First round for Raps could be magical

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:17 AM ET

The best possible playoff scenario seems to be playing out for the Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors likely will face the injury-depleted Washington Wizards in the opening round of the playoffs, which would mean that the long-suffering Toronto club will have an excellent chance of advancing to the second round.

This is the current playoff scenario for the Raptors: They need to win just once in their final three games, or have the Miami Heat suffer one loss, to clinch third in the Eastern Conference and gain home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

The Wizards hold a two-game lead over the New Jersey Nets for sixth place, with three games left for both teams, putting Washington in the driver's seat to finish sixth.

That would match Toronto and Washington in the first round, which is great news for the Raptors, despite what coach Sam Mitchell says about injury-depleted teams being dangerous.

The Wizards are without two of their best players, all-star guard Gilbert Arenas, who is averaging 28.4 points and 6.0 assists per game, and forward Caron Butler, who was enjoying a break-out season, averaging 19.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. Arenas is out long-term with a meniscus tear in his knee and Butler suffered a fractured right hand on April 2.

Whatever team faces Washington in the first round will have an extremely good chance of winning the series. But Mitchell insisted yesterday after practice at the Air Canada Centre that he is not keeping an eye on the Eastern Conference standings.

But his players are. Though they won't say it on the record, the Raptors would much rather face the Wizards than the Nets, who have a losing record, but have a number of star players on the roster, including point guard Jason Kidd and former Raptor Vince Carter, who would love the opportunity to go wild on his former club. The Nets are 7-3 in their past 10 games while the Wizards are 3-7.

"You do have to watch the standings every day," star forward Chris Bosh said. "You can always say it's about what we do, but you still tend to look at the standings."

The key, Bosh said, is winning one more game and clinching home-court advantage, which they could do as early as tonight with a victory over the visiting, and faltering, New York Knicks.

"If we win, then I will take the last two games and cut some guy's minutes," Mitchell said.

If the Raptors hope to wrap it up tonight, they'll have to do it without rookie forward Andrea Bargnani, who missed yesterday's practice because of the flu.

Bargnani had his appendix removed on March 21, and was cleared to play on Friday night against the Detroit Pistons, but has been sidelined with the flu, meaning that he will only have one or two games to get back into playing shape for the playoffs.


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