Raptors clinch playoff berth ahead of showdown with Rockets

For the first time in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors have secured a playoff spot before anyone else. The Raptors defeated the Detroit Pistons 121-119 in overtime on Wednesday, winning their sixth straight and improving their lead atop the Eastern Conference to 2.5 games. The only team hotter than Toronto right now would be the West-leading Houston Rockets, who bring their 17-game winning streak to Toronto on Friday for a showdown between conference leaders.

DeMar DeRozan was the star of Wednesday’s Raptors win, scoring 42 points and topping the highlight reels with a monster dunk in the final minute of regulation. Kyle Lowry added 15 points, 15 assists, and 7 rebounds, Jonas Valanciunas finished with 14 points and 11 boards, and Fred VanVleet hit the game-winning shot on a feed from DeRozan in the dying seconds of overtime. Toronto recovered from a disappointing effort in the second quarter by scoring 40 points in the third, turning the game around on Blake Griffin and the Pistons, who are fighting for their playoff lives in ninth place.

Houston also won on Wednesday, taking down the Milwaukee Bucks in comfortable fashion. The Rockets built their lead in the first half before cruising to a 110-99 victory - aside from one rough patch in the third quarter where they didn’t score for more than three minutes and their lead dwindled to four points. Led by MVP frontrunner James Harden, Houston hasn’t lost in over a month, and this win streak is the team’s second of the season to last at least 14 games. While the defending champion Golden State Warriors are keeping pace with the Rockets, the rest of the West has fallen well behind, making a top-two finish for Houston all but a certainty.

Toronto defeated the Rockets when the two teams met in Houston earlier this season, but that Rockets team was without Chris Paul, who is Houston’s second-best player when healthy. The Rockets are also enjoying a breakout season from big man Clint Capela, who is averaging 14.3 points and 11 rebounds. Seven different players are averaging double figures in scoring for Houston, making it the most well-balanced offense in the league. The Raptors’ best hope against the Rockets on Friday would appear to be home court advantage, as Toronto is a league-best 27-5 at home.

Friday’s matchup will showcase the two teams with the best chances to dethrone their respective defending conference champions - the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East and the Warriors in the West - and end their three-year stranglehold on the NBA Finals. A Houston-Toronto championship series doesn’t seem far-fetched with the way both teams are playing down the stretch, and Friday should provide a tantalizing glimpse of that possible playoff future.