While some teams in the top half of the bracket have ridden favorable health or a favorable schedule to home court advantage for the upcoming NBA playoffs, the Toronto Raptors have joined the Cleveland Cavaliers in enduring true adversity. With the latter struggling defensively and the Wizards and Celtics unproven in the playoffs in their current iterations — and with Toronto playing astonishingly well in the absence of Kyle Lowry — the Raptors could be poised for a surprising run in the postseason.
The Raptors reached the All-Star break with a 33-24 record. Somehow, without Lowry, the Raptors have ripped off an 11-5 stretch and outpaced the Hawks for the fourth seed. Atlanta has fallen apart — currently embroiled in a seven-game losing streak — and dropped into a three-way tie with the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, a full seven games behind Toronto.
With no team in position to challenge Toronto for the fourth seed, a number of scenarios emerge in which the Raptors could make an improbable return to the Eastern Conference Finals for a second consecutive season. The Cavaliers are vulnerable, with the league’s 22nd-ranked defense. As Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype tweeted, only the 2001 Lakers have won an NBA title without a top-12 defense.
But the Cavaliers aren’t the only East contender that could be vulnerable in a playoff series. ESPN’s Marc Stein pointed out a scheduling quirk in his Week 21 Power Rankings that has likely contributed to Boston’s strong finish and potential run to the top seed. Prior to the Celtics’ March 15 win against the Timberwolves, Stein noted that Boston faced a very weak schedule to close the season. The Celtics also got help from the schedule-makers in the form of a light travel schedule in the season’s final month.
The combined winning percentage of Boston’s 16 remaining opponents entering Sunday’s afternoon rout of Chicago was a mere .435. The Celts won’t leave the Eastern time zone for the rest of the season and will travel fewer than 3,000 miles between now and the playoffs. The average NBA team … will travel nearly 9,000 miles during the season’s final month.
That favorable schedule could have two interesting consequences. The Celtics might win the East’s top seed thanks to extra love from the NBA’s front office. However, if Boston does so, it could be an extremely vulnerable top seed. The Celtics are only 2-5 against Washington and Toronto this season. If the Raptors remain fourth while the Cavs slip to second, it means Toronto can avoid Cleveland until a potential rematch in the Conference Finals. If the Cavaliers retain the top spot, the Raptors currently sit a mere game behind the Wizards for the third seed.
Either scenario presents a potential second-round match-up with a Celtics team that has yet to prove anything in the post-season. Boston lost in the first round in six games to the Hawks last season, and after Atlanta took a 3-2 series lead following a home victory in Game 5, coach Brad Stevens talked about the adjustment Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer made to help his team to a crucial victory (at the 1:40 mark in this video).
“He trapped a lot of Isaiah [Thomas’] pick and rolls, obviously,” said Stevens of Coach Bud’s Game 5 adjustments. “So they were very extended on that which forces other guys to handle and make plays and make shots. I thought Isaiah did a really good job of just getting rid of the ball. That’s what you have to do when you’re being trapped.”
As sure as the sun will rise in the East, the Celtics will be dealing with traps on Thomas from every opponent in the forthcoming playoffs. Stevens adjusted in Games 3 and 4 of the Hawks series by moving Jonas Jerebko into the starting lineup for additional spacing and Evan Turner for additional playmaking. Jerebko likely won’t be needed to repraise that role with Al Horford capably stretching the floor. And Marcus Smart will need to handle much of the secondary ball handling duties with Turner departed to the Trail Blazers.
Could the Celtics be even more susceptible to efforts to get the ball out of Thomas’ hands in the upcoming playoffs? As mentioned in a discussion of Thomas’ standing among a plethora of Most Improved Player candidates, while his five-point bump in Player Efficiency Rating is impressive, it’s accompanied by a five percent increase in usage.
Horford’s presence will certainly help with his ability to serve as a release valve on pick-and-pops, and passing ability that is scarcely rivaled among players his size. In three seasons Horford played under Budenholzer in Atlanta, the Hawks finished first or second in manufacturing what NBA.com terms wide-open shots (no defender within six feet). This was widely credited to the ball-movement system Budenholzer brought with him from the Spurs. Without Horford this season, though, Atlanta plunged to 12th while Boston shot from 15th last season to second in this category.
Meanwhile, the Raptors have produced some interesting stats of their own. DeMar DeRozan’s averages have remained fairly consistent while Toronto has seen needed bumps from guards Cory Joseph and Norman Powell. Joseph upped his 8.5 points and 2.7 assists pre-All Star to 11.1 and 4.6 while Powell stepped up from 7.4 points and two rebounds to 11.3 and 3.1. No big surprises there. However, Toronto’s performances in fourth quarters since the All-Star break have been nothing short of stupefying.
Prior to the All-Star break, the Raptors were +9.2 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarter net rating, second only to the Utah Jazz (+11.8). Since the break, the Raptors are an unthinkable +33 per 100 possessions in fourth quarters. All five of Toronto’s losses during this stretch have come against playoff teams. Without Lowry, the absolute centerpiece of the Raptors’ attack, Toronto has emerged with a killer instinct that should have playoff opponents trembling.
The Raptors currently sit a mere 3.5 games behind the first-place Cavaliers. Assuming Toronto gets out of the first round, none of the current top three in the East should assume that Lowry’s potential absence will make for an easy series. If Toronto continues to annihilate opponents in fourth quarters, the Raptors could exceed expectations with a deep playoff run for the second time in as many seasons.
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