Raps face tough road to the second round

Paul Pierce and the Nets would be a tough out for Toronto, even with home-court advantage (Photo: Kathy Kmonicek/AP)

Back before the season tipped off, Vegas experts calculated the over-under for the Raptors’ win total at 35.5. Noting Toronto’s performance against that mark is one of many ways of showing that this has been a year of overachieving north of the border.

The Raptors currently sit third in the Eastern Conference, with 39 wins and 13 games remaining. Although they have yet to officially clinch a berth in the post-season, its coming—and soon. At the East’s current pace, 37 wins (or thereabouts) will be good enough for the eighth seed and Toronto could push their win total into the low 40s this week as their next four games come against teams with a combined record of 69-143 (.325)—at Cleveland, at Boston, versus Boston at home and then at Orlando.

With the end of the five-year playoff drought in sight, visions of home court and an appearance in the second round have started to dance in fans’ heads. But that optimism needs to be tempered slightly as there are still a few land mines left to be navigated.

Where the playoffs are concerned, the following question has come up more than a few times over the years in Toronto: “What good is it to get into the final playoff spot only to get drilled by Miami or Indiana?”

While it’s extremely unlikely the Raptors will draw the Heat or Pacers in the first round, Chicago and Brooklyn could both be added to the list of teams against which the Raptors, home-court advantage or not, would be considered underdogs. So, are the playoffs a waste of time if Toronto gets bumped—or even swept—in the first round?

Definitely not. What’s important is the experience provided by a taste of post-season action.

A constant in head coach Dwane Casey’s message about development and the process of constructing a team is the idea that a loss in the playoffs—particularly to a contender—provides a young team with deeply valuable experience. It’s only after just such a loss that a team can truly understand what it takes to win it all. You could even argue that the Raptors are gaining similar experience just from having to fight so hard down the stretch to hang on to the third seed.

My colleagues who chase NHL players all over North America always crow that Lord Stanley’s Cup is toughest trophy in sports to win. Though there isn’t space to play the debate out in full here, allow me to point out that there have been 16 different winners of the Cup since 1980. The NBA has only had nine different champs over the same period. The last low-seeded team to win the Larry O’Brien was sixth-seeded Houston in 1995. The NHL saw the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings win it all in 2012. Again, it’s a debate for another day, but the point is: You need experience to win in the NBA, and you need to lose to earn it.

Winning against either Chicago or Brooklyn will be a tall order. Look at the experience on both of those squads. Key Bulls Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer all have Conference Finals experience. Other pieces in Chicago have also had a taste of the post-season (Mike Dunleavy, DJ Augustin, Nazr Mohammed and Jimmy Butler come to mind). In Brooklyn, Joe Johnson, Andrei Kirilenko, Andray Blatche, Jason Collins and Deron Williams have all played into late April and early May, while Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have played into June—winning a title in Boston in 2008.

If Toronto does happen to draw one of those two teams, they will have to be solid defensively to win the series. A healthy Patrick Patterson will be particularly crucial against the Nets. Brooklyn’s willingness to play mobile bigs like Blatche, Pierce and Mirza Teletovic on the perimeter has created matchup issues for Toronto without Patterson. Amir Johnson can step out and guard away from the hoop, but that probably wouldn’t be the coaching staff’s first choice and Johnson’s reputation with refs around the league (he is near the top of the NBA in fouls per game) also seems to influence officiating in opponents’ favour from time to time.

Chicago presents an equally difficult challenge with its low-scoring, grinding style of half-court basketball. Playing that style all season means the Bulls—unlike Johnson—get a fair amount of leeway from officials. Toronto will have to play through the holding, shoving and elbows and there will be a huge premium on offensive execution.

Toronto fans need to remember that this Raptors squad is far from a finished product. Could they win a first-round series? Yes. But there is still a good chance they’ll be underdogs in that first matchup and, in truth, this season is all about the experience and getting a taste.

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