Toronto is still not out of the play-in picture, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they want “in.” If nothing else, the Raptors enter a crucial week that will settle the playoff matter once and for all this season.
The Toronto Raptors are not mathematically out of the play-in tournament, but last week dealt them a massive blow to their hopes of making it. They had two winnable games against the short-handed Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, both of which Toronto gave themselves a shot to win. Instead, the Raptors looked gassed by the final frame both times and lost both games. The worst part? The Raptors should have been the fresher team, as both of those opponents were playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
On the plus side, while the Chicago Bulls are getting Zach LaVine back, it might be too late for them to gain any ground. The Bulls are four games behind the Wizards with a tough schedule coming up. The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, have entered the chat, and by this time next week, we could be talking about the Raptors chasing the Pacers for the 10th seed. Assuming the Wizards win at least two more games, and/or the Pacers win at least one more, the Raptors would need to finish something like 5-2 to secure that play-in spot. That’s a tall order.
So, back to the Tank Watch. Right now, the Raptors have the 8th-best lottery odds, thanks to the Sacramento Kings trying to win despite being out of the play-in picture. If Chicago rallies with the return of LaVine, there’s a scenario in which the Raptors rise to the 7th slot in the NBA Draft Lottery. For all intents and purposes, that seems about the best (or worst) Toronto can do now.
An aside: I want to get in the Milwaukee Bucks into this conversation. Yes, they’re fighting for second place in the East, far away from the Raptors, but they have a soft schedule after tonight’s game against the Brooklyn Nets. They have games against the Wizards, Pacers, and Bulls, and I’m wondering if they could tank those games and end up killing Toronto’s play-in hopes. I’m pretty sure it has crossed coach Mike Budenholzer’s mind.
Last Week and Next Week
Toronto’s games against the Nets, Nuggets, and Jazz all had a familiar theme: the team’s starters kept them in the game, and then the bench would drop the ball, pun intended. As a result, the team just would not have the juice to get themselves all the way back in any of those three losses. The Raptors did get a win last week though, as Kyle Lowry played like he had Sunday night’s Lakers game circled on his calendar.
Elsewhere, the Bulls continue to fade, having lost four straight games and putting themselves four games behind the Wizards. Speaking of Washington, another winning week (3-1) got them within half-game of the Indiana Pacers for the ninth seed in the East. The Pacers dropped a pair of games last week, but Domantas Sabonis’ return after a seven-game absence helped Indiana destroy the Oklahoma City Thunder. His return was not enough against the Wizards, though, as Washington ran over them last night (which is bad news for the Raptors).
This coming week will likely dictate the fate of the Raptors. They’ve got three games this week: against the Clippers on the road tonight, and then home games against Washington and Memphis. If the Wizards lose against the Milwaukee Bucks, that will make Thursday’s game against the Wizards something of a do-or-die game for Toronto’s play-in hopes.
If they go 2-1, with a win over the Wizards, the Raptors could be here next week just a game out with four contests left. Since the Raptors hold the tie-breaker, they only need to finish with the same record as the Wizards. If the Raptors lose to Washington, well, welcome to the Jalen Harris era for the last four games.
Suspicious Tank Moves of the Week
DNP By Committee
Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry took turns resting while OG Anunoby missed Sunday’s game to rest his old calf strain. Toronto is elbow-deep in the fight for the play-in spot, but there seemed to be no sense of urgency. The Raptors are already short-handed with Gary Trent Jr. and Chris Boucher out, and yet rest was still the order of the day.
To be clear: it’s not unfair of the Raptors to rest their main guys — they’ve been working hard all year under dire circumstances. Still, most teams fighting for a playoff spot have players that are playing banged up. The Wizards, for example, could have easily sat Bradley Beal at least one game last week when he twisted his leg. Instead, he played 42 minutes the next game to help the Wizards maintain their last play-in spot position. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Raptors sit Pascal Siakam against the Clippers tonight since he’s already played seven straight games with a heavy minutes load.
Unfortunately, the Raptors have only been competitive for the first 36 minutes of their games this past week. It’s something that has dogged them for long stretches of this season at different times.
There’s no other way to say it: Toronto’s reserves struggled this past week and often came in and surrendered the team’s momentum, setting them up for a collapse. In all, the Raptors got outscored by ten points in the fourth quarter over the last four games, and even the insertion of the starters couldn’t undo that problem.
As noted, a well-executed tank by the Raptors could see them finish with the 7th best odds in the coming NBA Draft Lottery. It’s merely a 7.5 percent chance of landing the top overall pick, but it’s a healthy 32 (or so) percent chance of getting in the top four. It may not be Cade Cunningham, but there’s Jaylen Suggs, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, and Jonathan Kuminga as possible picks. Kuminga or Green would bring size, athleticism, and potential to Toronto’s wing formation, while Mobley brings a blue-chip talent to man the middle for the next decade or so. Picking up Suggs could also provide insurance if Kyle Lowry is not back next season.
Barely missing the play-in tournament would cast a wider net for the Raptors, but the prospects in that range don’t have the upside of the top three or four players in this Draft. Some of the players around the 5-10 range also have some flaws that might not be fixable. For example, Corey Kispert has some athleticism concerns, while Davion Mitchell and Usman Garuba are perhaps not big enough to play their natural positions in the NBA.
One thing is clear though: if there was ever an NBA Draft in which to replenish the cupboard, this is the one. Ideally, the Raptors should try to acquire one more first-rounder, but it may be easy to buy more second-round picks instead. The New Orleans Pelicans have four second-round picks, while the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets, and Detroit Pistons all have three selections in the second round.
If they go this route, and the Raptors decide to run it back with at least one of Lowry, Trent Jr, and Khem Birch, they can quickly develop fresh young talent from the backline rather than squeezing last chance talents other teams have given up on.