The Toronto Raptors are going to enjoy hosting the 2016 NBA All-Star Game — not just because the midwinter spectacle comes to Canada for the first time, but because the local team has begun to emerge as the favorite for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Yes, after months of uncertainty in the still-jumbled East, one team has separated itself from the pack to gain the inside track to home-court advantage in two playoff rounds. It is a team which has never before made the Eastern Conference Finals, and would produce an unquestionably successful season if it did indeed manage to crack the NBA’s final four.
A year ago, the Atlanta Hawks fit that distinction. This year, the Raptors could get swept by Cleveland in the East Finals and still know they reached higher than any predecessor in the same city. (The Hawks franchise won the NBA title in St. Louis, but no Atlanta-based team had ever done as much as the 2014-2015 club.)
If you’re skeptical of the Raptors, hold that thought for a moment. First, do realize that regardless of what might unfold in the playoffs, the Raptors really do have the path to the 2 seed laid out in golden splendor.
The simple essence of the past two weeks — which have at long last shaken up the East and loosened the logjam from the 2 through 12 spots — is that the Raptors are leaving the third through eighth playoff teams in the dust. They’re not doing this by beating the Cavs or other elite teams, which could elicit some tut-tutting about strength of schedule. However, that’s precisely the point.
In an East with no standout teams after Cleveland, nearly every opponent is ordinary at best. The ones with a little more talent or experience (think of the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, and Miami Heat) can be world-beaters on some nights, but remain volatile in every four-game stretch they play. The Raptors, quite simply, are beating the ordinary teams placed in front of them, and they’re staving off the mood swings which continue to affect the non-Cleveland East as a whole.
Yes, it’s true that when Toronto played Chicago and Cleveland in the first week of January, the Raptors went 0-2. It’s true that their 10-game winning streak has been built of the back of double-wins versus the sliding Washington Wizards and the woeful Brooklyn Nets.
Yet, this is the hidden attraction of the Raptors: While their wins might not look all that sexy, they’re responsible in ways other teams aren’t. They’re the companion who won’t let you down (not in the regular season, at any rate).
Consider what else has transpired over the past week, a clarifying and illuminating time in the NBA:
* Chicago trounced Cleveland on the road last Saturday, in Tyronn Lue’s head-coaching debut for the Cavaliers, only to come home and lose to the shorthanded and banged-up Miami Heat. Yes, Derrick Rose didn’t play in the second half against Miami, but it’s not as though he was effective in the Cleveland game — he went 5-of-21 for 12 points against the Cavs and was not a central engine in the Bulls’ victory.
* Also in the past week, the Washington Wizards lost at home to the Denver Nuggets, the latest in a series of appalling losses for a team which simply cannot play any defense at the moment. Washington, which had appeared to be gathering steam with a fresh Bradley Beal (coming off an injury), has promptly tumbled downward in the East standings, increasing the chances of a playoff-free season in D.C.
* The Indiana Pacers continued their fall in the East standings, dropping a decision to Sacramento last Saturday to suffer a sweep loss of the season series against the Kings.
Beyond these various failures on the part of East teams to conquer inferior foes, the Los Angeles Clippers also served to illustrate the current difference between the Raptors and their pursuers for the 2 seed.
The Raptors smashed the Clips last weekend with an authoritative performance, one in which Toronto’s bench scored 51 points and produced four double-figure scorers. The Clippers might have been distracted, disjointed and unsettled by the news of Blake Griffin’s broken hand — suffered in a fight with a member of the team’s traveling staff — but Toronto pounced on the Clippers in their time of vulnerability.
The Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks hosted the Clippers in subsequent days on Los Angeles’s extended road swing; neither team could beat L.A. at home. Both teams scored fewer than 90 points. Toronto? The Raptors posted 112.
They’re operating at a different speed compared to everyone else in the East other than the Cavs.
Yes, Toronto’s playoff history — especially the past two seasons with this core group — should cause some concerns. However, one point worth emphasizing here is that Toronto’s rise in the East is very much a product of other teams failing as much as the Raptors might be succeeding. Toronto is doing its job against a slate of vulnerable opponents, but playing one team in a focused two-week showdown could subject the Raptors to pressures and tactical tension points they might not be able to handle. It’s fair to be skeptical about the Raptors making the East Finals.
Getting the 2 seed, however, is another story.
Toronto — having established the ability to take care of business against the vast sea of mediocrity that is the East — encounters few remaining stretches of games in which it will be severely tested. In its next 10 games, Toronto plays two teams that are at least seven games over .500, Chicago and Memphis. The next 10 games feature that same number of contests against “the seven-over (or better) club.”
Not until a rough Southwestern stretch from March 25 to April 2 — at Houston and New Orleans, home versus Oklahoma City and Atlanta, at Memphis and San Antonio — will the Raptors receive a fierce set of tests in rapid-fire succession. This really is a team which should be able to exceed 50 wins, something no other East team outside the Cavs can confidently claim.
These are illuminating times in the NBA — not in the same way that the playoffs are, but still enough to shape the postseason picture. The Toronto Raptors — when they relax and enjoy the All-Star festivities in their fair city — will have a smaller magic number than any other team in the race for the number two playoff seed in the East.
It’s about time some clarity emerged in this NBA season.