Photo By: Ryan from Unsplash

The Raptors continued their western swing last week by rolling into L.A. and smushing the Lakers in a game that was really won in the first quarter — the Raptors outscored them 33-12, and the Lakers didn’t try. It truly was one of my favourite games of the year; there’s nothing better than seeing the Lakers at their worst, it’s phenomenal entertainment. 

They came back the next night and narrowly beat a Clippers team who played incredibly hard despite missing their best players, though perhaps it’s an overcorrection on my end after seeing the Lakers in fourth-quarter intramural mode the night before.

Friday night’s game saw the Lakers once more, this time back home in Toronto, and, by god, LeBron James stole one from the Raptors. That one should’ve been wrapped up long ago, but LeBron single handedly hit crazy shot after crazy shot to keep them in it, and then Russell Westbrook of all people sent it into overtime with a three after hitting nothing but backboard the play before. Ugh. The dumb loss overshadowed yet another outstanding Scottie Barnes game, who had 31 and 17, both career highs, and was the fulcrum of the Raptors offence in the second half.

With only a dozen or so games left to go in the season, and the bottom half of the playoff picture in the East very congested, a loss like that stings a bit more. Miami, Milwaukee, Philly, and Boston look like locks for the top four in some order, while Chicago, Cleveland, and Toronto are all separated by one game in that 5-7 range. One of those three will have to play in the FanDuel Money Grab Play-In Game sponsored by DraftKings presented by Bet99, and the Raptors look to be the favourites. Now, they do still have one game left against both Chicago and Cleveland, so they’re going to have to beat the Cavs if they realistically want to avoid the play-in game. 

It would be absolutely glorious if the play-in game ends up being Brooklyn @ Toronto — meaning that Kyrie Irving wouldn’t be allowed to play as he is famously unvaccinated and thus can’t play in Canada. As much as we all love a nice bowl o’ karma, Kevin Durant is an all-time Raptor killer and I have no doubt in my mind he’d drop 52 on some ridiculous 19-26 shooting line or something, so I think I’d prefer they just surpass Cleveland and finish in that nice cozy sixth seed. Now a full-fledged seven-game series between the Nets and Raptors would be even more hilarious, as Irving wouldn’t be allowed to play at all because of Canada and New York state’s workplace vaccine mandates.

If you couldn’t tell by that somewhat overdramatized play-in joke above, or if you’ve read any of my ‘expanded playoff in baseball’ thoughts, I don’t love the play-in game! The concept is actually a good one; I very much like the fact it entices teams like Chicago/Cleveland/Toronto/Brooklyn to not just coast down the stretch but gives them something to play for, a top-six seed. In reality though, there are just too many horrendous teams that don’t deserve a chance at the playoffs. It’s actually not bad at all in the East — Atlanta and Charlotte are currently the 9/10 seeds at 35-35, but it’s just brutal in the West. The Lakers and Pelicans, who occupy the West’s 9/10 seeds, are 10 and 12 games under .500! 

The Pelicans have the ninth worst record in the whole league, and they still have a chance at making the playoffs? I think the league should (but never will, re: money) do something similar to what they did in the 2020 Bubble when they first tried this out; have a certain threshold that the 9/10 seeds need to meet in order to have a play-in game. Whether it’s simply a win total (like 40 wins), or you have to be within X games of the 7/8 seeds, I’m not sure which is better, but some stipulation that ensures bad teams like this year’s New Orleans team doesn’t make the play-in would be nice.

Even the Timberwolves, who are… 41-30? Really? Huh. Anyways, the seven-seeded T-Wolves are seven games up in the loss column on the eight-seed Clippers, but would still have to go through the play-in game despite their records being nowhere near each other.

As the season winds down, playoff and play-in races aren’t the only races heating up; award season is near, so be on the lookout for some major award picks as well as our All-NBA selections for my final two issues of SIDELINES.