With Wednesday’s 96-78 win over the visiting Celtics, the Toronto Raptors may have wrapped up the number one seed in the East. Competitive games against the Pacers and HEAT remain, but with Boston three games behind in the loss column, that race may be over.
The Raptors maintain the league’s third-rated defense, but point guard Kyle Lowry said he felt the team’s defensive identity had slipped in recent weeks. He saw good signs as his team held the Celtics below 80.
“Yesterday I said it … we haven’t played really good defense in the last month,” Lowry told reporters after the Celtics game. “But tonight I think we did a good job of trying to take a step forward.”
Lowry was also fully aware of what’s at stake with the top seed in the East up for grabs.
“Knowing that we’ll have home court throughout the playoffs in the Eastern Conference would be big for us,” said Lowery. “If we need a game seven, then we’ll have it on our floor.”
Teammate DeMar DeRozan made it clear that the Raptors aren’t looking past the games remaining in the regular season schedule.
“Every single one is extremely important,” said DeRozan. “Because once next weekend starts, it’s literally win or go home. So these four games are critical.”
While the Raptors have given themselves a cushion, the Celtics’ disastrous injury news has thrown much of the Eastern Conference playoff picture into chaos. Thursday’s bombshell was the revelation that Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving will miss the remainder of the season and playoffs after the process of diagnosing his sore knee revealed a bacterial infection.
With Boston missing its centerpiece for the playoffs, the Cavaliers, 76ers, and Pacers may see an easier path to the Eastern Conference Finals by obtaining the third seed rather than potentially facing the Raptors in the second round. Indiana kept pace with a 126-106 blowout of the Golden State Warriors Thursday that kept them within two games of the third seed currently held by Cleveland. The Cavaliers capped a five-game win streak with a dramatic, come-from-behind 118-115 victory over the Washington Wizards Thursday.
The win put Cleveland one game ahead of Philly in the win column while both teams have 30 losses. The 76ers have won 12 straight despite missing Joel Embiid for part of that stretch. The Cavs have a pair of games remaining against the lottery-bound Knicks. The 76ers must play the Milwaukee Bucks, currently the eighth seed, and have remaining contests against the playoff-eliminated Hawks and Mavericks. Thus, tonight’s visit by Cleveland to Philadelphia could decide which team earns the three seed.
After the Cavaliers rallied from down 17 points with seven minutes to play against the Wizards, LeBron James was asked about how Embiid’s injury absence impacts the 76ers.
“They’re very good with him or without him in the lineup,” said James. “Obviously Embiid is a special talent. But they’ve been playing so much without him that they still keep the momentum going.”
With Jose Calderon and George Hill sitting out, it was a challenging first game back for Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, who returned to the sidelines after a nine-game absence to address health concerns. Lue started wing Cedi Osman at point guard and admitted that organizing the team after his time away was a challenge.
“Our rotations were a little off tonight,” said Lue. “I was rusty, but they bailed me out.”
With the Pacers currently two losses behind the 76ers and Cavaliers, the team would need a lot of help to climb above the fifth seed, especially with a visit to Toronto on tap for tonight. Indiana appears destined for the four-five playoff matchup against the team that loses out on the third seed between Cleveland and Philadelphia.
The HEAT, Wizards, and Bucks have all clinched the final three playoff slots in the East, and are within a game of each other. Each of those teams could wind up with anything from the sixth to the eighth seed. For the HEAT, reserve forward Udonis Haslem tweeted congratulations to teammate Wayne Ellington, who became the NBA’s single-season leader in made three-pointers as a reserve.
Washington’s loss to Cleveland, combined with the Milwaukee Bucks’ brutal 119-111 loss to the Brooklyn Nets Thursday, left the teams with identical 42-37 records. With Miami just one game ahead of both teams, the final three playoff seeds in the East will remain up in the air until decided by the remaining regular-season games. Miami visits the Knicks tonight while the Wizards host the Hawks.
Western Conference Picture
In the West, things are slightly more settled with the Rockets having clinched the conference’s best record and the Warriors locked into second. A two-game losing streak has put the third seed in jeopardy for the Portland Trail Blazers thanks to the red-hot Utah Jazz, which sent the L.A. Clippers two games below the playoff cut line with a 117-95 blowout Thursday in Utah. The Blazers lost a tight one in Houston Thursday, 96-94.
While the Jazz trail the Blazers by two games, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are only a game behind Utah with identical 45-34 records. Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets made things even more interesting with a 100-96 win over the visiting Timberwolves Thursday that brought those teams even at 44-35. Minnesota won the first two games against Denver, and thus currently hold the tiebreaker.
With the Nuggets in ninth place in the West but tied with the Timberwolves, that means the current fourth through ninth seeds are separated by only two games.
It’s going to be a dizzying finish to the regular season with so many playoff match-ups still to be determined.
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