The Eastern Conference playoff race is so bunched up that the result of one game could change a team’s fortunes.
So a 116-109 road win over Washington on Saturday did much for the Toronto Raptors, who are sitting in the middle of the play-in bracket with 17 games left in the regular season.
Toronto has won nine of its last 12 games and has three games left on a tough five-game road trip that started with two games against the Wizards. The competition doesn’t get easier with a trip to Denver to face the Nuggets on Monday night.
The Raptors bring some inside knowledge with them to face the best home team in the NBA. They signed Will Barton, who spent seven seasons with Denver before being traded to Washington over the summer.
He was bought out by the Wizards, signed with Toronto on Tuesday and has played sparingly in his first three games with his new team.
“There were some other teams that I was considering, I just felt like it was a good opportunity,” Barton said. “This is a good team. I feel like I can come in, bring some leadership, some versatility, some bench playmaking and scoring and a lot of energy.”
The Raptors have struggled away from home this season but have played better of late on the road. They are 4-2 in their last six, including a win at Memphis last month.
Their most recent game took overtime to secure, which doesn’t help the legs when playing in the thin air — and against a team that has lost once at home since Dec. 6 and is looking to strengthen its hold on the top seed in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets have won three in a row and seven of their last eight and are coming off a 113-97 win against the Grizzlies that increased their lead over Memphis to six games.
Denver has embraced being the top team in the West, which would mean homecourt advantage through the first three rounds. The Nuggets have never advanced past the conference finals since joining the NBA and a 29-4 record at Ball Arena shows how tough they are to beat there.
The Grizzlies tried to get physical with Denver on Friday night to disrupt the high-scoring offense but it didn’t slow them down; the Nuggets just played physical in response.
“We’re at home and we’re the No. 1 team,” Jamal Murray said. “I think we just have to do that and make them play with our physicality.”
It also helps when Nikola Jokic has a triple-double, which he has reached in four of the last five games and 25 times this year. Denver is unbeaten this year when he hits that mark.
Jokic is averaging a triple-double for the year and it has put him in position to win league MVP honors for the third straight year.
The Nuggets are relatively healthy, with Zeke Nnaji being the only rotation player not available. He is dealing with a right shoulder injury that the team announced Saturday would be reevaluated in two weeks.
–Field Level Media