Sitting atop of the NBA’s Eastern Conference after 60 games is a place the Toronto Raptors aren’t familiar with, but at 43-17 they have 2 fewer losses than second place Boston (44-19) while the preseason favorite Cavs (36-25) have slid to 7.5 games back and are at a real risk of slipping out of the top four. Toronto only has to close out the season going 17-5 for 60 wins, so it’s there for the taking if the Raptors want it.
For the first time in franchise history the Raptors should be favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals based on their dominating 27-8 conference record versus the Celtics 28-13 or the Cavs 26-14 and ESPN Basketball Power Index continues to reflect Toronto’s position by giving them a 24 percent chance at an NBA Title versus 4.2 percent for Boston and a 0.2 percent chance for Cleveland.
But games and playoff series aren’t played in mathematical models and it’s the stretch drive to the playoffs that will provide the best information about how these Toronto Raptors may fare after the regular season ends.
Of the 22 games remaining, Toronto plays 13 teams who are no better than eighth in their conference. Facing Detroit, Brooklyn and Orlando twice more each should help run up the Raptors Eastern Conference best points differential.
There will be interesting contests against Washington, OKC and Indiana (2x), but it’s the March 9th date at the Air Canada Centre against the Western Conference leading Houston Rockets that should be the most watched game of the season to this point (ESPN where are you?) Way back in November the Raptors won 129-113 in Houston.
However, the best indicators of just how effective this Toronto team could be in the playoffs comes with two games at The Q in Cleveland on March 21st and April 3rd. Then two games against the Celtics starting March 31st in Boston and back home on April 4th.
Toronto beat the Cavs 133-99 in January, but realize things might be different next time. Boston won 95-94 at home when DeMar DeRozan missed two potential go-ahead shots in the final 19 seconds in November. Three weeks ago Toronto got their revenge with a 111-91 pasting of the Celtics at the ACC.
It’s likely these four remaining games will determine if Toronto ends the season in first place or slips to second in the playoff seeding, but if the drive for 60 wins comes true, there is likely nothing that can stop the Raptors from claiming top spot in the East this year.
While is should be expected head coach Dwane Casey will put zero emphasis on reaching the 60 win mark, it is a point of pride for any NBA team and their fan base base, especially the first time.