For NBA franchises fortunate enough to reach the playoffs on a regular basis, learning how to avoid complacency while carefully managing the floor-time of the team’s most important players down the stretch has become second nature.
But for a franchise like the Toronto Raptors that are usually on the golf course by mid-April, adapting to the changes that come with the team’s first playoff run since 2008 has often been easier said than done.
During Wednesday night’s win over the Detroit Pistons, Toronto’s inability to finish off its opponent forced head coach Dwane Casey to leave both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry on the floor for most of the game. As a result, the two most essential pieces of the Raptor-machine led the team in minutes for a game that should have been over at halftime.
It’s lessons like these that Casey and the Raptors will spend the final 18 regular season games attempting to learn.
But before Toronto slips into cruise control, four of its next five games will be against teams currently headed for the playoffs. Beginning on Sunday when the Raptors are scheduled to host the Phoenix Suns, the eight days that follow will also feature games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and a pair of meetings with the Atlanta Hawks.
Fortunately for Toronto, the eighth-seeded Hawks haven’t resembled a playoff team for quite some time now, and are a miserable 2-8 over their last 10 games. But if Atlanta does in fact relinquish the final playoff spot to the New York Knicks, the Raptors still have to play their divisional rivals twice during the last week of the regular season.
Over the next week and a half, Toronto will also have one of the season’s final opportunities to measure its talent against a few Western Conference powers before the level of competition remaining on it’s schedule takes a serious plunge. With the exception of a three-game stretch beginning at the end of the month when the Raptors will play the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers, replicating a playoff-like atmosphere the rest of the way won’t be easy.
Of Toronto’s 18 remaining regular season games, seven will be against teams that are currently positioned to reach the postseason. By comparison, the Chicago Bulls also have seven games left against playoff teams, while the Brooklyn Nets will play a total of eight games against teams bound for the NBA’s ”second season” down the stretch.
With playoff basketball right around the corner, Toronto will look to continue learning on the fly. But if they hope to exist beyond the opening round, seizing what few opportunities the Raptors have left to rest their starters, learn from past mistakes, and give key reserves floor-time will have to be the priority.