Raptors or Celtics: The race for No. 1 in Eastern Conference

DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and coach Casey discuss the importance of winning the Eastern Conference, which makes these huge games vs. the Celtics that much more important.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, claiming the Eastern Conference’s top seed seemed all but a sure thing for the Toronto Raptors.

Well, not anymore.

The Raptors have occupied first place in the East since Boxing Day, when they bypassed the Boston Celtics, and haven’t looked back since. As the months wore on, Toronto has maintained and extended a healthy lead over the rest of the conference.

Until now.

Suddenly, after posting a losing record over their last seven games, the Raptors’ grasp on first is slipping, with Boston now just two games back of Toronto with six games remaining on the schedule for each club — including a must-win rematch on Wednesday.

Is this important? Yes, it is.

First place in the East would be a significant achievement for a Raptors franchise that has never accomplished the feat before, and a fitting finish for what has been by far the most successful season in team history — one that has fans and players alike geared up for what they’re hoping will be a deep playoff run.

But there’s more at stake than just bragging rights or the ability to say “we’re number one.”

Winning the Eastern Conference’s regular season crown means that the Raptors would have home court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. For a team currently with a 31-7 record at the Air Canada Centre — by far the best mark in the East — securing home court advantage would go a far way to help give Toronto any added advantage it might have over opponents in a seven-game series.

But what seemed inevitable is now coming down to the wire. Let’s take a closer look at the race for first place in the East:

How we got here

Toronto is 3-4 over the last two weeks, beginning with its heated 132-125 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at home. The Raptors followed up that performance with losses against Cleveland, Los Angeles Clippers, and, this past weekend, Boston. They haven’t won consecutive games since March 16, and you’d have to go back to January to find the most recent instance in which the Raptors haven’t had at least a minor win streak to maintain.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have gone 6-1 over the past two weeks and are riding a six-game winning streak. They’re doing it all without their two best players — marquee free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward has been sidelined all season, but the team has also been without all-star point guard Kyrie Irving, who underwent a procedure on his knee (he is expected to return for the playoffs, although he isn’t likely to be available until the post-season is already underway).

In Irving’s absence, the Celtics have gotten stellar performances from an unlikely cast of reserves (sound familiar?) including replacement point guard Terry Rozier, who is averaging nearly 20 points and two steals per game during Boston’s win streak. Rookie Jayson Tatum has continued to flourish as well, averaging 18.5 points on 52 per cent shooting (including an absurd 53 per cent from beyond the arc) in that span.

Remaining schedules

Toronto Raptors:

It certainly doesn’t get any easier for the Raptors from now until the regular season wraps up in nine days. This week alone will provide a stiff test for Toronto, who will see three playoff-bound opponents — all of whom may have home court advantage.

You don’t need me to tell you the significance of Tuesday’s rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers following a thrilling battle on the road in Cleveland two weeks ago. Once again, the Raptors will be in Cleveland to face LeBron James and the Cavs, who are playing their best basketball of the season behind the brilliance of James, who recorded another triple-double on Sunday. The Cavaliers are 8-1 over their last nine and 6-1 in the wake of their 132-129 win over Toronto.

The following nigh, the Raptors return home for the critical rematch against Boston on Wednesday before hosting the Indiana Pacers on Friday. Indiana is currently only a half-game out of fourth place behind the Philadelphia 76ers, who have won 10 straight but are now without all-star centre Joel Embiid as he recovers from a orbital bone injury that should see him return in time for the post-season. So essentially the Raptors are potentially facing each of the other top teams in the conference — a difficult task, but perhaps it’s the precise kind of high-level proving ground and competitive environment the team needs to experience to help prepare for a playoff run.

The Raptors’ final three games aren’t much easier, by the way. Save for what should be a winnable game against Orlando on Sunday, Toronto closes out the season against the Detroit Pistons — winners of five straight and bolstered by the return of point guard Reggie Jackson — and then wrap it up against a notoriously fiesty opponent and potential first-round matchup, the Miami Heat, on the road.

In Boston, Clevland, and Miami in particular, the Raptors will be facing three of the ten teams they don’t have a winning record against this season.

Boston Celtics:

Boston enters the final stretch with a more favourable schedule than Toronto. While there are some tough matchups in store for the Celtics — including with Wednesday’s tilt at the Air Canada Centre — they will see three of the East’s four worst teams between now and the conclusion of the regular season.

The Celtics will enter the Raptors game having also competed the night before, with a game versus Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. The Bucks, who are currently in eight place in the East, have won four of their last six, including victories over the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

After the Raptors game, Boston will face the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, and the Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls, Hawks, and Nets are all firmly occupying the East’s basement, with Atlanta currently holding down last place in the conference. A 4-2 or 5-1 record over their final six is certainly a reasonable expectation for the Celtics — a mark that could be difficult for the Raptors to match.

The Tiebreak:

Here’s where things get really interesting.

Given the disparities in scheduling and the closeness of the race for first place, every game will be a crucial opportunity for the Raptors to maintaining their lead over Boston — or for the Celtics to continue to close the gap and potentially overtake the Raptors.

With everything coming down to the wire, it sets up Wednesday’s game as arguably the most important of the season and, because of the tie-breaker rules, a matchup that could cause more than just a one-game swing in the standings.

Let’s take a look at how it all breaks down:

If the two teams are tied at seasons’ end, then the first tie-breaker is decided by head-to-head record. The Raptors are 1-2 on the season against Boston, meaning a win on Sunday will tie the season series at 2-2.

The next tie-breaker will be decided by the team’s record versus division opponents. The Raptors are currently 11-4 against the Atlantic division, with just one game — versus Boston — remaining against divisional opponents. The Celtics are currently 11-3 against the Atlantic, with two divisional games remaining: versus Toronto and Brooklyn. So, if Boston beats the Raptors again on Wednesday, and takes care of business against the lowly Nets, then they’ll win the tiebreak. However, if Toronto gets the win on Wednesday and the Celtics handle the Nets as expected, then we’ll have to go to a third tie-break scenario to determine who gets the top seed.

The next tiebreaker is determined by winning percentage versus teams in the same conference — and it’s where the Raptors have their best shot at gaining an upper hand.

Boston is currently 31-15 against Eastern Conference opponents. If we spot them their games against the East’s worst, let’s say that gives them 34 wins against the East. That would still make it tough to catch the Raptors, who are currently 36-10 in the conference. This tiebreak scenario would certainly favour the Raptors, who would only have to win two of their next six games in order to finish with a better inter-conference record than the Celtics.

Should the two teams improbably be tied in terms of records versus the Eastern Conference, then the next tiebreaker would be winning percentage versus East playoff teams.

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