As we enter the stretch run of the 2019-20 NBA season, the Toronto Raptors find themselves drastically outplaying pre-season expectations.
Coming out of the all-star break, the Raptors sit second in the Eastern Conference and own the league’s third-best record. Considering this team lost Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and three-and-D specialist Danny Green in the off-season, what Nick Nurse has done with his club is nothing short of remarkable.
With their 15-game winning streak officially over, it’s time for the Raptors to refocus and set their sights on maintaining their grip on the No. 2 seed in the East.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the class of the conference, and should cruise to regular-season supremacy. Beyond Milwaukee, there’s a tier of five teams jostling for positioning. Additionally, there’s a major drop-off in quality from sixth to seventh in the conference, so securing the second seed is crucial for Toronto. In this scenario, the Raptors would benefit from a more favourable first-round opponent, and enjoy home-court advantage to at least the conference finals should they make it that far.
|Games back of No. 2 seed||—||1.5||4.5||6||8|
|Home games remaining||13||13||16||14||12|
|Road games remaining||14||15||12||13||15|
|Head-to-head games remaining||4||4||5||2||6|
|Games remaining vs. current playoff teams||15||17||12||10||14|
|Western Conf. road games remaining||7||5||1||8||5|
|Combined win % of remaining opponents||.514||.514||.466||.455||.499|
The Pacers are technically still alive in the hunt for the No. 2 spot, but at eight games back it’s looking much more like a dream than a reality at this point. They have a road-heavy schedule the rest of the way, and have only played .500 basketball away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season.
Indiana has the most remaining head-to-head battles with this tier of teams, so it will have a shot to climb the standings if it takes care of business in those games. Ascending all the way to second would take a perfect storm of luck, though. The Pacers will be a tough playoff team, especially as Victor Oladipo continues to reintegrate himself after a year-long injury absence, but they’ll be hard-pressed to make any real noise.
At six games back and only 27 to go, Philadelphia finds itself in a similar boat as Indiana. The 76ers have been a disappointment in 2019-20 after many picked them to make a run to the Finals. That could very well still happen, but they haven’t made things easy on themselves.
The Sixers have been dominant at home (25-2) but dreadful on the road (9-19). With the second-easiest remaining schedule in the entire NBA, they should have the opportunity to bump that record up significantly. If they don’t secure some type of home-court advantage they’re going to have a tough time getting out of the first round let alone making it all the way to the Finals.
Philadelphia’s off-season loss has been Miami’s huge gain as Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach over the summer. The all-star has been as advertised, fitting in perfectly with the Heat’s team culture and elevating the franchise back into a contender.
The Heat have a cake walk of a schedule and only have to play one more Western Conference road game. They’re another one of the league’s most dominant home teams (22-3) and have a home-heavy slate the rest of the way. They’re 4.5 games back of the Raptors and already own the tiebreaker should they finish with identical records. Toronto and Miami meet once more on April 14 in a matchup that could very well determine the No. 2 seed.
Boston is hot on Toronto’s heels and is faced with what could be a make-or-break five-game stretch immediately out of the all-star break. The Celtics embark on a four-game Western Conference road trip that takes them through Minnesota, Los Angeles, Portland and Utah. They’re then rewarded by returning home to face the Houston Rockets.
Overall, the Celtics have to play 17 of their final 28 games against teams currently in a playoff spot and still have five sets of back-to-backs in front of them. Already leading the season series 2-1, they’ll face off with the Raptors one more time on March 20 in hopes of clinching the tiebreaker.
Finally we have the Raptors, who sit in pole position in the race for second. After beating up on a number of inferior teams during their 15-game winning streak, the Raptors will be put to the test with a very difficult schedule down the stretch. They have seven Western Conference road games left, including stops in Denver and Utah. Outside of the four remaining head-to-head tilts with the heavyweight teams listed above, Toronto also has to play the Bucks three more times, the Lakers once, the Nuggets twice and the Rockets once.
Toronto has been excellent taking care of business against teams under .500, going 31-3. The one knock against this year’s Raptors has been their 9-12 record facing clubs .500 or better. They’ll have an abundance of chances to prove they can hang with the rest of the NBA’s elite between now and April 15. If they can make it through the fire they will emerge with another realistic shot at lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.