With less than a month left in the regular season the Toronto Raptors remain within easy striking distance of the first place Cleveland Cavaliers. The rest of the pack has fallen by the wayside, but the Raptors have stubbornly remained right where they’ve been all season, 2 to 2.5 games behind the leaders just waiting for the heavily favored Cavs to stumble.
If it seems like Toronto has been in lockstep with the Cavs this year it’s because they have. At the end of each month they have been precisely 2.5 games behind the favorites and on March 16, it was still 2.5 games. The Raptors made up the half game by defeating the Pacers in overtime the next night, so heading into Friday both teams had 15 games remaining and a margin that really hasn’t changed since the end of November.
But can Toronto make up the difference?
The remaining schedule is really interesting. If the Raptors and Cavaliers keep on winning at their current pace, Cleveland will finish the year with 58 or 59 wins and Toronto will end up with a franchise record 56 wins. However, if they want it, there is still some hope for “We The North” to catch up.
The Cavaliers have the easier remaining schedule playing teams with an average winning percentage of 46.8 versus Toronto’s opponents who are winning 50.8 percent of their games, but it may not be as simple as that.
Toronto has won 82.8 percent of the games against their last 15 opponents with a record of 24-5 and the Cavaliers are 24-8 against the teams they have left to face. If these trends continue, Toronto could make up a game and a close-finish for first in the East could get even closer.
However, the race first for first could be over before the end of March.
Toronto plays Boston twice, in Houston and then home to Oklahoma City and Atlanta with only the Magic and the Pelicans to soften the schedule before April. The Raptors are in for a tough couple of weeks.
Cleveland gets the Magic, Nuggets, Bucks, Knicks and Nets twice with only Miami and Houston who should challenge them. Head coach Tyronn Lue likely has already scheduled days off to rest for some of his star players during this stretch of games.
However, if Toronto can keep pace until April, they have a shot, in part because they own the tie-breaker having taken the regular season series with the Cavs 2-1.
The Cavaliers face a list of teams fighting for playoff position and possibly a playoff spot thru to the end of the season. Atlanta twice, Charlotte, Indiana, Chicago and Detroit are expected to playing for real right until the last game on the schedule with only a game against the Bucks giving Cleveland an opponent with nothing to play for.
The Raptors schedule starts tough and finishes easy with Memphis, San Antonio, Charlotte, Atlanta and Indiana before wrapping up the season against the Knicks, Sixers and Nets. This is the stretch of games Toronto anticipates having DeMarre Carroll back in the lineup and they will want to see what they have. If they have something to play for, so much the better.
Catching the Cavs will be tough and the race could be over soon if the Raptors are the team to stumble over the next couple of weeks, but if they can hang in there somehow, it’s the Cavaliers who’ll be tested. First place in the East could be up for grabs right up until the last week of the season and if it is, Toronto could be the surprise team on top.