By CURTIS WITHERS
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Friday, April 13, 2018
TORONTO -- The Toronto Raptors have never before had such a feasible path to the NBA final, but the road ahead will have no shortage of daunting obstacles.
Entering the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference gives the Raptors home-court advantage through to the final.
That's a significant edge for a Toronto team that tied Houston for the best home record in the league this season at 34-7.
But to get to the final, Toronto would likely have to survive a second-round encounter with nemesis LeBron James, and then face the prospect of taking on the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers in the conference final.
Here is a look at a hypothetical path to the final for the Raptors: FIRST ROUND - WASHINGTON WIZARDS Despite having home-court advantage, the fourth-seeded Raptors faced a humiliating firstround sweep at the hands of the Wizards in 2015.
Toronto will surely expect a different result this time around.
Washington is still a dangerous opponent, with all-star point guard John Wall, shooting guard Bradley Beal and centre Marcin Gortat returning from the 2015 Wizards team.
However, Toronto's core of allstar backcourt DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and centre Jonas Valanciunas has a much better supporting cast this time around.
Toronto's elite bench, and the fact that the Wizards no longer have access to Paul Pierce's effective mind games, should see the Raptors through. Toronto will want to win this series quickly, as it gets significantly tougher from here.
The Raptors and Wizards split their four-game season series in 2017-18 with each team winning one on the road.
SECOND ROUND - CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
A conference semi-final against the Cavaliers is not what the Raptors envisioned when they locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But unless the Indiana Pacers upset James and company in the first round, that's what Toronto's going to get.
On paper the Raptors should win this series. They have superior depth, and Cleveland's defence is often a tire fire. In fact, the Cavaliers finished the season with the second-worst defensive rating in the league, with opponents scoring 109.5 points per 100 possessions.
But despite Toronto's "culture reset" that led the Raptors to 59 regular-season wins while retaining the same core roster and coaching staff of past seasons, the Raptors are a team that has done little to inspire postseason confidence, especially against Cleveland.
Yes, they made it to the Eastern Conference final in 2016, but there it was an achievement just to take Cleveland to six games.
The next year Cleveland easily dismissed the Raptors in four straight games in the second round. James was clearly in the Raptors' heads, and he was having so much fun he pretended to drink a beer after being fouled late in Game 1.
And no matter how defensively inept this version of the Cavaliers may be, James has proven he can overcome this deficit almost single-handedly. Look at the March 21 game in Cleveland, when Toronto scored 79 points in the first half and still lost 132-129 as James scored 35 points and added 17 assists without committing a single turnover.
But home-court advantage could be the key to Toronto exorcising this particularly troublesome playoff demon. While Toronto went 1-2 against the Cavs this season, the Raptors won the only meeting at Air Canada Centre 133-99 back on Jan. 11. And Cleveland did go 1-3 against the Pacers this season, so could conceivably enter the second round with more wear-and-tear than Toronto.
THIRD ROUND - PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
While the Sixers finished one seed behind No. 2 Boston in the East, they should be able to beat the Celtics in a hypothetical second-round matchup and advance to the conference final.
Without injured guard Kyrie Irving, the Celtics would be hardpressed to beat a Sixers team that ended the regular season on a 16game winning streak powered by young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Toronto won three of four games against the Sixers this season, and two of the victories were blowouts at Air Canada Centre.
But those came early in the season, before Philadelphia really got rolling. The last meeting between the two teams was a 117-111 Sixers victory in Philadelphia on Jan. 15 that saw Embiid dominate with 34 points, including 11 from the free-throw line as the Raptors struggled to contain the sevenfoot native of Cameroon.
Philadelphia would be a tough test for the Raptors, but not an insurmountable one. In spite of their playoff disappointments, the battle-tested Raptors are making a fifth straight postseason appearance. The Sixers are making a return to the postseason after six years of being a league doormat. Also, Embiid has proven to be fragile over his career - he's missing Game 1 of Philadelphia's first-round series with Miami due to an eye injury - and Simmons has yet to experience the increased pressure of postseason basketball.
The Sixers represent yet another playoff demon for Toronto to slay. The Allen Iverson-led 76ers knocked Toronto out of the second round of the playoffs in 2001 when Vince Carter's buzzerbeating shot to win Game 7 clanged off the back of the rim.
BEST BETS FOR THE FIRST ROUND OF THE NBA PLAYOFFS EASTERN CONFERENCE NO. 1 TORONTO RAPTORS (59-23) VS. NO. 8 WASHINGTON WIZARDS (43-39)
Season series: Split, 2-2 Storyline: It was the best regular season in Toronto history and its first time going into the playoffs as a No. 1 seed, but the Raptors know it's the playoff result that will determine if 2017-18 was a success. The Raptors got out of the first round once in their first 20 seasons; they're now trying to do so for a third straight season. Washington was inconsistent all season, but now has all-star John Wall back from injury, and he'll be needed.
Key matchup: Toronto's Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan vs. the Wizards' Wall and Bradley Beal. The teams mirror each other in that their backcourt stars lead the way. Lowry and DeRozan have risen to challenges all season, and their playoff run starts with a very stiff matchup.
Prediction: Raptors in five.
NO. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (55-27) VS. NO. 7 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (44-38)
Season series: Split, 2-2 Storyline: The Celtics won't have Kyrie Irving, probably won't have Marcus Smart for much of the first round and haven't had Gordon Hayward since the sixth minute of the season. But they earned the No. 2 seed anyway, and hear the whispers of naysayers suggesting they're vulnerable. The Bucks will try to win their first playoff series since 2001 - when star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was 6.
Key matchup: Celtics coach Brad Stevens vs. Bucks coach Joe Prunty. The chess match will be fun; Stevens is easily one of the NBA's best at scheming, especially on the fly, and Prunty has done a strong job since taking over for Jason Kidd around the midseason mark.
Prediction: Celtics in six.
NO. 3 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (52-30) VS. NO. 6 MIAMI HEAT (44-38)
Season series: Split, 2-2 Storyline: The 76ers finished on a 16game winning streak, although 13 of those wins came against non-playoff teams. In their last 24 games, Philadelphia was 20-2 against everyone other than Miami - and 0-2 against the Heat, including one game where Dwyane Wade hit a game-winning shot. The 76ers are young, brash and backing it up, while the Heat have the confidence of knowing that they can knock off Philly.
Key matchup: Philadelphia's Joel Embiid vs. Miami's Hassan Whiteside.
Embiid says he doesn't think he'll play in Game 1 while continuing to recover from an orbital fracture. But the lure of facing Whiteside - they simply don't like each other - should get him back out there as soon as possible.
Miami's best chance is for Whiteside to be great.
Prediction: Heat in seven.
NO. 4 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (50-32) VS. NO. 5 INDIANA PACERS (48-34)
Season series: Pacers, 3-1 Storyline: LeBron James is bidding for his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA finals, and the Cavs are trying to get there for a fourth straight year. They will be tested from the outset by an Indiana team that many thought would be rebuilding this season. And the Pacers indeed did rebuild, but managed to do so on the fly behind Victor Oladipo, probably the NBA's most improved player.
Key matchup: James vs. Oladipo. The best players on each team, and while they may not go head to head all that much, Oladipo surely knows he has to be fantastic in this series. James is coming off perhaps his most complete regular season, and everyone knows that his motivation level, always high, gets cranked up several notches at playoff time.
Prediction: Cavaliers in six.
WESTERN CONFERENCE NO. 1 HOUSTON ROCKETS (65-17) VS. NO. 8 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (47-35)
Season series: Rockets, 4-0. Storyline: After rolling to the best record in the league, the Rockets get started toward what they hope could be the first championship for Mike D'Antoni, James Harden and Chris Paul. They open against the Timberwolves, back in the postseason for the first time since 2004 after ending what was the NBA's longest active playoff drought.
Key matchup: Harden vs. Jimmy Butler. Nobody really slows down the Rockets - the Wolves sure didn't, yielding 122.8 points a game in the four games - but the best hope of doing it comes if Butler, their top defensive player, can slow down the league's leading scorer and MVP candidate.
Prediction: Rockets in five.
NO. 2 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (58-24) VS. NO. 7 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (47-35)
Season series: Warriors, 3-1.
Story line: The Western Conference final matchup last season comes in the first round now after Golden State struggled down the stretch without Stephen Curry, and the Spurs had a difficult time playing almost all season without Kawhi Leonard. Curry is not expected to play in this series, while the Spurs haven't ever ruled out Leonard, but also given no indication he could play.
Key matchup: Draymond Green vs. LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge had his best season in San Antonio in carrying the Spurs as best as possible without Leonard, and the Warriors' task in trying to limit him probably begins with Green, the Defensive Player of the Year last season and one of the league's best defensive forwards.
Prediction: Warriors in five.
NO. 3 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (49-33) VS. NO. 6 NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (48-34)
Season series: Split, 2-2.
Storyline: Two of the NBA's top scorers lead their teams into what could be a high-scoring shootout in the first round. Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers won on the final night of the season to grab the Northwest Division title and finish a game ahead of Anthony Davis and the Pelicans, who surged into the postseason on a fivegame winning streak.
Key matchup: Lillard and CJ McCollum vs. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday.
Portland has one of the most potent backcourts in the league but New Orleans, with a pair of good defensive guards, at least has some hope of slowing them down. And Holiday will score quite a bit himself.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in seven.
NO. 4 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (48-34) VS. NO. 5 UTAH JAZZ (48-34)
Season series: Thunder, 3-1.
Storyline: Despite some tough times after acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play with Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City won its final three games to get home-court advantage in the first round, with a new chance to prove it can be the team it hoped when it made the high-profile acquisitions.
Key matchup: Westbrook vs. Donovan Mitchell. The reigning NBA MVP and the potential Rookie of the Year have shown they can do whatever is necessary to carry their teams offensively.
Westbrook probably has more help, which could make the difference in this series.
Prediction: Thunder in six.
DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors pursues the ball ahead of Kelly Oubre Jr. of the Washington Wizards in Washington in March, 2017. Toronto's elite bench should help the team when they face Washington in the first round this postseason.
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