To quote the man who broke the news himself, “The NBA’s back.”
Though not made official yet, according to reports, the league will vote Thursday to ratify a 22-team return-to-play plan that will run from July 31 and go no later than Oct. 12 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.
Included in this proposed plan will include the existing 16 teams that were already in a playoff spot when the NBA suspended its season because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic along with five more Western Conference teams and one more Eastern Conference club which are expected to be the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards.
These 22 teams will vie for playoff seeding with an eight-game regular season when games resume again with a possible play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, including, potentially, with the No. 9 seed included should the ninth seed be within four games of No. 8.
The battle for the last seeds has the potential to cause quite a fair amount of excitement, but from a Toronto Raptors perspective, who the last team into the post-season is doesn’t affect them much.
In fact, because of this proposed return-to-play plan, there’s not much at all the Raptors and their fans have to sweat at all.
This is because, unlike with some of the other reported plans, the playoff format will still adhere to the traditional conference format with, according to The New York Times’ Marc Stein, all playoff rounds being best-of-seven.
This is hugely advantageous to the Raptors (and the other top Eastern Conference contenders) because of how steep the drop off is from the East’s elite to the rest of the conference in comparison to the ultra-competitive West.
In other supposed format scenarios such as a World Cup-style group stage or just the 16 best teams getting into the playoffs, the Raptors were set to face a much tougher road, but with their path now firmly set to be just Eastern Conference opponents, their path to at least the Eastern Conference Final looks much easier than it would’ve been before, especially in a best-of-seven where the random factor of a less-talented team getting hot at the right time is lessened due to the number of games needed to advance.
Right now, if everything were to go according to the higher seed advancing, Toronto’s path to the conference finals looks like the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics before squaring off against the Milwaukee Bucks for a chance to reach the Finals again.
That seems very do-able for the Raptors, no matter how good the Celtics are. This is because one major factor to take into account for Toronto is they figure to be completely healthy and fully loaded now.
Probably the biggest storyline of this Raptors season has been how banged up they’ve been and still winning, giving the likes of Terence Davis, Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson more burn than they were probably expecting. Valuable experience that saw the Raptors go from a team with just OK depth to Noah’s Ark-like versatility up and down the roster.
When play resumes, this figures to be a healthier and deeper Raptors team than any we’ve seen before this season. So any narratives surrounding the Raptors’ mediocre play against teams with records at .500 or better should have no bearing on the team we’ll see in Disney World.
Among all of these positives for the Raptors in this proposed plan is one small hiccup that could prove problematic for them.
There’s a small chance that during the eight-game warmup before the post-season hits the Raptors could lose their No. 2 seed to the Celtics.
Currently three games up on Boston, it’s unlikely that in only eight games Toronto will lose its grip on No. 2 – and for those wondering, at 6.5 games back of No. 1 Milwaukee, it’s nearly mathematically impossible for the Raptors to catch them, especially as the Bucks hold the tiebreaker.
Should the worst come to pass and the Celtics manage to snatch the second seed from the Raptors that would mean, in all likelihood a first-round matchup with either the Philadelphia 76ers or the Indiana Pacers (who both hold identical records in the standings right now with the Pacers holding the tiebreaker).
This isn’t to say Toronto wouldn’t be able to beat either team in a seven-game series, but the 76ers and Pacers certainly seem like much tougher outs than the Nets, who despite the length of time he’s been out still aren’t expected to have the injured Kevin Durant join Kyrie Irving and Co. for the resumption of the season.
And as Sportsnet’s Michael Grange reported, it’s not like Toronto’s remaining schedule will be a walk in the park, either.
The next eight opponents for Toronto are expected to be: Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee, Houston, Miami and Orlando.
All are teams who hold down playoff spots with matchups against the conference leaders Bucks and Lakers.
But as tough as that eight-game schedule appears it’s still important to remember that eight games still isn’t very much time for Boston to make this push. With that said, given the stiff test they’ll have ahead of them, the Raptors won’t be able to sit on their laurels to ease their way back into competition when July 31 hits. Something that could play to their advantage, ultimately.
Being forged in fire, albeit briefly, before the post-season hits could work wonders for the Raptors and get them as sharp as possible just in time for what they’re surely hoping to be as long and triumphant a playoff run as last year’s.