In what may have been a preview of a potential opening-round playoff series, the resurgent Nets were a much better team than the one that the Raptors beat in two of their first three meetings. And as a result, Toronto watched as its lead atop the Atlantic Division shrank to three games, but the bigger question involves its position in the Eastern Conference.
Due in part to the fact that the conference lacked any real contenders outside of the top two teams until recently, teams who currently find themselves ranked third through sixth are separated by a total of only three games. Led by the third-ranked Raptors, the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Nets have all improved upon their respective playoff positions during the last 30 days, and have created an Eastern Conference logjam in the process.
Most concerning for Toronto, both the Bulls and Wizards have been on a tear over their last 10 games and show no signs of slowing. And while the short-term loss of Nene clearly hurt Washington, the loss of Derrick Rose could have easily derailed Chicago’s entire season and inspired fans of the Bulls to start dreaming of the draft.
Even with the deal that sent forward Luol Deng out of town prior to the deadline, the Joakim Noah-led Bulls have somehow kept themselves in the formerly dismal Eastern Conference playoff picture, and now trail the Raptors by just a half-game for third.
With these teams all within striking distance of Toronto’s position, the Raptors will undoubtedly be looking forward to their upcoming three-game homestand. Despite beginning the season as a far better team on the road, Toronto’s home crowd has energized the young Raptors, who’ve won two straight at the Air Canada Center following the overtime loss to Washington at the end of February.
Beginning on Wednesday, Toronto will host the struggling Detroit Pistons, which will then be followed by the Memphis Grizzlies‘ lone venture north for a game against the Raptors on Friday. The surprising Phoenix Suns and ‘Comeback Player of The Year’ candidate Gerald Green are likely to give the Raptors headaches on Sunday, but should also provide another important test ahead of a playoff appearance that’s becoming more likely by the minute.