth, with seventh or eighth in clearer view. It would also assure the Wizards of a tiebreaker in the three-game season series with Toronto. The two teams play one more time later in March and — who knows — could easily find themselves in a one-game show down in the play-in tournament in April.
“I think there’s gonna be a lot of intensity and fight and stuff out there for sure,” predicted Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think on the floor the players will be sensing it similar, for sure.”
This will be the sixth time the Raptors have played in a two-game mini-series against the same opponent, a new wrinkle the NBA introduced this season to reduce travel and help players get some rest and recovery. The Raptors are 5-5 in them so far. They split the first three series, were swept on the road against Orlando and swept Charlotte at home in Toronto.
Win one, lose one, home court matters: it’s all very post-season.
“I think that’s one of the best things the league has done this year is put teams where we can play them back-to-back,” said Raptors veteran Thad Young. “That gives us the best playoff feel before the actual playoffs start because you’re preparing for one team as opposed to preparing for another the next night and another the following night. For us, you get to see what the team’s gonna do and then you get to see what adjustments we make and what adjustments they make.”
Sounds good. The problem is there are two teams trying to do the same thing.
“That’s the toughest part. The toughest part is, the same facts that I just said, they’re thinking the exact same thing,” said Young. “‘What adjustments are they gonna make? Oh, they did this, we’re gonna do this now,’ and that’s what makes the games so tough and that’s what makes the game so hard.”
The Raptors could have a small advantage with their addition of Will Barton on Tuesday. The 11-year veteran was waived by the Wizards after spending the first part of the season with them after they acquired him by trade from Denver, where he had played for eight seasons. If there are state secrets, he says he’s willing to share.
Barton has had a productive career and even if his fit with the Wizards didn’t prove it, his track record with the Nuggets did — he averaged nearly 15 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 38 per cent from three in 71 starts last season.
That he chose to sign with the Raptors as a free agent is telling. Typically veterans in his position are looking to do one of a couple of things: find a ride with a team that has championship potential or join a team where there is a chance to play and make a difference.
For Barton coming to the Raptors was a little column A and a little column B.
“(I was looking for) some playing time to keep proving myself,” said Barton. “But also just to impact winning. I know we’re trying to make a push to get into the playoffs, so it’s just trying to find a balance and a mixture for both.”
And does he look at this new team as one that could be in the playoffs come April?
“Definitely a team that is way better than their record,” said Barton to reporters at practice in Toronto on Wednesday. “Everybody knows that around the league. Very talented, well coached, well-run organization. So hopefully we can just keep getting wins, get our record better and get to the playoffs.”
Taken at face value, Barton’s endorsement at least confirms what the Raptors have believed about themselves.
They may have a point. They are 14-9 since Jan. 6 when they were seven games under .500. It’s hardly the stuff legends are made of but played out of a full 82 and Toronto would be in full command of a playoff spot and jockeying for home-court advantage in the first round.
That’s not going to happen, but the Raptors are at least in position to convince themselves that that their instincts were right and — particularly with their return to full health and the addition of Jakob Poeltl as the missing piece at centre — they can approach the final push with some enthusiasm, optimism, and determination.
They were hallmarks of Raptors teams for most of the past decade and though they were missing at times this year, they’ve become more evident now.
Better late than never.