On the verge of reaching their highest win total in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors have set their sights on a deep playoff run and perhaps even a trip to the NBA Finals. At least, if anyone is going to stop a LeBron James-led team from coming out of the East for the eighth year in a row, the Raptors are probably the team.
Assessing Threat Posed by Each of Toronto Raptors Potential First Round Opponents
But before reaching that potential showdown against James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors first must focus on the first round, which could be a trickier series to deal with than some may think. Even after posting a franchise-best season, Toronto isn’t without its share of flaws that could be exploited by certain teams come playoff time. Here is a look at the threat posed by of each of the three Raptors prospective first-round opponents: the Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, and Milwaukee Bucks.
Coming off a five-game losing skid leading up to the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline, the Heat needed to make a move to re-energize and freshen their roster for the stretch run. They did that by re-acquiring a familiar face in Dwyane Wade from the Cavs, returning to South Beach after a one-and-a-half-year hiatus. Wade has brought exactly the spark Pat Riley was looking for, and in what could be his last playoff run in Miami, the Heat will be looking to make some noise in the East.
A potential first-round matchup with the Raptors would be a battle between Miami’s stout defence – ranked fourth in the NBA in points against per game – up against a Raps offence ranked third in points for. The Heat have a good combination of athleticism and quickness on the perimeter as well as interior rim protection and control over the glass, thanks to the defence-first attitude shared by the likes of James Johnson, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Hassan Whiteside.
As a result, the Heat have slowed down some of the top offences in the NBA this season, holding the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets each under 100 points, while the Raps were limited to 89 points in a 90-89 Miami victory back on January 9th. Moreover, that defence-oriented style of play is even more of an asset in playoff basketball, where the effort and intensity is turned up a notch (or three) from the regular season.
From the Raptors point of view, however, the Heat should be seen as a favourable matchup. The Raptors, too, are more than capable of playing solid defence in big games, so they won’t be reliant on beating Miami only with their offence. Plus, the offensive upside of both of these two teams is firmly in Toronto’s favour. Yes, Wade has proven he can still chip in with solid contributions despite being in his 15th season in the league. But he will struggle to keep up with DeMar DeRozan opposite him, who is right smack in the prime of his career and quite possibly playing the best basketball of his life. The Heat’s best hope is to frustrate the Raptors and hope their defence keeps them in games, but if Toronto is able to break down the Miami ‘D’ it could make for a short series.
The Wizards aren’t likely to be a first-round opponent for the Raptors, but the match-up could become possible if the Raptors slip to second or if the Wizards are passed by the Heat and Bucks, who are 2 and 2.5 games behind respectively. But having won only five of their last 13 games, the Wizards slipping in the standings isn’t out of the question. That prompted Bradley Beal to question his team’s effort after their loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday, stating that “we looked like we didn’t give a damn, honestly.”
Usually, facing off against a team stumbling into the Playoffs is a juicy matchup for the higher seed. But the general consensus around the NBA is that the Wizards are more talented than their record suggests. For one, the Wizards are an entirely different team with John Wall in the lineup, who hasn’t played since injuring his knee in late January but could return later this week. Reuniting the backcourt tandem of Wall and Beal should give Washington a major boost heading into the postseason.
Wall and Beal also make the Wizards one of the few teams in the East who can match the Raptors backcourt of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry bucket for bucket. If Wall and Beal can gain an edge over the Raps duo, that could give the Wiz a fighting chance. Still, the Raptors match up well and are more talented at the other three spots on the floor. Any team led by Wall and Beal will be a tough out, but the Raptors should be able to ride their overall edge to get past the Wiz comfortably.
One of the Raptors’ biggest strengths this season has been the play of their bench, with the likes of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl all providing noteworthy contributions. The Bucks bench pales in comparison, which helps explain where they are in the standings. But while bench play will still be a factor in the Playoffs, the discrepancy between the two reserve units will be far less relevant than it is over 82 regular season games. In the playoffs, starting units play in the high 30s or perhaps even upwards of 40 minutes per game. That will almost certainly be the case for the Bucks, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Jabari Parker all accustomed to handling that higher minute load.
The Raptors certainly have a decided edge in the depth department, but these two teams are far closer together if we just compare their starting lineups. Moreover, the Bucks have yet to play with their full rotation this season, with Malcolm Brogdon going down literally the game before Parker made his season debut coming back from a serious knee injury. But Brogdon is expected back before the end of the regular season, adding a key piece back into the mix in the backcourt.
Brogdon’s presence will also greatly aid the Bucks ability to go small without giving up defence and rebounding. Pairing Bledsoe and Brogdon in the backcourt, along with Middleton, Parker, and Antetokounmpo would give the Bucks a rare combination of speed and length, which could give the Raptors problems. That’s a lineup they have previously been unable to put on the court, lacking the correct personnel with one of Brogdon or Parker out. But they are getting healthy at just the right time, and throwing a small-ball look at the Raptors could be a unique challenge for Dwane Casey and his staff to deal with.
It’s a given that Antetokounmpo will be a handful for whoever attempts to slow him down. Middleton has shown himself to be an elite level scorer on the wing this season, averaging better than 20 points per game on 47% shooting. Meanwhile, Bledsoe is now acclimated to his new surroundings after an early-season trade and will be amped up for his long-awaited first taste of playoff basketball as a starting point guard.
The Bucks have the look of a very dangerous team in the East, and no one – Raptors included – should want to face them in the first round. Unfortunately for Toronto, the Bucks are looking like the most likely of the three opponents, and these two would in fact square off as the one versus eight matchup if the playoffs started today. It would be a highly entertaining clash and a real test for the Raptors if this series does come to fruition.
WASHINGTON, USA – MARCH 3: DeMar DeRozan (10) of Toronto Raptors in action against Kelly Oubre (12) of Washington Wizards during the NBA match between Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors at the Verizon Center in Washington, United States on March 3, 2017.
(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)