The 36-17 Toronto Raptors hold down second place in the Eastern Conference, leading the Chicago Bulls by 2.5 games, but you’d hardly know it from the buzz around the NBA and their resolve to hold onto that spot is about to be severely tested. Toronto starts a four-games-in-five-nights series on the road against teams with a combined winning percentage of 66 percent and they kick things off against the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks on Friday night.
It might seem strange, but the Raptors could actually be looking forward to the trip.
“I think we do better on the road honestly,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Me and Kyle (Lowry) was talking about that one day. We feel that we are the underdogs again when we are on the road. We just feel that everybody is against us and we thrive off that pressure. It’s just us when we go out there. It’s 15 guys and the coaches against everybody in the arena.”
The Raptors get slagged for building up their record against bad teams and playing in the relatively weak Eastern Conference, but everything isn’t as it appears or maybe those disparaging the team’s record are just lazy?
Toronto, at 14-12, is one of just six teams in the NBA with a winning record against other winning teams. The others being Atlanta (19-7), Chicago (15-11), Golden State (17-7), Memphis (17-11) and Houston (15-14). The Raptors are 8-6 against the six winning teams in the East and 5-5 against the top eight in the West. Toronto has held their own against the best in the NBA this season. They have also been almost as good away (15-8) as at home (21-9) with big road victories over Cleveland, Atlanta, the Clippers, Bucks and Wizards.
This upcoming four game road trip could be described as at another level, however.
Friday in Atlanta against the 43-11 Hawks represents a test of Toronto’s early season dominance of the East’s best team. Toronto holds a 2-1 series advantage and beat the Hawks in Atlanta 126-115 on November 26, but lost the last match in Toronto 110-89. A win in Atlanta now would go a long ways to establishing the Raptors as a Conference Finals contender.
Where Atlanta plays the team game, to beat Houston on Saturday will require the Raptors to somehow, someway slow down the Association’s leading scorer James Harden. The Rockets and Raptors have identical 36-17 records and they both own winning records against other winning teams. This should be a close game.
After a day off, Toronto visits the 27-26 New Orleans Pelicans. Losers of four of their past five games prior to All-Star weekend including three-in-a-row to Chicago, Utah and Indiana, the Pelicans are at risk of sliding even further back into the NBA’s Draft Lottery (which probably isn’t a bad thing). This should be the easiest game of the four (with some trepidation.) Ryan Anderson (sore elbow) and Anthony Davis (sore shoulder) were still as questionable after the break and Jrue Holiday (right leg) is out indefinitely. The Pelicans season is about to go down under the weight of injuries once again.
The Raptors finish off the road trip in Dallas against the 36-20 Mavericks with Tyson Chandler and Rajon Rondo back in the lineup and newly acquired Amar’e Stoudemire expected to come off the bench. Dallas, for all of their firepower (106 points per game), has a losing record against winning teams and is obviously searching for the tweak that will make them a serious threat in the playoffs. It shouldn’t take long to find out if Stoudemire is that tweak.
As long as the Raptors manage a 2-2 split or better, the trailing Bulls, Wizards and Cavs will not be able to catch them during the road trip and an even split would represent a solid result for Toronto. However, of the four teams they are facing, only Atlanta has the better record and in the Raptors two previous sets of four-games-in-five nights, they have collected seven wins to just one loss.
Playing back-to-back games has been a Raptors strength this season. They have played 11 of the 19 back-to-back series the NBA schedule has laid out before them and have collected an impressive 18 wins in those 22 games. These next two back-to-back sets are going to severely test that record.
“I’ve been there before, winning 60 games, winning a championship. I know what it takes. I know a lot of people don’t believe it, but I do and probably a lot of people in here don’t believe it, but I do. I promise you,” Casey said.
The Raptors have played 11 of the 19 back-to-back series the NBA schedule has laid out before them and have collected an impressive 18 wins in those 22 games. In the withering four games in five nights sets, Toronto has seven wins in eight games including the back-to-back overtime wins over the Nets and Wizards on the road last weekend.