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Toronto Raptors

Ranking every playoff opponent in Toronto Raptors history

Is Joel Embiid a tougher opponent for the Raptors than either Allen Iverson or LeBron James?
Is Joel Embiid a tougher opponent for the Raptors than either Allen Iverson or LeBron James? (Getty Images)

Whenever the Toronto Raptors do return to action for another postseason run, it will mark their 20th playoff series in 12 postseason appearances.

Last year's run to the NBA title featured quite the gauntlet over latter rounds with a pair of Finals-worthy teams in the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks just to get out of the East before a date with the Golden State Warriors in the championship round. It's not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that it was the single-most taxing bevy of opponents they've ever faced in a single postseason.

But were any of them actually the best team they've ever faced?

There are lots of ways to answer that question: overall record, average scoring margin, playoff seeding, the eye test, etc.

MORE: How Toronto's championship roster was built

This time around, we consulted FiveThirtyEight.com's The Complete History of the NBA, an incredibly thorough resource which includes a power rating for every team after every single game played in NBA history. A complete explanation of how this works can be found here, but simply put it's primarily based on final score and where a game was played.

You can scroll through each team's complete history and see how they stack up over time. For example, here's what the history of the Raptors looks like:

For our purposes, we grabbed each team's ELO rating at the start of each playoff series. Without further ado, on to the rankings!

19. 2018 Washington Wizards

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Raptors won 4-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,483
  • Regular season record: 43-39

After winning a franchise-record 59 games in 2017-18, the Raptors faced the Washington Wizard in the opening round. Despite grading out as Toronto's easiest all-time playoff opponent, the Wizards pushed the Raptors to six games as the series was tied 2-2 after Game 4. John Wall led the Wizards, averaging 26.0 points and 11.5 assists per game for the series.

18. 2017 Milwaukee Bucks

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Raptors won 4-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,502
  • Regular season record: 42-40

The Bucks weren't quite yet The Bucks. Although Giannis Antetokounmpo was coming off his first season as an All-Star, this Bucks team wasn't yet optimized with pieces in place around the Greek Freak. Jabari Parker, averaging over 20 points per game at the time, sustained a season-ending injury in February and did not play in the series against the Raptors. Outside of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, the leaders in minutes played for the Bucks in that series were Greg Monroe, Tony Snell, a rookie Malcom Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova.

17. 2015 Washington Wizards

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Wizards won 4-0
  • ELO Rating: 1,509
  • Regular season record: 46-36

The Raptors got swept by the Wizards despite both John Wall and Bradley Beal shooting under 40 percent for the series. A 37-year old Paul Pierce averaged over 15 points per game in the series, more than either Kyle Lowry or Lou Williams, both of whom shot under 32 percent for the Raptors.

16. 2007 New Jersey Nets

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Nets won 4-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,511
  • Regular season record: 41-41

Although the Nets may have won only 41 games in the regular season, they were a seasoned group led by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. Carter averaged over 25 points per game during the regular season while making his final All-Star team. Kidd was still the league's biggest triple-double threat as he had 12 of them that season, by far the most in the NBA.

15. 2014 Brooklyn Nets

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Nets won 4-3
  • ELO Rating: 1,512
  • Regular season record: 44-38

Coached by Jason Kidd, the 2013-14 Nets were a scary team on paper. A starting five of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, these Nets would have been even better had Brook Lopez not sustained a season-ending injury that kept him out of the playoffs. This Nets team ultimately proved more bark than bite even though they dispatched the Raptors in a hotly contested seven-game series in which they won Game 7 in Toronto 104-103 when Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry's potential game-winner in the closing seconds.

14. 2016 Indiana Pacers

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Raptors won 4-3
  • ELO Rating: 1,519
  • Regular season record: 45-37

Paul George led this Pacers team that also featured Monta Ellis and George Hill. Defence was the calling card for this team as the Pacers ranked third in the regular season in defensive rating. Toronto won a low-scoring affair in Game 7, prevailing 89-84 thanks to a game-high 30 points by DeMar DeRozan.

13. 2001 New York Knicks

  • Round: 48-34
  • Result: Raptors won 3-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,526
  • Regular season record: 48-34

Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Mark Jackson, Glen Rice, and Mark Jackson made up a deep Knicks team that one season earlier made it to the Conference Finals. Coached by Jeff Van Gundy, this Knicks team also had Larry Johnson in his final NBA season though he did not play in the playoffs due to lingering back problems. This series, punctuated by a close win in a deciding Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, represented the first series win in Raptors franchise history. Vince Carter led the way with 27 points in the final game while playing all 48 minutes.

12. 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Round: Conference Semifinals
  • Result: Cavaliers won 4-0
  • ELO Rating: 1,537
  • Regular season record: 50-32

On paper, this was a series the Raptors could have won. Perhaps if one of Jonas Valanciunas's tips at the end of Game 1 went in, the entire outcome of the series would have shifted. Instead, the Raptors once again got swept by a Cavaliers team that barely made it out of the 1st Round. Of the three LeBron James teams that the Raptors have faced in the playoffs, this group graded out as the worst. Joining James in the starting lineup was Kevin Love, George Hill, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith.

11. 2000 New York Knicks

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Knicks won 3-0
  • ELO Rating: 1,567
  • Regular season record: 50-32

Toronto's first-ever playoff series came against a 50-win Knicks team less than one year removed from playing in the NBA Finals. In addition to Houston, Sprewell, and Johnson, this Knicks team also had Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing who was in his final season with New York.

10. 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Round: Conference Semifinals
  • Result: Cavaliers won 4-0
  • ELO Rating: 1,568
  • Regular season record: 51-31

The final version of the Cavaliers with Kyrie Irving, they swept the Raptors just as they did the Pacers in the 1st Round. LeBron James was unstoppable in the series, averaging 36.0 points per game while Irving pumped in 22.3 of his own to go along with 8.5 assists.

9. 2002 Detroit Pistons

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Pistons won 3-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,572
  • Regular season record: 50-32

The Pistons were on the brink of becoming an Eastern Conference powerhouse. This version of the Pistons - led by Jerry Stackhouse and Ben Wallace - did not yet have future Detroit legends Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince or Rasheed Wallace. The other three starters against the Raptors were Chucky Atkins, Michael Curry and Clifford Robinson. The very next season began a stretch of six straight seasons in which they reached the Conference Finals.

8. 2001 Philadelphia 76ers

  • Round: Conference Semifinals
  • Result: 76ers won 4-3
  • ELO Rating: 1,573
  • Regular season record: 56-26

Arguably the most entertaining playoff series in Raptors history as it went seven games with both Iverson and Vince Carter dropping 50 at various points throughout. This 76ers team was tailor made for Iverson who won the NBA's MVP award, receiving the trophy prior to Game 5 in which he proceeded to score 52 points to give Philadelphia a 3-2 lead heading back to Toronto for Game 6. Philadelphia, which also featured Dikembe Mutombo, Aaron McKie and Eric Snow among others, went on to reach the NBA Finals where they fell to the Los Angeles Lakers.

7. 2019 Orlando Magic

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Raptors won 4-1
  • ELO Rating: 1,593
  • Regular season record: 42-40

I'm not going to lie, seeing the Magic this high was a stunner. Don't like the methodology? Hey, I'm just the messenger, take it up with FiveThirtyEight. As for explaining why the Magic rated so highly entering the playoffs, it likely has to do with how they ended the season. They went 10-2 down the stretch and from January 31 onwards, owned a 22-9 record and a scoring margin of +7.9, both of which ranked third in the NBA. So while they may have barely finished with a winning record, the Magic were on a roll entering the playoffs. In some ways, that makes how Toronto dispatched of them quickly all the more impressive after dropping Game 1.

6. 2019 Philadelphia 76ers

  • Round: Conference Semifinals
  • Result: Raptors won 4-3
  • ELO Rating: 1,600
  • Regular season record: 51-31

This was not your typical second round matchup. The 76ers gave everything the Toronto Raptors could have possibly handled and then some. Had the ball bounced a few millimeters in another direction on either of the four bounces around the rim on Kawhi Leonard's iconic Game 7 buzzer-beater, there's a decent chance we'd still be gushing over how Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler silenced the critics en route to the title. That shot could ultimately prove to be one of the ultimate fork-in-the-road moments, where the outcome of one play swung not only a single series but the entire long-term outlook of a franchise seemingly destined for prolonged championship contention.

5. 2016 Miami Heat

  • Round: Conference Semifinals
  • Result: Raptors won 4-3
  • ELO Rating: 1,606
  • Regular season record: 48-34

I was surprised to see this Heat team this high. Following a regular season in which they won 48 games, the Heat were coming off a 1st Round series in which they barely got past the Charlotte Hornets in a dramatic seven-game series. Part of the reason why this particular Heat team ranks as high as it did is because Chris Bosh played the first half of the season at an All-Star level before his blood clot concerns forced him off the floor. Even so, Dwyane Wade led the Heat to a 19-10 record after the All-Star break without Bosh, good for fifth in the entire league and actually better than prior to Bosh shutting it down. In addition to Wade, this Heat team leaned on Goran Dragic, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng in addition to a young Hassan Whiteside, a past-his-prime Amar'e Stoudemire and a rookie Justise Winslow.

4. 2008 Orlando Magic

  • Round: 1st Round
  • Result: Magic won 4-1
  • ELO Rating: 1,620
  • Regular season record: 52-30

It's easy to forget how good some of the Dwight Howard Magic teams were in the mid-to-late 2000s. This particular squad was versatile and deep, loaded with shooters who could fill it up from the outside. Howard averaged 22.6 points and 18.2 rebounds per game in the five-game win over the Raptors and received help from the likes of Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson. How deep was this Magic team? JJ Redick, in his second season, played a grand total of four minutes in the entire series.

3. 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Round: Conference Finals
  • Result: Cavaliers won 4-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,697
  • Regular season record: 57-25

Until the 2019 postseason, the team which christened 'LeBronto' stood head and shoulders above everyone else when it came to Raptors playoff opponents.

The 2015-16 Cavaliers, best known for eventually knocking off the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the most epic comeback in NBA Finals history, punched their ticket to the Finals by vanquishing the Raptors in the Conference Finals, winning Game 6 on Toronto's home floor. Although LeBron James would sweep the Raptors in each of the two subsequent postseasons, this is the series that started his dominance against Toronto.

Looking back at how 2019 unfolded in a LeBron-less postseason, Raptors fans should feel thankful that their number one arch-nemesis was no longer standing in the way.

2. 2019 Milwaukee Bucks

  • Round: Conference Finals
  • Result: Raptors won 4-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,711
  • Regular season record: 60-22

I'm legitimately stunned the Bucks weren't number 1 on this list.

With the reigning MVP coming off a dominant five-game series against the Boston Celtics, these Bucks looked every bit the part of an eventual champion. And had they managed to pull out the double overtime Game 3 thriller after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Bucks - much like the 76ers - very easily could have been the ones sitting on the throne at season's end. After all, no team in NBA history has ever blown a 3-0 series lead.

1. 2019 Golden State Warriors

  • Round: NBA Finals
  • Result: Raptors won 4-2
  • ELO Rating: 1,712
  • Regular season record: 57-25

Surprised?

OK so here's the deal.

ELO Rating - which we used here - doesn't know that Kevin Durant was hurt and played all of 12 minutes in one game. It doesn't know that Klay Thompson missed Game 3 and didn't play the fourth quarter of Game 6. It's blind to that context so there's admittedly a rather large grain of salt to digest.

And yet don't sleep on what these Warriors were capable of. Had Stephen Curry knocked down that 3-pointer with eight seconds left in Game 6, the series would have gone to a Game 7 in which case anything could have happened.

This is a Warriors team which survived a dangerous Houston Rockets squad in the Conference Semifinals and blitzed the 3rd-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in an emphatic four-game sweep in the Conference Finals. They may have been battered and bruised, but this were still the two-time defending champions who had proved they could still hang tough without Durant.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the NBA or its clubs.

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