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Top seed gives Raptors edge, but dangers still loom on road to NBA final


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:



Despite having home-court advantage, the fourth-seeded Raptors faced a humiliating first-round sweep at the hands of the Wizards in 2015.

Toronto will surely expect a different result this time around. Washington is still 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 all-star 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.



A conference semifinal 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 LeBron 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 post-season 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.



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 hard-pressed to beat a Sixers team that ended the regular season on a 16-game 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 seven-foot 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 post-season appearance. The Sixers are making a return to the post-season 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 post-season 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 buzzer-beating shot to win Game 7 clanged off the back of the rim.

Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press

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