By Frank McLean
The Toronto Raptors return home Monday night to the Air Canada Center sitting in the catbird seat to start their stretch of their last nine games before the playoffs with a four game home stand against the Orlando Magic and an old friend Terrance Ross.
The Raptors officially punched their ticket to NBA playoffs for a franchise record fourth straight season on the back of their 94-86 win over the Mavericks in Dallas Saturday night which also was their fifth straight win in a row.
Schedule wise the Raptors are sitting in a great spot. Eight of their last nine games are against teams with a record blow .500. On the final night of the season they play in Cleveland against the Cavaliers the only team with a record better than .500 and if the game means nothing to the defending champions you can bet your life it will be another night of rest for Lebron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
The Raptors have a great opportunity to improve their lot in the Eastern Conference standings with this soft schedule heading into the stretch drive.
They sit fourth at 44-29 3.5 games back of Cleveland and Boston who are tied for first and a game back of Washington who is sitting third.
The goal is to try and avoid a match-up with Cleveland until the third round which would be the conference championship. What helps is that they have the tie breaker with Washington so third place is realistic. They just have to keep winning.
Another benefit of winning five straight is that they have a seven game lead over the fifth place Atlanta Hawks and unless they really hit the skids over these final nine games they pretty well have home court advantage in the first round locked up. Home court was something three weeks ago that wasn’t a sure thing.
The Raptors are hot at the right time which is saying something since they have not had the heart and soul of their offense Kyle Lowry since the all-star break because of a wrist injury.
The three teams in front of them all have some sort of weakness.
First let’s look at the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers who are struggling to play defence right now. They are just 5-5 in their last 10-games. They dominate at home with a 28-8 record, but struggle away from Quicken Loans Arena and are barely over .500 at 19-17.
The Boston Celtics did not make any moves at the trade deadline which made General Manager Danny Ainge the target of the wrath from Celtics Nation. They have had trouble rebounding all season, but they are riding a four game win streak because they have been carried on the back of guard Isaiah Thomas. Thomas scored 30-points Sunday in a win at home against Miami.
And last you have the Washington Wizards who will have barely seen the US capitol city they live in this month. They started off in Cleveland Saturday night their last 10-games of the regular season with their second five game road trip this month which finish’s with the last four games on the west coast against the Lakers, Clippers, Utah and Golden State in that order.
And when they are done with that road trip they only play two of their final five games at home.
As you can see, evidence points to the Raptors having a golden opportunity to move up in the standings and somewhere in their last nine games they hope to get Kyle Lowry back in the lineup.
The Raptors are sitting in the catbird seat. They have their destiny in their own hands and all they have to do is keep winning, something the schedule maker has made a doable task.
Somewhere quietly behind the scenes, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is smiling.