Around this time of year, NBA teams usually find themselves in one of three situations, and instead of focusing on this June’s NBA Draft or needing a miracle to reach the playoffs, the Toronto Raptors are in the more fortunate group that’s anxiously awaiting to learn the identity of the team’s first postseason opponent since 2008.
Now potentially just weeks away from their first Atlantic Division championship in six years and in the midst of a heated, Eastern Conference playoff race, the Raptors look likely to land an opening-round date with either the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls or Brooklyn Nets.
As of Tuesday morning, only 3.5 games separated the four teams. And with less than 15 games remaining in the regular season, the first-round pairings within the Eastern Conference remain extremely unclear.
If the playoffs began on Tuesday, Toronto would face the sixth-place Wizards in the opening round of the postseason, a team that the Raptors have dominated in 2013-14 with wins in three of four meetings. Most recently, Washington marched into the Air Canada Center and handed their hosts an overtime loss that snapped a three-game win streak, and gave those previously hoping to land the Wizards during the playoffs mild heartburn.
Led by guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington is basically Toronto’s statistical equal regarding turnovers and on the glass, but assuming Nene is healthy, the Wizards can be a problem on the offensive end for the inexperienced Raptors.
Fortunately, drawing the fourth-place Bulls right out of the gate is very unlikely, but a Chicago-Toronto showdown could easily be in the cards if the Raptors survive the opening round. Not only do the Bulls have center Joakim Noah in the paint, but the emergence of Taj Gibson added another weapon in the low-post. Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Jimmy Butler are more than able to fill up the stat sheet.
Aside from their depth, the Bulls also rank second in the NBA with 92.1 points allowed per game, and have earned a 2-2 split with the Raptors that most recently featured a playoff-type win over Toronto at the ACC in February.
During the season, the rivalry between the Nets and Raptors has reached new heights, which made the four games played between the two even more significant. But much like Toronto, Brooklyn has also become a much better team throughout the course of the season, and have climbed into a spot in the playoffs as a result.
Now beginning to fulfill their lofty, preseason expectations, the Brook Lopez-less Nets wouldn’t be an ideal opponent for the Raptors in any round, and their experienced roster may even overtake Toronto for first in the Atlantic before it’s all over.
Ty is a writer for Rantsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @abovethefoldty