Being in the enviable position of having clinched a berth in the 2014 NBA playoffs, the Toronto Raptors must brace themselves for a number of potential postseason matchups in the opening round. Teams hovering around the middle of the standings in the Eastern Conference are jousting for position, so it may come down to the final games of the season until the Raptors know who they'll be going up against.
As of games played on April 2, the Raptors are tied for third with the Chicago Bulls at 43-32. Only 2.5 games separate the two squads from the Brooklyn Nets, who are holding down the No. 5 seed at 40-34. John Wall and the Washington Wizards own the No. 6 seed at 39-36, while the Charlotte Bobcats are one game under the .500 mark, yet still right in the thick of things at 37-38.
Matching up with the right team could mean the difference between an early exit or the second series win in franchise history. Locking down home-court advantage will also make a world of difference, so it's important for Toronto to maintain its winning ways and secure its second-ever Atlantic Division crown.
This is a team that hasn't experienced the glitz and glamour of the postseason since 2008, so it'll be looking for any type of advantage it can get for when it makes its return in a few short weeks.
Regardless of the opponent, the Raptors will do their homework and be well-prepared, but you have to think they're crossing their fingers and hoping they land a matchup that gives them the best opportunity to win.
Favorable Matchup: Washington Wizards
As was the case with the Raptors, the Washington Wizards have also been devoid of any postseason action since 2008, losing in six games to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Both teams are in the same boat. They've ended their respective playoff droughts but aren't satisfied with just getting in the front door. They're in, but they want to make some noise.
Toronto won its first three games against the Wizards, but it was Wall and company who had the last laugh. On Feb. 27, Wall and Marcin Gortat each scored 31 points in a classic triple-overtime thriller as Washington broke the hearts of many Torontonians, winning 134-129.
If that's the quality of basketball we can expect out of these two, then sign me up for seven games.
The first three games weren't nearly as competitive. The Raptors won by a combined 31 points, with their defense holding Washington to 88 points twice.
That has to be encouraging. Putting the triple-overtime loss to the side, Toronto has simply had its way with the Wizards.
The Raptors can't underestimate Wall, though. He's capable of single-handedly taking over games. It's no coincidence that a Wizards playoff appearance and Wall's first All-Star nod fell on the same year.
He's a Raptor killer, averaging 25.3 points and 6.0 assists against the Red and White. If the Raptors can take the fast-as-lightning guard out of the equation, their lives will be a lot easier.
Washington isn't a pushover. Bradley Beal can light up the scoreboard, while Gortat can man the middle and block shots around the basket. Trevor Ariza is also having a nice rebound year, averaging 14.8 points and 6.3 boards.
Still, this is a team the Raptors should hope falls in their lap. It took a gargantuan effort on the part of Washington to pick up its only victory over Toronto. That should instill some confidence, no?
Look to Avoid: Brooklyn Nets
Experience matters. The Brooklyn Nets have it barrels.
For a majority of their players, this won't be their first rodeo. They've been under the bright lights several times before.
Brooklyn's projected starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Miles Plumlee has a combined 387 playoff games under its belt. For the Raptors, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas have a grand total of 24.
The edge in experience for Brooklyn isn't deterring Ross, who revealed in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) segment on Reddit back in March that he wants the Nets in the first round.
Center Andray Blatche was made aware of Ross' comments, warning the 23-year-old that he better be careful what he wishes for, per the New York Daily News:
S---, you better be careful what tree you bark up. He better be careful. He's probably just saying that because he had a good game against us. But I don't think that's really what he meant or what he really, really wants.
As if the Nets needed more of a reason to take it to their division rivals, who could very well walk away with an Atlantic Division title that they were favored to win at the start of the year.
With the exception of a 96-80 beatdown (Williams and Garnett didn't play) by Toronto on Jan. 11, the season series has been as close as close can get. Brooklyn wound up winning two of the remaining three meetings by just six points.
On Jan. 27, Raptors sixth man Patrick Patterson stole an inbounds pass and made a go-ahead jumper with six seconds remaining as Toronto escaped the Barclays Center with a 104-103 victory.
Swingman Paul Pierce averaged 19.8 points and 4.5 rebounds against the Raptors in all four games, which is his third-highest scoring average against a team in 2013-14. He alone has 136 games of playoff experience. That's almost six times as much as the Toronto Raptors roster.
All-Star center Brook Lopez had surgery on March 3 to repair a torn tendon in his left ankle. He's missed all but 17 games and isn't expected to be ready in time for the playoffs, so the Raptors catch a break. In 15 career games, Lopez is averaging 19.3 points and 7.3 rebounds against Toronto.
It's up for debate as to which team has more talent. The Raptors are younger (average age of 26.5 to Brooklyn's 29.1) and would need to exploit their athleticism to help score in transition, but the veteran savvy of the Nets could be enough to stop Toronto in its tracks.
That's not to say the Raptors couldn't prevail, but in a perfect world, it would be a obstacle best left alone.
Question Mark: Charlotte Bobcats
While having to go up against the lowly Charlotte Bobcats in the postseason may not seem like the greatest of challenges, it could end up being a downright terrifying experience for the Toronto Raptors.
The Bobcats lead the all-time season series 18-17, including a perfect record of 3-0 this season. For some odd reason, the Bobcats have Toronto's number.
The games between the two sides were relatively close, but Charlotte managed to come through in the clutch more often than the Raptors to pull out narrow victories.
On Dec. 18, point guard Kemba Walker nailed a jumper with time expiring in overtime to give his team a 104-102 win at the Air Canada Centre. He scored 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting and stole the ball three times in that game.
The Bobcats even had a 30-point lead against Toronto on Jan. 20, although they barely held on in the end to win 100-95 at home.
Center Al Jefferson is someone Raptors coach Dwane Casey would have to keep a close eye on. If we were back in the prehistoric era, he would be the meteorite that wiped out all the dinosaurs.
In two appearances against Toronto, Jefferson has been a one-man wrecking crew, averaging 23.0 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 50 percent shooting. The Raptors don't have the size in their frontcourt to contend with someone like Jefferson. He's proven his dominance twice already, so unless Casey throws everything but the kitchen sink at him on defense, Jefferson could very well be the ultimate difference-maker in this series.
A lot of credit should go to head coach Steve Clifford for the way he's turned Charlotte into an above-average defensive squad. The Bobcats rank eighth in defensive efficiency (101.8) and sixth in points allowed (97.4). That's quite the improvement for a team that finished 30th and 29th in those aforementioned areas just one season prior.
Fans in Charlotte are smitten with the idea of going toe-to-toe with Toronto in late April and early May, but as Clifford indicated to The News & Observer, all he wants is for his team to be prepared for whatever lies ahead:
At the end of the day the NBA is about one thing – winning the championship. So you'd have to beat every team, regardless of the order.
As a group you have to focus on the right things: Improvement and getting our team ready to play in the playoffs, regardless of who we play. That's what we talk about all the time.
There's no way of knowing if the Bobcats' regular-season dominance over Toronto would carry over to the playoffs. In a seven-game series with two inexperienced sides, it's really about which one can set the tone early and establish itself as the favorite. No one on the Raptors wants the distinction of being on a team that allowed Charlotte to advance, so there would be some added incentive to prevent such a thing from taking place.
Follow Featured Columnist Christopher Walder on Twitter at @WalderSports.
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