Raptors enter critical stretch in bid for play-in tournament spot

Alex Wong
·7-min read

The Toronto Raptors saw their four-game win streak end on Saturday after a spirited effort against the New York Knicks. They’ve got 12 games remaining on the schedule and are two games back of the Washington Wizards for the final spot in the play-in tournament. It is as much a race against time for Toronto as it is a race to catch the teams ahead of them in the standings. Here’s everything you need to know about the remaining three weeks of the regular season and the play-in tournament:

The Raptors are two games back of the Wizards for the final play-in spot heading into Monday's action. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
The Raptors are two games back of the Wizards for the final play-in spot heading into Monday's action. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Please tell me how the play-in tournament works in under 300 words

It’s real simple. The seventh to 10th seed in each conference will start a play-in tournament on May 18. The seventh and eighth-seeded teams play each other, with the winner claiming the No. 7 seed. The ninth and 10th-seeded teams play each other, with the winner advancing to play the loser of the seventh and eighth-seeded matchup. Those two teams will then play another single-game elimination game to determine who gets the last playoff spot in the conference. The Raptors aren’t getting better than the 10th seed (an outside chance at ninth mathematically speaking, but I doubt it). If they make the tournament, it will take two wins to make the playoffs as the eighth seed.

What kind of scoreboard watching should I be doing these next three weeks?

The East is basically in three clusters. Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Milwaukee are in their own tier (and for Raptors purposes, they would play the top team out of these three in the first round, should they make it). New York, Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Charlotte and Indiana are battling for spots four to nine, which means the bottom three teams from this group will end up in the play-in tournament. The battle for the final play-in spot comes down to Washington, who are on an eight-game win streak (their longest in 20 years), and Toronto and Chicago (who are both two games behind the Wizards).

Wait. I thought the Raptors season was done…

When the Raptors won four in a row back in late February and moved to 16-15, it seemed like they had a chance to lock down a top-four seed. The team proceeded to win a single game in March thanks mainly to health and safety protocols, which knocked three starters out of their lineup for several weeks and effectively ended their season. Except… it simply knocked them out of a chance at a top-six spot in a conference that refuses to allow anyone to be eliminated from playoff contention. The bottom of the East has simply been so uninspiring it's impossible for the Raptors to fall out of a play-in spot entirely. So here we are.

Do the Raptors want the play-in spot?

The answer up until last week would appear to be no. Toronto rested its starters, most notably Kyle Lowry for several games, and seemed resigned to developing its young guys for the remainder of the season. But the Raptors kept winning games and took advantage of a soft part of the schedule without their entire roster, and now the full starting lineup has been back the past two games. So now it appears the answer is yes, they are going for this playoff spot.

Wait. Why wouldn’t the Raptors want to compete for a play-in spot?

Some would argue the best long-term strategy is for the Raptors to tank the rest of the season, lose as many games as possible, and try to land a top-five pick in this year’s draft. At the moment, they have the eighth-best lottery odds and around a 23 percent chance to land a top-four pick. The thing is, we’re this late in the season now where Toronto can’t really “make up ground” in the tank standings. Their most “optimistic” (again, putting these in quotes because these are reverse standings) scenario would be to leapfrog Sacramento and Cleveland to the sixth-best odds, which would bump their top-four pick odds to 37 percent. But keep in mind, Toronto is currently four behind in the loss column to Cleveland with 12 games remaining. Even if you’re obsessed with tanking (which many people are), the Raptors are pretty much locked into a spot that doesn't give them much upward mobility to claim more lottery combinations.

Alright. Are the Raptors making the play-in tournament?

I love a six-way parlay as much as anybody but… probably not? The Raptors have the toughest schedule remaining among the three teams still competing for the final play-in spot. They’ve got Cleveland and Brooklyn at Amalie Arena this week before going on a four-game West Coast trip against Denver, Utah and the two Los Angeles teams, which will pretty much decide their fate. If they go something like 2-4 during this six-game stretch, they may return to Tampa with just a mathematical chance at making the play-in. But if they go 3-3 or even with a winning record on this trip, then the final two weeks will be fun. The Raptors will play Washington next Thursday in a game with huge implications for the play-in. They’ll have a home game against Chicago a week later. If you’re looking for meaningful basketball to watch down the stretch, you root for a successful road trip this week.

So the play-in tournament is a pretty good idea for mediocre teams?

In a traditional season, the Raptors would be realistically out of competing for the eighth seed right now and probably shutting everyone down and just going for lottery balls. Perhaps this is what some of the fans want instead, but I choose to think there’s a lot of value in meaningful regular season games to watch at the end of the season. Opinions may differ.

What might the final night of the regular season look like?

There is a scenario where Toronto, Washington and Chicago are all still competing for a play-in spot on the final day of the regular season. So let’s assume that for a second. The Raptors host the Pacers in their last game. It’s possible Indiana is locked into a play-in position at that point and will rest its starters. It’s also possible they don’t want to see the Raptors in the play-in tournament and will play all their guys in hopes of eliminating them. A third scenario, and more unlikely, is the Raptors spend the final week of their season resting their guys, conceding a potential spot for lottery balls. The other two games to watch on the final day are Hornets-Wizards and Bucks-Bulls.

What are the best potential play-in tournament storylines for the Raptors?

I personally want a Nate Bjorkgren-Nick Nurse single-elimination game with all sorts of box-and-ones and full-court presses and G-League stories in the post-game press conferences. A Heat-Raptors matchup would be fun, and by fun, I mean it would end with an 85-79 score. I don’t think the Celtics will fall into the play-in, but it’s conceivable, so a rematch of last year’s second-round matchup is still on the table.

How far can the Raptors go in the playoffs if they make it?

This is the most optimistic scenario but here it goes: Toronto makes the play-in, wins two games to claim the eighth spot, and face the No. 1 seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round (if the opponent is Brooklyn instead and their guys are healthy, it's a sweep for the Nets in my opinion). Nick Nurse figures out how to contain Joel Embiid, their starters go on a cold shooting streak throughout the series, and suddenly Toronto is up 2-1 in the series. It’s not inconceivable… and let’s assume the Raptors pull off the upset they would face (at the moment) either the fourth-seeded Knicks or the fifth-seeded Hawks in Round 2, which… you could argue would be easier than their Round 1 matchup. They would have more than a puncher’s chance in that hypothetical series which would send them to the East finals. Do I think that's happening? Unlikely. But it’s been a strange season and if the Raptors come out of this week still in a position to fight for a play-in spot, let the daydreaming begin.

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