The Toronto Raptors have clinched a playoff spot, which means the focus for the defending champions officially shifts towards another postseason run.
To help get you ready for the playoffs, here are the six biggest questions facing the Raptors.
How much does seeding matter?
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): It matters a lot because there's a huge drop-off between the top six teams in the Eastern Conference and the bottom two. The Raptors would much rather face the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic or Washington Wizards in the first round than the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers or Indiana Pacers. Finishing with the second or third seed would also mean the Raptors wouldn't have to face the Milwaukee Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals. With how dominant they've been this season, I'm guessing the Raptors would like to avoid playing the Bucks for as long as possible.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): I don't think the Raptors are overly concerned about seeding. They're a battle-tested bunch that's confident in their ability to win on the road.
Would they rather finish with the two seed, see a weaker opponent in the first round, own home court in a potential Game 7 in the second round and avoid the Bucks for as long as possible? OF COURSE! But it's far from the most pressing issue at hand. The Raptors need to do everything in their power to get healthy, even if it means resting players and sacrificing some playoff positioning. They aren't beating anyone of significance at home or on the road if they aren't healthy.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): My answer lands in between what Micah and Scott are saying. While I don't think the Raptors are too concerned about their playoff seeding, they need to be. Getting an easier playoff matchup against the lesser team is one thing, but if they can also allow their guys who've been out - Marc Gasol, in particular - the chance to ease into the playoff, so to speak, that could go a long way to when they eventually need their full complement of talent.
Considering where the Raptors stand right now, injuries haven't hurt this team too badly. But that can quickly change over the next three months.
Who do they want to avoid in the first round?
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I think it's the Heat more than the 76ers. The 76ers are a matchup problem for the Raptors, but they beat themselves more often than not and Gasol has a good history against their best player.
Miami, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily cause matchup problems but it matches up pretty well with Toronto. The Heat are young, athletic and have a closer in Jimmy Butler who loves the big moment. The biggest key to me is they have two people who can guard Pascal Siakam one-on-one in Butler and Bam Adebayo. If your best player can't cause mismatches in a playoff series, that's usually a recipe for disaster.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): The Heat. Carlan already covered the biggest reasons why, but I'll add one more: Erik Spoelstra. If there's one coach in the Eastern Conference who can go toe-to-toe with Nick Nurse, it's him.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): It's the 76ers. They are dealing with serious health issues and are a complete hot mess even when healthy. The laundry list of question marks with them runs incredibly deep and yet ... they're the one team Toronto could face early that has the talent to match up with any team in the entire league. The 76ers should not be given the benefit of the doubt in any way and yet I can't shake the seduction of their roster.
Who do they most want to play in the first round?
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): It's the Magic. Dating back to last year's postseason, the Raptors have won seven straight against Orlando. Even though the Nets are clearly not yet a major threat given the injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, they still have a knack for playing hard and making teams work for everything. The Nets made the 76ers sweat a bit last year in the first round and they're the type of disciplined, well-coached team that can be a thorn in the side of anyone in the first round. Throw in the fact that Gasol owns a timeshare in Nikola Vucevic's head which renders the Magic's best player obsolete against Toronto, and it's pretty clear who the Raptors hope to see in the first round.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Either the Nets or the Magic. If I have to pick one, the Magic because the Raptors have a clear answer for Vucevic in Gasol. According to NBA.com, Gasol limited Vucevic to 21 points on 9-for-26 shooting from the field in Toronto's first-round matchup with Orlando last postseason. If Gasol can have similar success against him, I'm not sure the Magic have any chance of beating the Raptors because of how important Vucevic is to Orlando's offence.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): It's easily the Magic. As Scott and Micah have mentioned, Gasol absolutely owns their best player in Vucevic and they don't have any other player who might scare you for a full seven-game series. I'll even throw in the fact that the Amway Center isn't exactly a tough place to get a win in - the Magic are just 16-15 at home this season.
What are realistic expectations?
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Toronto's season reminds me of the '94 Bulls, the year after Michael Jordan retired the first time. It was a solid core - a championship core - even without MJ, and Scottie Pippen had to become the man. He did and led the Bulls on a deep playoff run, losing to the eventual conference champion New York Knicks in the Conference Semifinals.
A great season, but you knew they didn't have enough to win without Michael.
This Raptors team seems destined for a similar fate. I don't think they're good enough to get back to the Finals, but I think they'll earn a lot of people's respect if they make a deep run in the postseason. I expect them to get past the first round and I think a realistic expectation for this team is a second-round exit in a long series. The East is tough and the matchups they could potentially see in the second round aren't favourable.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): There's an expectation to reach the Conference Finals. Could they lose before then? Definitely. But I do think anything short of a Conference Finals appearance will leave an unsavory taste.
The Raptors have been the second-best team in the Eastern Conference for most of the season and despite some underwhelming performances in big games, this is an experienced group that should enter any Eastern Conference playoff series against any team not named the Bucks as favourites. While it wouldn't be a shock for the Raptors to lose a series against the Celtics, Heat or 76ers, doing so would be somewhat of a disappointment given the year they've had.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I think this team's floor is a competitive second-round series and their ceiling is an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. If Siakam was having more success against the best teams in the league this season, I'd be much more confident about their chances of making another run at the Finals, but he's just not quite there yet.
What's the biggest unanswered question?
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Can the Raptors get healthy? They've missed the fifth-most games in the league this season due to injury. I do think they can make the Eastern Conference Finals if everything breaks well for them, but they have to get everyone at full strength first to have any shot at it.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Who is Toronto's best player? Conventional wisdom points to the player who started the All-Star Game and yet despite Siakam's emergence, it could ultimately be Kyle Lowry that Toronto looks to carry it past the finish line in the pressure-packed moments. If the Raptors are going to exceed expectations and actually make a run to the NBA Finals, they'll need Lowry to go up a level in the same way that Chauncey Billups led the way for the Pistons en route to their championship in 2004.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): How far can they ride their defence? I expect their offence to come and go in the playoffs, especially when going up against some of the elite defences in the league. I expect Siakam, Lowry and Fred VanVleet to have forgettable games. What's kept this team afloat, especially with all the injuries, is their defence.
I'm interested to see how far they can go just riding their consistent defence, especially when they don't have it offensively.
What are their chances of reaching the NBA Finals?
FiveThirtyEight's prediction model gives the Raptors an 11% chance of making the Finals.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): 1%.
I just don't think Siakam is ready to be the guy on a Finals team nor do I think Lowry has what it takes to do in three straight rounds. It's hard to win a playoff series in which you don't have the best player on the floor and I'm not sure they would against the Celtics (Jayson Tatum), Heat (Jimmy Butler) or 76ers (Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons). Should they reach the Conference Finals, the gap between Giannis Antetokounmpo and anyone on Toronto is so wide that I just think it's too tall of an order. I give it 1% instead of 0% because of all the balance and the slim chance that Toronto can pull a 2004 Pistons. But it's a long shot.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): 10-15%. To me, the Raptors are the third-best team in the Eastern Conference right now. Something would have to go terribly wrong for them to not make it out of the first round, but there's a chance they'd have to go through both the Bucks and Celtics - the best and second-best team in the conference, respectively, in my mind - to make the Finals again. Do I think they could beat both of those teams? Yes. Do I think it's likely? No. Even so, giving this team anything below a 10% chance of making the Finals again feels wrong given how good they've been this season.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I'm with Micah I'm at 1% as well. There's always a chance, things change quickly in the NBA - injuries happen. But I don't think this team has enough to even get past the second round let alone make the Finals this year.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.