Incompetence and a general state of embarrassment have been one of a few recurring themes in my columns over the course of the season. But rarely have such strong words been leveled against the Toronto Raptors. Instead, the vitriol has more often been spewed in the direction of the pathetic Eastern Conference. I’ve compared stats and rosters and records over the season and surmised, without much effort or trouble, that this hasn’t been an ordinary playoff picture from the outset of the season. But whether I laugh, cry, or just view with disbelief at how things have played out in the East, the playoffs are near.
I still don’t know whether typical measures of success even apply this season, given whose making it and some curious matchups forecast for the middle seeds. It’s the playoffs, nonetheless, and the Raptors are in. Just because they live in an ugly house doesn’t mean there isn’t some nice appliances. The league will tout that anyone can win, as long as you get in. That’s true, even if it isn’t. And if hope drives a franchise, they should grab on and pound that slogan into submission among their fans. But with the questionable teams that are going to make up the middle and bottom seeds, it needs to be analyzed where the Raptors best chances lie. I see a pretty clear preference.
Although the Raptors clinched the Atlantic Division Friday in a loss, the seeding is still up for grabs. The Chicago Bulls have now overtaken the Raptors for the third seed, leaving them in a hypothetical first round match up with the (yes, I am saying it) dangerous Brooklyn Nets. I’ve detailed my thorough, but apt, criticism of the Nets at many points this season. But as I said last time, a group of talented veterans cannot be counted out this time of year. And I wouldn’t underestimate them as a dangerous first round opponent for either the Heat or the Pacers, much less the Raptors or Bulls.
That’s why I consider it imperative that Toronto flip with Chicago and secure the three seed to avoid a match up with the Nets in the first round. As it stands right now, Toronto would host the Nets and the Bulls would host the Wizards. Take a look up and down those rosters and the choice of match ups becomes very clear. I actually really like the Wizards going forward as a team and see their backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal as the potential for something big in Washington. I like Gortat too and think he’s made a difference. But they haven’t been to the playoffs since the 07-08 season. I see Wall trying to do too much, getting overwhelmed, and the young Wizards being an easy out, perhaps in a sweep.
And if the Charlotte Bobcats find a way to overtake the Wizards and grab the six seed? Well Merry Christmas to the three seed in that scenario. Frankly, with Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago left on their slate, there is a chance that Charlotte could sneak into that six spot. I could make a case that their fourth-ranked defense will translate into a hard first round match up for any team, but I see these guys being the epitome of a “thrilled to get there, everything else is a bonus” team. They won’t be able to score and the Raptors would win that series in a walk.
Right now, though, all this is wishful thinking because the Raptors have the four seed and they’re staring Brooklyn right in the face. That’s Pierce, Garnett, Williams, and Johnson staring back at them. That’s a seasoned group and one that has to be feeling a little disrespected. And I’m scared of that Mirza Teletovic. Honestly, for all that I said about the Nets, I don’t like the Raptors chances in that series. I don’t like their chances at all. The Nets rebounding is weak—and I need a good rebounding team in the playoffs—but they would grind it out and find a way.
It appears the best way to quantify this season as a “success” is to find a more palatable first round matchup. Either Charlotte or Washington is a brilliant remedy; I think they have to sweep the final three games to have a chance. With a final stretch of Detroit, Milwaukee, and the Knicks, the idea seems a little less daunting. Even then, I’m still at a loss to measure success in this wildly inept conference.