Why Raptors’ tune-up games could make or break playoff chances

Faizal Khamisa, Danielle Michaud and Donnovan Bennett break down the news that 22 NBA teams will be heading to Orlando, Florida to restart the season on July 31st.

The pressure will be on the Toronto Raptors right from the get-go of the NBA season’s resumption.

There are still legitimate health and safety concerns that need to be sorted out, but as of right now it certainly seems as if the NBA will return on July 31 at Disney World.

But despite being in the “Happiest Place in the World,” the Raptors’ Disney vacation will be all about trying to survive the eight-game gauntlet that awaits them as they try to hold down their No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

It’s not entirely known what Toronto’s schedule would be in the eight-game restart, but according to the NBA’s statement about the approved 22-team return-to-play plan, “each returning team would play eight seeding games, as selected from its remaining regular-season matchups.”

Taking a look at what would’ve been the Raptors’ next eight games before the season originally suspended on March 11, they had a schedule that saw them facing the Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies.

If you then remove the teams from that list who didn’t make it into the bubble, the schedule looks like this: 76ers, Celtics, Nuggets, Lakers, Grizzlies, Grizzlies again, Milwaukee Bucks and the Bucks again.

We obviously don’t know yet if what were supposed to be home-and-homes would stick in the new schedule, and if that isn’t the case then the next two opponents for the Raptors after the Grizzlies and Bucks would be the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards.

Regardless of what the schedule looks like, without most of the league’s scrubs making it into the bubble, any schedule the Raptors have to navigate will appear tougher than usual, and even though they’re in good shape as the current No. 2 seed in the East, they really won’t be able to afford much time to ease back into competition.

If the Raptors want to give themselves the best shot at defending their title, it’s of the utmost importance they hold onto their No. 2 seed.

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On Friday, in a wide-ranging interview with The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant revealed he won’t be coming back during the season restart. Durant, of course, suffered an Achilles injury after making an attempt to return early from a calf injury during Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals while he was a member of the Warriors.

He signed with the Nets in the off-season but has yet to play a game for his new club. And, as he revealed to Spears, there was never a plan put in place for him to return this season.

“My season is over. I don’t plan on playing at all,” Durant said of possibly playing in the season resumption. “We decided last summer when it first happened that I was just going to wait until the following season. I had no plans of playing at all this season.”

Word that Durant won’t be suiting up in Disney World is particularly significant news to the Raptors because the Nets are currently the No. 7-seeded team in the East. If things all stay the same after the eight-game tune-up before the playoffs, Toronto’s first-round matchup will be against a severely-handicapped Nets team that won’t have Durant or Kyrie Irving, who had season-ending shoulder surgery on March 3 – although it’s been reported he would be with his teammates in the bubble as an inactive player.

The Nets are currently 8.5 games back of the No. 6-seeded 76ers, so they aren’t going to make up ground on them and bump up the standings. They do, however, have the potential to move down. The Orlando Magic are only a half game behind them at No. 8 and the No. 9 Wizards are six games back, but do have a chance to push their way up the standings.

Regardless of who makes their way into that No. 7 spot, though, the Raptors should have an easy time handling them.

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A team much closer to the Raptors’ level, however, is the sixth-seeded Sixers, and this is why it’s absolutely vital that Toronto plays well in the initial eight-game restart and secures No. 2 in the East.

Sitting 6.5 games behind the top-seeded Bucks probably means the Raptors aren’t going to catch them, but only holding a three-game cushion over the No. 3 Celtics means Toronto could be overtaken if it performs poorly before the playoffs hit.

Should Boston catch and overtake the Raptors, a breezy first round against the Nets, Magic or Wizards – of whom the Raptors boast a combined 8-1 record against this season – suddenly turns into a dogfight opening round against Philadelphia, the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat, teams Toronto has a combined record of 5-4 against this season.

The choice is clear about which scenario the Raptors would prefer to take.

Keeping that No. 2 seed could very well be what determines whether they go the distance or not.

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