We're getting closer to the NBA season returning.
On Thursday, the NBA announced that the Board of Governors has approved a competitive format to restart the 2019-20 season with 22 teams returning to play and a tentative start date of July 31.
The 22 teams that will return are the 16 currently in the playoff picture, plus the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns from the Western Conference and the Washington Wizards from the Eastern Conference.
Each returning team will play eight regular season games before the playoffs begin.
The NBA Board of Governors today approved a competitive format to restart the 2019-20 season with 22 teams returning to play and a tentative start date of Friday, July 31.- NBA (@NBA) June 4, 2020
Full release: https://t.co/NYm89lLkX2
For the Toronto Raptors, who clinched a spot in the playoffs in March, the format won't change much.
At 46-18, the Raptors currently sit 6.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference while having a 3.0 game lead over the Boston Celtics for the No. 2 seed. With eight games to play in the regular season, that means there's a chance the Raptors finish above or below where they are right now, but it's unlikely.
To overtake the Bucks, the Raptors would basically have to win out while Milwaukee would have to lose every game. (It's hard to imagine a team that has lost 12 games all season long losing seven or eight straight, even given the unusual circumstances). The gap between the Raptors and the Celtics is much smaller, and yet three games is a lot to make up in such a small window, especially without knowing if Toronto and Boston will play against each other again in the regular season. (The Raptors and Celtics have already played each other three times this season for what it's worth. So if they do play against each other again before the playoffs, you'd think it would only be once, not twice, which would make it harder for Boston to overtake Toronto in the standings).
For that reason, you can pencil in the Raptors finishing the regular season with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. All that remains to be seen, then, is who the Raptors will face in the first round.
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Under the new format, the lowest the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat could finish is sixth in the Eastern Conference, which means this will come down to the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and Wizards. And really, it's between the Magic and Nets. The Wizards could still make the playoffs, but with 5.5 games separating them from the Magic and 6.0 games separating them from the Nets, their most likely path would be to finish within four games behind the No. 8 seed because it would give them an opportunity to play their way into the postseason.
As for which one of the Nets and Magic is more likely to finish the season with a better record, it's a toss-up. There's currently only 0.5 games between the two teams, with the Nets holding the slight advantage. The good news for the Raptors is they're 6-1 against the Nets and Magic this season, although the uncertainty surrounding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could make Brooklyn a far more dangerous opponent than it looks on the surface. (More about that here and here).
Beyond that, there is no knowing. The 76ers, Pacers and Heat each have a lot to play for and where they finish will determine who the Raptors will face in the second round - should they advance past their first-round opponent, of course. Right now, it would be either the Celtics or the 76ers, but eight games opens the door for some movement between the Celtics, Heat, Pacers and 76ers.
Another unknown? Who the Raptors will play in their remaining regular season games. Of the 18 games they had remaining on their schedule prior to the season being suspended, 12 were against teams that will return under the proposed plan, those teams being the 76ers (1), Celtics (1), Denver Nuggets (1), Los Angeles Lakers (1), Memphis Grizzlies (2), Bucks (2), Houston Rockets (1), Wizards (1), Heat (1) and Magic (1).
Time will tell if that has any impact on who the Raptors face ahead of the playoffs.
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