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Raptors' road success has them looking like playoff spoilers

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The Toronto Raptors have already surpassed expectations this season.

Many thought this team would conclude the 2021-22 campaign with a record reminiscent of the days when Bryan Colangelo ruled Jurassic Park. While that was a safe bet, the culture around Scotiabank Arena is worlds apart from those dark days. After a disappointing year in Tampa, the Raptors are back in the playoff picture as a dark horse who some believe could upset a top seed.

It's such a unique situation. An ironic situation, truly. Yes, the Raptors are back in Toronto and much of the discussion regarding last season’s shortcomings focused on the fact that they were in Tampa. Trauma-related or not, maybe playing home games in Florida messed with the team's psyche beyond what we all thought. Perhaps it’s that same mindset that has resulted in the Raptors being such a dominant road team, and just a pedestrian home team.

I don’t know what their deal is but the numbers don’t lie, and right now the Raptors are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the third-most road wins in the league, behind only the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies, who are 58-14 and 49-23 (the top two teams in the league), respectively. Could this success carry into the postseason?

The Raptors are 19-20 against teams over .500 but boast a 10-5 record against the top three teams in each conference, which is nothing to scoff at. More specifically, the Raptors are 13-11 when visiting their Eastern Conference foes, which is tied for the fourth-most wins conference-wide.

Compared to past seasons, the Raptors are still on-brand:

2021: 11-25 on the road, 27-45 overall – didn’t qualify for playoffs

2020: 27-9 on the road, 53-18 overall — lost in 2nd round (bubble season)

2019: 26-15 on the road, 58-24 overall — won NBA championship

2018: 25-16 on the road, 59-23 overall — swept in 2nd round (best overall record in franchise history)

2017: 23-18 on the road, 51-31 overall — swept in 2nd round

2016: 24-17 on the road, 56-26 overall — lost in conference finals

Over the last several years, Toronto has been challenged on the road more than at home. But this year, there are nine Eastern Conference squads on pace to finish above .500, which hasn’t happened since the 2016 season. Furthermore, New York is rolling back the city’s vaccine mandate and that means Kyrie Irving will be available for all of Brooklyn’s games going forward.

The Raptors have been much better on the road than at home this season. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
The Raptors have been much better on the road than at home this season. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

But why is Toronto better on the road than at home?

It’s not because of the scoring. The Raptors are only .3 points better than their opponents on the road, compared to their 2.5-point net rating when hosting. So that’s not it.

Could it be the offensive boards? Well, the Raptors are No. 1 in the East when cleaning the offensive glass on the opponent's court. But, they’re also the second-worst defensive rebounding team under the same criteria. Yet, something you need to consider with offensive rebounding is second-chance points, which Toronto ranks first in among East teams on the road.

Additionally, the Raptors are third in fastbreak points per game (14.9) and fifth in transition points (22.4), which could allude to Toronto simply exhausting the field. As it pertains to hustle stats like deflections, the Raptors stand alone once again with around 18 a game. They’re also second in loose balls recovered, so out-hustling whoever they face is definitely not out of the question.

What I’ve concluded in all this is the Raptors aren't a team that’s simply just more dominant on the road for one reason. As discussed, they’re atop the league in multiple facets and because the roster is comprised of mostly long, tall, and athletic ball handlers, Raptors-brand basketball will unleash a versatile lineup unlike anything the league has seen before.

That’s the future. Let’s talk this year’s playoffs.

The East is going to be an absolute dog fight. The Nets currently occupy the eighth seed, right behind the Raptors and although both teams run the risk of elimination because of the play-in, let’s look at how things would shape up today:

(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets

(2) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (7) Toronto Raptors

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Cleveland Cavaliers

(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Chicago Bulls

It would be an understatement to say that’s a tough field but realistically, any of these series could go seven games in favour of either team in each matchup. But as a team that has the second-most road wins in the East, and the sixth-least amount of home wins, Toronto is best-positioned to lock down a seed from five to eight.

The problem with that is the Raptors have 10 games left, eight of which are at home. So, learning to win at home is the only choice. Otherwise, the team's seeding will be sporadic for the next few weeks. The good news is that Toronto’s SOS (strength of schedule) is one of the easiest going forward, with a collective opponent win percentage of .480.

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