TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors’ postseason hopes boil down to their final 10 regular season games.
Eight of them are at home in what should be a loud and packed Scotiabank Arena after playing much of the home schedule in front of virtually a handful of family and friends, due to the restrictions related to COVID-19.
For a youngster like Scottie Barnes, one of the NBA Rookie of the Year favorites, these games will be the most important of his career so far.
The Raptors host Cleveland on Thursday in a key game, sitting one game behind the Cavaliers for sixth place in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Coach Nick Nurse is eager to see how his team reacts to the crunch of this stretch run.
“It’s a funny time of year,” Nurse said after practice Wednesday. “I think there are teams that play like they have to win every game because they have to make the playoffs or settle something for the home court or something and then there are teams that are not.
“So it’s a funny time of year to try to put too much emphasis on it.”
The Raptors (40-32) are coming off a “hell of a run,” Nurse pointed out, which has seen them win six straight road games against tough opponents despite missing key players such as Fred VanVleet for some of them and OG Anunoby for everything.
“If you had watched that, you would have been ‘Oh boy,'” Nurse said. “And we came out of it, I think, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Literally beat every top team in the league last time we played them.
“I just want to keep building and keep playing and not get too caught up in what’s to come. I would say it again. If the playoffs start tomorrow, I feel like we’re ready… I don’t want to sit here and say, “Oh my god, we have to settle for this. Oh my God.’ I’m not into that. I’m ready to keep trying to play well every night as it goes.
A top-six finish would mean an automatic berth, while teams that finish seventh through tenth will face qualifying matches.
“I don’t see (the top six) as vital,” Nurse said. “I really hope this team makes the playoffs. I really, really think we have to experiment with that, like a streak, the preparation and the toughness and all that I think would be a really big building block for that this team can get through this… However, we’re getting there.”
Nurse hopes some players will be back healthy by then. He said VanVleet, who is hampered by a knee injury, will not play the remaining 10 games. Anunoby (broken finger) has not played since February 16. He practiced Wednesday, but Nurse said he was unlikely to play Thursday. He would like to see him in five games before the playoffs start.
Neither Malachi Flynn (hamstring) nor Gary Trent Jr. (toe) practiced, although Nurse said Trent’s x-rays were negative.
“So that turned out to be better news than maybe we thought,” Nurse said. “It’s still very, very painful.”
Pascal Siakam and Barnes largely maintained the fort. Siakam is averaging 22 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists for Toronto, while Barnes is averaging 17.7 points over the past 10 games.
Siakam said he would like to avoid a play-in scenario.
“Obviously why do you want to play another game instead of just being in the playoffs? Just win every game and climb as much as you can,” he said.
He hopes having a crowd of fans at Scotiabank Arena, which reopened to full capacity on March 1, will help him.
“I think we absolutely have to use our fans and (their) energy and use that as an advantage, we have to because again playoff time is something super important,” he said. Siakam said.
Precious Achiuwa was asked if the pivotal moment of a season was fun.
“It’s always fun to play for me,” he said. “But understanding the importance of these next games coming up, we understand that we really, really need to connect to these last two games, because that’s basically going to tell us where we are at come playoff time, whether it’s fifth place or sixth place or we’re going to be in the play-in.
“We, as much as everyone else, are trying to avoid this game play, so we’re going to be a lot more locked in, a lot more focused. Put yourself in a better position come playoff time.
Thursday’s game is the first of four straight home games. The Raptors host Indiana on Saturday, Boston on Monday and Minnesota on Wednesday.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 23, 2022.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION