Jonathan Soveta 2h ago
John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports
The two sides produced a classic on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre that, in truth, had no business developing into one at the half: Golden State thrashed Toronto 81-54 through the first two quarters, yet the Raptors somehow nearly pulled off the rally to end all rallies, shrinking the deficit to just one before ultimately falling short 127-125.
Saturday’s thriller was a perfect look into why these two sides are the ideal matchup in the 2018 NBA Finals, and neutral fans should rejoice if it happens.
They produce instant classics nearly every time
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The Raptors have now failed to beat the Warriors in eight consecutive tries, with their last victory over the defending champs coming back on March 2, 2014.
Even those losses have been exciting, though.
Of the past six contests between the two teams (including tonight), five of them ended within a two-possession difference. Even the outlier, a 10-point loss on Dec. 28, 2016 in Golden State, had the Oracle Arena on its feet in the final few minutes. With the Air Canada Center crowd building its own reputation over the last few years as one of the fiercest fan bases in the NBA (just ask retired Raptor killer Paul Pierce), imagine the exchange of thunderous home support over the best-case scenario of a seven-game series.
But, perhaps most importantly: Imagine, if you will, Drake losing his mind courtside for an entire seven games as each contest comes down to the final few plays.
Now that’s fun.
Rest of the East is more of the same or clearly lagging
Any team’s path to the NBA Finals, of course, has one giant road block in its way in LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. That road block, however, doesn’t seem as impenetrable this time around.
In fact, someone even brutally honestly described the Cavs as “fragile.” (Hint: It was LeBron).
RIght now, the Cavaliers are not the Cavaliers. The Raptors memorably ripped them apart on Thursday – without both the injured Kyle Lowry and suspended Serge Ibaka – and they’re an absolute debacle defensively. If they somehow trip themselves into the Finals in June, not only would it be a fourth straight finale between Cleveland and Golden State, but the Cavaliers likely won’t even last the five games they did in 2017.
And with respect to the rest of the Eastern Conference, no other team would, either – minus one.
The Boston Celtics are the only other team in the East who might stand a chance at the juggernaut that is the Warriors, but Kyrie Irving versus Stephen Curry: The Trilogy is another June storyline that some fans have become too familiar with in recent years. Is that enough to dissuade the average NBA fan? Maybe, maybe not, but there’s another argument for the Raptors being the better representative.
It’s best vs. best
Yes, the Celtics are still hovering 3.5 games above the Raptors in the table, though the Raptors also have three games in hand on Boston thanks to the Celtics’ front-loaded schedule due to their trip to London this week.
And, the advanced metrics suggest there stands a very good chance the Raptors will usurp the Celtics for the top spot by the end of the regular season.
Toronto and Golden State are the only two teams in the entire league that rank in the top five of both offensive and defensive rating. The Raptors’ 7.6 net rating is also the third-best mark in the NBA – a meager 0.1 behind the Houston Rockets and a whole 2.2 points above the Celtics in fourth. Boston is currently the only team in the league that allows less than 100 points per 100 possessions (99.6), though Toronto isn’t far behind (103.2). To top it off, teh Raptors’ 110.9 offensive rating dwarfs the Celtics’ league-average mark of 105.0.
That logic is also why the Warriors should be expected to hold their top spot in the West over the Rockets down the stretch, despite, much like the Celtics, holding a 3.5-game lead in the conference with four more games played.
The data suggests it’s a dream finale. Fans can only hope it happens.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)