After a season defined by mediocrity, the Toronto Raptors will face the Chicago Bulls in the NBA play-in tournament on Wednesday and look to take one step closer to punching their ticket to the playoffs.
The Raptors, ninth in the Eastern Conference, finished the season with a perfectly even 41-41 record. It’s their ninth season in the past 10 years with a record of .500 or better, but also their second-worst record over that span.
Toronto finished last in the Atlantic Division, led by the Boston Celtics at 57-25. Under the NBA’s new play-in structure, first introduced in 2021, the Raptors have a chance of fighting their way to a first-round matchup against the league-best Milwaukee Bucks.
The Raptors will face the Bulls at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena. The Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks are also playing each other on the other side of the Eastern Conference play-in bracket.
The winner of the Heat-Hawks game will secure the seventh seed and play the Celtics in the first round, while the loser will be tasked with the winner of the Raptors-Bulls game. Whichever team wins that game will secure the eighth seed and face the Bucks.
In essence, the Heat and Hawks have to win one of their two games to book a ticket to the playoffs. The Raptors will have to win two in a row.
It’s a steep hill to climb. Here are five things you need to know before tip-off.
Great at home – but not so much on the road
Games at Scotiabank Arena are among the most well-attended in the NBA and that helped the Raptors go 27-14 at home this year, a record that lands them in the top half of teams.
That lends itself well to a must-win game at home against the Bulls.
But the other shoe drops when the Raptors are on the road, with a 14-27 record landing them sixth-worst in the league. If Toronto wins on Wednesday, they’ll be on the road to face either Miami or Atlanta on Friday.
Steep odds get steeper
If the Raptors manage to outperform their tough road split and emerge from the play-in tournament unscathed, they’ll be staked to another unenviable position. As the No. 8 seed, Toronto would face the first-seeded Bucks – and be up against an intimidating historical record.
The NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff structure in 1983-84. Since then, the No. 8 seed has beaten the No. 1 seed only five times in 72 series. That’s a little less than 7 per cent of the time – or an average of once every seven to eight years.
The last time it happened was 2012, when the Philadelphia 76ers upset the Chicago Bulls in six games.
An old friend comes home
It’s been five seasons since DeMar DeRozan donned a Raptors jersey, but his legacy in Toronto is still holding strong. He’s scored the most points and played the most minutes in franchise history, and in most categories, it’s not even close.
It’ll be a homecoming when DeRozan returns to Toronto with the Bulls. At age 33, he put together another all-star season this year and averaged 24.5 points, the second-most on the Chicago roster.
The last time DeRozan played at Scotiabank Arena, in February, he put up 13 points in 34 minutes.
Recovering just in time
Raptors shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. missed seven games in late March and early April with lower back spasms and an elbow injury, returning on April 5 with 15 minutes of action. His playing time has ramped up since, hitting 27 minutes and 23 points in the Raptors’ final regular-season game last Sunday.
Head coach Nick Nurse said after the game that getting Trent Jr. “on track” was one of the goals.
“He came out ready to go and got a bunch of good looks and did a good job,” Nurse said.
Since the 2013-14 season, the Raptors have missed the playoffs only once – in 2020-21, when they finished 27-45 and 12th in the Eastern Conference. But that record is being threatened this week, and the steep odds of making it through to the first round don’t help.
With speculation that Nurse might be on his way out as the Raptors head coach, Wednesday’s game against the Bulls may hold more importance than just a shot to play in the first round.
With files from The Canadian Press.