In defeating the Golden State Warriors in the middle of their Western Conference road trip, the Toronto Raptors clinched a playoff berth for the seventh straight season.
Although currently the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, much could change for the Raptors between now and the end of the season. The Boston Celtics are only three games behind in the standings with one meeting remaining between the two teams and there's still a lot to be determined in the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
What we do know: Brooklyn, Orlando, Philadelphia and Indiana are the four teams Toronto is most likely to face in the first round - the Nets or Magic if the Raptors hold onto the No. 2 seed, the 76ers or Pacers if the Celtics overtake them.
MORE: Breaking down Toronto's remaining schedule
There's a chance the Raptors could face the Miami Heat in the first round, but it's the least likely outcome because it would take a rather significant dropoff from the Raptors or Heat to happen.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at each of the four teams the Raptors would face in the first round.
Current record (seed): 39-26 (5)
Projected record (seed): 48-34 (6)
Season series: Raptors won 3-1
Threat level: Low ... for now
After losing their first matchup with the Pacers this season, the Raptors have won three straight, the most recent of which was a 46-point blowout.
On the surface, the Pacers don't appear to be much of a threat to the Raptors should they meet in the first round, but they're a well-coached team with a balanced roster that includes veterans who have been in the playoffs before.
The biggest questions for the Pacers are can they get healthy and will Victor Oladipo get up to speed by the playoffs?
The Pacers will be without one of their leading scorers in Jeremy Lamb - he recently suffered a season-ending knee injury - but they're now dealing with some uncertainty with Malcolm Brogdon, who is week-to-week with a torn left rectus femoris. With only a month remaining in the regular season, there appears to be a real chance that Brogdon won't return again until the playoffs.
If so, that would impact the second question. After tearing his quadriceps in the middle of last season, Oladipo has appeared in only 13 games this season. He appears to be finding his groove, but the Pacers need both him and Brogdon to be on the same page to be a real threat in the Eastern Conference this season.
Is the 10 games they've played with each other to this point of the season enough for them to do that?
The Pacers still have plenty of talent outside of Brogdon and Oladipo. You can't talk about this team without mentioning Domantas Sabonis, who was named an All-Star for the first time in his career this season with averages of 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. The Pacers also have one of the league's best shot blockers in Myles Turner, a bonafide scorer in T.J. Warren and a number of sharpshooters in Doug McDermott, Aaron Holiday and Justin Holiday.
It's just hard to see them beating a team like the Raptors in the first round without the best versions of Brogdon and Oladipo.
Current record (seed): 38-26 (6)
Projected record (seed): 51-31 (5)
Season series: Raptors lead 2-1
Threat level: Medium-to-high
The 76ers have been the most disappointing team in the league this season. And yet, they aren't a team anyone wants to face in the first round.
There are a couple of reasons why:
- The 76ers have the best home record in the league. It doesn't look like they'll be getting homecourt advantage in any series, but the 76ers have shown that they're capable of beating anyone in Philadelphia this season. Even if they only took care of business at home, where they've lost two games this season, they'd be in line to force a Game 7. Nobody wants to have to play a Game 7, particularly in the first round.
- The 76ers are built around two of the league's best players. Those two players being Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Although it isn't the cleanest of fits, Embiid can be the best player in a given series and Simmons is one of the more unique players in the league. Not only because he's a 6-foot-10 point guard averaging close to a triple-double on the season, but because he can legitimately guard point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. His versatility in that regard makes him one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
Where it gets complicated for the 76ers is that both Embiid and Simmons are currently dealing with injuries. Embiid is sidelined with a shoulder injury, whereas Simmons continues to be out indefinitely with a nerve impingement in his lower back. The 76ers are reportedly hoping that Simmons can return before the playoffs, but it's still unknown if and when he will return this season.
MORE: Tobias Harris stepping up at the right time for 76ers
If neither of them are able to go or they're limited in some capacity, the 76ers won't have the offensive firepower to be a real threat in the Eastern Conference. They simply don't have the depth to make up for Embiid's scoring and Simmons' playmaking. But if they can return to full strength, they could give a lot of teams trouble, the Raptors included.
Something the Raptors do have going for them if they were to meet the 76ers in the playoff is Marc Gasol, as he has a history of slowing Embiid down. Whether or not Gasol can continue to contain the three-time All-Star would be at the centre of this series.
Current record (seed): 30-34 (7)
Projected record (seed): 36-46 (8)
Season series: Raptors won 3-1
Threat level: Low
The Nets have gone through a lot this season. As if not having Kevin Durant for the entire season wasn't enough, they recently lost Kyrie Irving to a season-ending shoulder injury and mutually agreed to part ways with their head coach, Kenny Atkinson.
That they've still been able to hover around .500 despite those obstacles is a testament to some of the young talent this team has.
Following a breakout 2018-19 season, Spencer Dinwiddie has filled in well as Irving's replacement in the starting lineup with averages of 20.6 points, 6.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. While his efficiency has fallen off a cliff over the last couple of months, he was building a case to earn his first All-Star selection with his play in the first half of the season.
Caris LeVert has once again struggled to stay on the floor this season due to a myriad of injuries, but he's been taken his game to another level lately, averaging 24.1 points over his last 16 games. That stretch includes a 51-point outing in which LeVert led the Nets to a comeback win over the Boston Celtics with a historic fourth quarter and overtime.
Caris LeVert was on FIRE 🔥- ESPN (@espn) March 4, 2020
He dropped 37 in the 4th and OT, the most in the last 20 seasons. pic.twitter.com/0fuIxM9q18
Additionally, the Nets have one of the best 3-point shooters in the league in Joe Harris as well as a solid centre rotation in Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan. The combination makes for a scrappy team, one that plays at one of the fastest paces in the league.
They might not have the star power to beat the Raptors in a series, but they proved that they have it in them to win a game or two when they ended Toronto's franchise-best winning streak before All-Star Weekend - although the Raptors being "walking zombies" in that game might have contributed to that result.
Current record (seed): 30-35 (8)
Projected record (seed): 39-43 (7)
Season series: Raptors lead 3-0
Threat level: Low
The Magic made a few changes in the offseason, but for the most part, this is the same team the Raptors handily beat in five games in the first round of the playoffs last year.
As was the case last season, Nikola Vucevic is the engine that makes the Magic go. The one-time All-Star is once again leading the way in points (19.5) and rebounds (11.0) while dishing out the third-most assists (3.7) on the team. With him on the court, the Magic are scoring at a rate of 109.4 points per 100 possessions this season. When he takes a seat, that number plummets to 102.3.
In addition to being the biggest differential on the team, that's the difference between the Magic having a league average offence and the league's worst offence.
The bad news for the Magic? The Raptors still have Gasol, who might be the best Vucevic defender in the league.
According to NBA.com's matchup data, Gasol limited Vucevic to 21 points on 9-for-26 shooting in last season's first-round series. Vucevic had more turnovers (seven) than assists (six) in the five games he was defended by Gasol as well. Gasol carried that success into this season, as he held Vucevic to three points on 1-for-10 shooting in the two games they've played against each other.
For his career, Vucevic is now 4-15 against Gasol in the regular season and playoffs.
MORE: Gasol has every answer for stopping Vucevic and Magic
Making Orlando's path to upsetting Toronto in the first round even more difficult is Jonathan Isaac has been ruled out for the season with a knee injury. Isaac isn't nearly as important to the team's offence as Vucevic is, but he is their most versatile defender. Had he not gotten injured when he did, he might have made one of the two All-Defense teams and been a part of the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.
Isaac's ability to match up with Siakam in particular is a big loss for the Magic. Siakam has had some big games against Isaac in the past, but Isaac had a hand in Siakam scoring only 10 points on 4-for-22 shooting the last time these two teams met.
Without Isaac and possibly Al Farouq-Aminu, who continues to be sidelined after undergoing knee surgery, Aaron Gordon would be Orlando's only hope at slowing down Siakam.
The views here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.