- The Toronto Raptors are riding a franchise-best 12-game winning streak going into Friday night
- Reigning champions are Atlantic Division favorites for first time this season
- Amidst their swoon, the Philadelphia 76ers have slipped out of contention
The reigning NBA champions have been the story of the season. Currently on a 12-game unbeaten run, the Toronto Raptors have defied the vast majority of expectations to prove a real threat in the Eastern Conference. They sit second in the East and have become the favorite in their NBA Divisional odds for the first time this season.
The Raps are rolling right now. The streak has come in a favorable part of the schedule, but that shouldn’t downplay the achievement, as they have notched wins over the Thunder, Sixers and Pacers. They face Indiana again on Friday night looking to make it 13 wins on the bounce.
2019-20 NBA Atlantic Division Odds
|New York Knicks||+100000|
Odds taken Feb. 7th
Toronto’s 37-14 record gives them a lead over the Boston Celtics at 35-15, albeit a slender one. There’s been a lack of confidence in Nick Nurse’s team this season, and while that’s understandable after losing one of the best players in the game, there’s still a lot of talent on this roster. This is no fluke – they have the fourth-best net rating in the NBA, bettered only by Boston, the Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks.
It’s arguably a surprise that the Raps haven’t been division favorites earlier in the season. They are deserving of the status, and if they beat the Pacers on Friday night, they could continue the streak for a while to come. Their next four games are against the Nets (twice), the Timberwolves and the Suns, before yet another matchup with Indiana and a showdown with the Bucks.
While not a spectacular team offensively, the Raptors have excelled on the defensive end. Only Milwaukee have a better defensive rating. Nurse has been inventive, throwing full-court presses at teams, and upsetting the rhythm. Even though rarely at full strength, Nurse has found a way to construct an elite defense – that’s only going to improve if they can get (and stay) healthy.
Better Than the Celtics?
Toronto and Boston have had to deal with injuries all season. The Raptors’ first-choice starting five have only started six games together since December 9th. With 51 regular season games played, OG Anunoby, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher are the only Raptors to appear in over 41 games.
Boston’s situation has been similar, although not quite as severe. Gordon Hayward was playing brilliantly and then had to miss some time. Marcus Smart has appeared in 39 of their 50 games. Kemba Walker has been in and out of the lineup of late – he has missed seven of their last 19 games.
Getting banged up during the long slog of the regular season is inevitable, but it’s worth considering the impact it has had on these two teams. They have had limited time with their best groups on the floor.
At full strength, the first instinct is that the Celts have more talent and upside, but despite being a great defensive team thus far, they are more limited than the Raps, who have Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to play the five. A seven-game playoff series would be an epic – it could be the first of many duels between Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
A healthy roster is by no means guaranteed for either team down the stretch. With the records so close at this stage, injuries could end up deciding who takes the Atlantic Division. That said, the Raptors have got some huge wins even when depleted.
Philly Too Far Back
The Sixers, the preseason Atlantic Division favorites, are six back in the loss column. An abysmal road record and inconsistent application defensively have seen Philly drop into the six seed. Home court advantage in the first round is quickly disappearing out of reach for Brett Brown’s team.
If Philadelphia were pursuing only one team, a collapse and a hot end to the season would be plausible. As it stands, though, the Sixers need Boston and Toronto to crumble down the stretch and that’s very unlikely. There are too many issues for the Sixers to correct before chasing down the Raps and Celts begins to become feasible.
For all their talent, the Sixers are best off planning for the playoffs. A good seed is improbable already. They’re going to need a big turnaround in the postseason to fix a massively disappointing campaign.
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