In an alternate universe, the Toronto Raptors roll in to Cleveland Tuesday on a six-game winning streak, having played some of their best basketball of the season at precisely the right time, and surging for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
It's not entirely far-fetched. The Raptors arguably should have won every one of their past six starts, and in fact had to go out of their way to lose three of them.
Head coach Jay Triano has been in the job just over one full season, but he sounded like a grizzled old NBA veteran as he reflected on his club's last-second loss to the Golden State Warriors at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday.
"We shot 47 per cent against Denver, 49 per cent against Miami, 50 per cent against Charlotte, 61 against the Clippers and 56 against Philadelphia," he said, the numbers still fresh in his head. "And then we play Golden State, the 30th team in the NBA in opponents' field goal percentage, and we shoot 39 per cent? How does that happen?
Actually, that's just part of the story. Chris Bosh, who has been resurgent of late, shot 11 of 19 himself - meaning the rest of the team shot just 34 per cent - but of course it was Bosh who missed the potential game-tying layup as the clock ran out.
But being a head coach in the NBA requires a broad optimist's streak.
So rather than head into Tuesday's game - which starts the most pivotal week of the season - lamenting the one that slipped away, Triano is seeing the shot chart as half-full.
"I can't complain about anything really," he said before boarding the team's flight for Cleveland. "We out-rebounded them; we only had 10 turnovers and gave up 12 fast break points. We won every category except shooting the ball."
Cleveland has already clinched home court advantage throughout the playoffs and is one more win, or one more Los Angeles Lakers loss, from clinching the NBA's best record.
The cushion allows Cavaliers coach Mike Brown the luxury to treat the final 10 days of the season as tune-up to make sure all parts are in working order.
Shaquille O'Neal remains out with a thumb injury, though is supposed to be back for the playoffs. Similarly, Anderson Varejao is still doubtful with a hamstring problem, while Zydrunas Ilgauskus is working his way into shape after a long layoff following the trade deadline. The veteran Cavaliers centre was traded to Washington in the deal that brought Antawn Jamison to Cleveland, was waived by the Wizards and had to sit out for 30 days before the Cavaliers could re-sign him.
And perhaps most significant, the gruesome elbow injury suffered by Milwaukee Bucks centre Andrew Bogut - now out for the season after an innocent-seeming play on Saturday - serves as a reminder that the Cavaliers' first job is to make sure LeBron James gets to the post-season unharmed.
Triano has no such option.
"We have to approach every game the same," he said. "We have to try and sweep the rest of the way."
It's a noble goal, but not an easy one. After Cleveland, the Raptors play the Boston Celtics at the ACC and then travel to Atlanta to play the Hawks. After playing three of the Eastern Conference's top four seeds, they host the Chicago Bulls at the ACC in a game that could very well decide their playoff fate.
Chicago, trailing Toronto by a game for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, plays the depleted Bucks and then the Cavaliers at home before going to New Jersey to play the hapless Nets.Report Typo/Error