We are 15 days away from the 2017 NBA Playoffs. As the seeding begins to solidify, there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered. What we do know is that the Toronto Raptors have already clinched a playoff berth.
Q: What were the expectations for the Raptors after Kyle Lowry got injured?
Blake: The expectation was just survival. The hope was to hang on to home court in the first round, and moving up higher than that seemed unlikely. Anything better than .500 would have sufficed.
What they’ve done, record-wise and on the defensive end, is really encouraging. Not only have they locked up home court and blown away a .500 record, they look the part of a legitimate defensive outfit and are back to seeming like a fairly obvious favorite in a first-round matchup.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 30, 2017
Q: What type of success must the Raptors have to keep Serge Ibaka past this season?
Blake: The bigger domino is Lowry – lose in the first round, and Lowry’s a serious flight risk. If Lowry leaves, there’s probably not a ton of sense in over-spending to lock in a DeRozan-Lowry core, because this group without Lowry has a decidedly lower ceiling.
If the Raptors can extend beyond that point and retain Lowry, I don’t think there’s too much work to be done to keep Ibaka – short of the weather, he seems to like it here, he’s a good on-court fit, he has a relationship with Masai Ujiri, and the Raptors have his Bird rights, so they should be able to make a competitive financial offer.
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) March 10, 2017
Q: How deep will the Raptors’ bench be assuming Lowry comes back with no issues?
Blake: Deep enough that some people are getting pre-mad that a few intriguing youngsters probably won’t play in the postseason. Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl, for example, have filled in backup roles admirably, and while each is as inconsistent as you’d expect, they’ve made nice cases for playing time.
But when Lowry’s back, each will return to an emergency-only role. Even Norman Powell is on the fringe of the playoff rotation as the ninth man, if Dwane Casey really tightens things up.
The depth there is pretty solid, but the big question that remains is what the vaunted “Lowry+bench” unit will look like – that’s been an awesome look in the past, but Bismack Biyombo is gone, Terrence Ross’ shooting is no longer around, and Lucas Nogueira is out of the rotation right now.
The group that starts second and fourth quarters is a huge swing piece for this team, so Lowry will have to find a quick chemistry with whoever those guys are.
— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) March 15, 2017
Q: Who are the best and worst potential matchups for the Raptors in the first round?
Blake: Of the teams presently in the mix, I think Toronto would probably prefer the Indiana Pacers. Outside of Paul George, whose play has been uneven this year, there isn’t a massive matchup issue.
Myles Turner can pull Jonas Valanciunas from the rim, but the Raptors will hammer Indiana on the glass. Indiana is a worse team than last year when they took Toronto to seven – George Hill’s absence looms huge for guarding Lowry – and the Raptors, assuming Lowry at somewhere close to 80 percent, are a better one.
As for worst, the Raptors have shaken off their bad Chicago vibes, they’ve navigated the Milwaukee Bucks’ length and aggressive trapping well when they’ve had both All-Stars healthy (and would crush them on the boards), and the Atlanta Hawks, while probably the most talented of these teams on paper, are banged up and have under-performed all year.
Miami, then, is probably the scariest – they’re well-coached, they’re high-energy, the Dragic-Whiteside pick-and-roll is an issue, and James Johnson opposite Casey in a playoff series is magnificent, terrifying theatre.
Q: With the Cleveland Cavaliers looking vulnerable, what is the Raptors’ ceiling for this postseason?
Blake: You can craft a scenario where the Raptors make the NBA Finals if you’re an optimist. Cleveland doesn’t figure out their defense, Lowry returns at 100 percent, someone tasks the Cavs with a tough series before they meet Toronto, P.J. Tucker and Ibaka change the dynamic defensively, and so on.
But realistically, until there is evidence that LeBron James is not still LeBron James, everyone is hoping for a lot of breaks to go their way to upset them. The window is more open than it has been, though.
PJ speaks to the media about how it will feel being in his first @NBA Playoffs.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 29, 2017
Perhaps the Toronto Raptors are primed for a serious playoff run. With Cleveland playing below average, the Raptors have an opportunity to make some serious noise. The Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards who are seeded higher than them, haven’t even touched the Eastern Conference Finals with their core groups.
Despite sitting (and likely staying) at the fourth seed, the Raptors could be a scary opposition come mid-April.
But just as a reminder…
People forget the Wizards swept the Raptors in the 2015 playoffs https://t.co/2iEqG51Rff
— Bullets Forever (@BulletsForever) March 31, 2017