One of the most crucial open-ended questions stll looming ahead of the restart in Orlando is whether the Toronto Raptors can hold off the Boston Celtics for second in the Eastern Conference. Given the difficulty in first-round opponents based on finishing second or third, it's a crucial race that could have major implications for who comes out of the Eastern Conference.
Two of our writers - Scott Rafferty and Gilbert McGregor - breakdown how that race could unfold and the specifics behind why it's of vital importance to the bigger picture.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): With eight "seeding games" remaining before the playoffs begin, the Raptors have a pretty good chance of finishing the regular season with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
I say pretty good because there's still a chance that the Celtics catch them in the standings. It's going to be difficult for Boston to make up the three games that currently separate it from Toronto, but the Celtics do have the benefit of a much easier schedule in Orlando. They'll also face the Raptors early on in a game that could ultimately decide who gets the No. 2 seed. Not only would a win for the Celtics close the gap, it would give them the tiebreaker should they finish the season with the same record as the Raptors.
The Raptors' restart schedule is brutal.- Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) June 26, 2020
Celtics need to make up three games to move up to second. If they beat the Raptors, they will own the tiebreaker.
So with that in mind, Gil, how much of a threat do you think the Celtics are to jump the Raptors in the standings?
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): I won't kid myself and pretend that three games could be easily made up in such a short span but I also can't ignore the differences in strength of each team's respective schedules.
That being said, I'd consider Boston to be a mild threat. The odds might not support it happening, but there are definitely a few realistic scenarios that would allow the Cs to surpass the Raptors.
Rafferty: It's funny, when the 22-team return was first reported, I basically wrote that I thought the Raptors were a lock to finish with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Several weeks later, I'm not feeling quite as confident. Not that I think the Celtics should suddenly be the favourite to get the No. 2 seed or anything, but I think it's more like 70-30 that the Raptors stay where they are.
For what it's worth, models still give the Raptors a significant advantage. For example, The Ringer ran 2,500 simulations, and the Raptors finished with the second-best record 87 percent of the time. That just feels a little high to me given everything we now know.
McGregor: I'd consider 70-30 to be pretty fair and I might even venture to say 65-35. Certainly nowhere near the 87 percent those 2,500 simulations yielded.
To me, it's almost as if there's too much unpredictability to, well, predict how things unfold. It's possible the Celtics come out blazing and go 8-0 while the Raps struggle and go 0-8, or vice versa. And while each of those outcomes are possible, they're pretty unrealistic. But I do think it's slightly realistic that one of these teams finds its rhythm before the other and that in turn will have a direct correlation with each team's ability to win "ugly."
Make no mistake... there's gonna be some rust all around.
Rafferty: It'll be fascinating to see how the Raptors play because, beyond the rust factor, they should have all of their players available for the first time in what feels like forever. I'm optimistic that it won't take them long to find their stride because they've all played together before and they're all veterans, but they still have a few things to work out during this eight game stretch in which the Celtics will be hot on their trail.
McGregor: You touched on it, but I do think that's an overlooked part of having everybody back. While it shouldn't take long for them to find their stride, there is the possibility that it takes a bit more time than expected, especially given the circumstance. With the bigger picture in mind, I can see them prioritizing chemistry in figuring out rotations and lineups over wins and losses in some seeding games.
Rafferty: And it'll matter where each team finishes. Whichever team gets the No. 2 seed will likely face the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic in the first round, two teams that are below .500. Whichever team gets the No. 3 seed, on the other hand, will face either the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers or Philadelphia 76ers.
The Pacers are clearly the worst team out of that group now that we know Victor Oladipo won't be playing in Orlando, but I think the Raptors would still much rather face the Nets or Magic than them. As for the Heat and 76ers - the Heat might not be as good as their record indicates and the 76ers have been a hot mess this season, but they're both still capable of beating anyone.
McGregor: With home court advantage out of the picture, opponents and matchups become even more important than they already were. There's a huge difference between No. 2 and No. 3, and that could contribute to a heightened sense of urgency from the jump.
And in my eyes, it adds another layer to the order in which some of these games are scheduled, too.
Rafferty: Right, because Boston's schedule is front-loaded. Their first three games are against the Bucks, Blazers and Heat, none of which will be easy. They then face the Nets and Raptors, followed by the Magic, Grizzlies and Wizards. Heading into that matchup with the Raptors, we'll have a good idea of how up for grabs the No. 2 seed actually is.
McGregor: And that's what gets me thinking. I wonder if the opening game is the best to catch a team like the Bucks, who don't have much to play for aside from rhythm. Of course the same could be said for the first-place Lakers, who are first on the Raptors restart schedule.
I also want to point out Toronto having two early tip offs vs. Boston's one. I have no idea if that'll have an impact in the bubble, but it can't be easy to follow playing LeBron, AD and LA by gearing up for a game against a gritty Miami team at 1:30 p.m.
Regardless, I think you're absolutely correct about us knowing whether or not No. 2 is up for grabs by the time these two teams meet.
Which begs the question: based on what we've seen from three meetings between these two teams this season, what are you expecting to see when they meet? I think each team will have found its stride by Game 5 of the restart as well.
Rafferty: Honestly, I have no idea. It's impossible to know what kind of shape both teams are going to be in and how they'll adjust to playing on a court they've never played in front of ... nobody. But I am looking forward to seeing them go head-to-head because we haven't really seen this version of the Raptors go up against this version of the Celtics this season. The first time the Raptors and Celtics played each other this season was Toronto's second game. A lot has changed since then, like Jayson Tatum's emergence into a full blown superstar. The second time was on Christmas Day when neither Pascal Siakam nor Marc Gasol played. The third was a few days later and once again neither Siakam nor Gasol played.
McGregor: It feels like I'm overlooking Boston's two wins - believe me, I'm not - but I was most impressed by Toronto's win a few days after Christmas. It's hard enough to win in Boston and to do so without Siakam or Gasol says a lot about this team's resolve.
One thing I know for sure, something that bodes well for both the Raptors and Celtics is that they are strong defensive teams that are well-coached. We don't know how they'll look in an empty gym or what kind of shape they'll be in, but we do know Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens will know how to get the most out of them.
Rafferty: I really hope we see them play against each other in the second round because it would be an incredible series. It would be a defensive masterclass and it feels like we all deserve a showdown between Siakam and Tatum.
Both teams will, of course, have to get out of the first round for that to happen. There's a good chance they will seeing as the Raptors and Celtics being the second and third best team, respectively, in the Eastern Conference this season, but one path to the second round isn't quite like the other.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.