There was a playoff atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night as the Toronto Raptors hosted the visiting Houston Rockets.
The Rockets brought with them their NBA-best 17 game winning streak to Toronto. The Raptors meanwhile were carrying with them their own six game winning streak into the match-up. The Rockets had the NBA’s best record, just half a game ahead of the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Raptors were two games up the Boston Celtics on top of the Eastern Conference. It was a battle of unlikely conference leaders, considering we began this season with the anticipation of a fourth installment of the Warriors-Cavs rivalry in the Finals.
Before the current season began, the Warriors had the best odds to repeat as NBA champions. The Dubs opened at 5/8 and were followed by their arch nemesis Cavaliers who were at 5/2. The rest of the pack were a little bit too far from the pair. The Boston Celtics were third at 15/1, the San Antonio Spurs were 10/1, the Houston Rockets were 30/1, the Washington Wizards at 30/1, Los Angeles Clippers 30/1. To round up the Top 10, three teams had similar 60/1 chances to win the title. These were the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors.
Different View From The Top
Fast forward to March 9, 2018 and the betting odds still have it correctly. Well, not 100% though in terms of ranking based on the current NBA team standings. The odds are correct in the fact that the 10 teams currently hold playoff spots with just over a month left to go before the postseason officially begins. But if we take a look at the top of the mountain, we see unfamiliar faces and teams that only a few ( except perhaps themselves ) believed they would be contending for the NBA title at this stage of the season.
Back when the opening odds were released, they were done so under the assumption that every team had its roster at full strength. But we know that seldom happens. We know that as every season progresses, injuries happen, trades happen and every now and then, we see some surprises at the end of the season. This season though has had plenty of twists of fates and surprises.
After trading Kyrie Irving in the offseason, the Cavs were still expected to be the top dogs of the East. And why not? They still added the likes of Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas to their championship line-up. Sure, Thomas would start the season on the injured list. But a healthy Rose was supposed to hold the fort until IT returned. That did not happen.
At the trade deadline, the Cavs overhauled their line-up. With new faces like Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, George Hill and Rodney Hood, the Cavs have a new-look team. But aside from the growing pains of learning to play with each other on the fly, the Cavs are currently without Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson who are nursing injuries. The result? Cleveland is free falling at 38-27. They are still #3 in the East but are just 3.5 games from falling to the 8th seed, something that we never expected at the start of the season.
The Boston Celtics were expected to be the third wheel to the Dubs and Cavs pairing. But tragedy struck on opening night when they lost Gordon Hayward to a season ending injury. Brad Stevens has to be lauded for keeping Boston among the elites. Early in the season, the Celtics were the top team in the East. But right now, they’ve fallen behind by 2.5 games at #2.
They can still catch up, no question about that. But earlier this week, the Celtics lost Jaylen Brown indefinitely, after the sophomore forward suffered a bad fall after converting on a dunk. While Brown avoided any serious damage, he is out on a concussion protocol. That may not take too long. But the Celtics are surely running out of games to catch up with the East leaders. Brown by the way, has stepped up big this season, in place of the injured Hayward. Now he’s hurt too and that’s bad news for the Celtics.
Spurs Missing Kawhi
Big Things were also expected of the San Antonio Spurs. But lo and behold, Kawhi Leonard’s quad injury has lingered more than anyone has expected. Leonard has been cleared by the doctors to play but the former Finals MVP has chosen not to join the team’s active roster to fully heal his injury.
Leonard attempted a comeback earlier this season but it lasted just nine games. Now nobody knows if he’ll suit up again this season, regular season or playoffs. Leonard has stated his desire to return. But Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich has said that he isn’t expecting his superstar to return this season and that he has prepared his team to play without him the rest of the way. San Antonio currently sits at #5 in the West but are just 1.5 games ahead of the 8-10 seeds.
The Los Angeles Clippers lost Chris Paul to the Rockets during the offseason. Patrick Beverely, the main piece of the CP3 trade, was lost to a season ending knee injury in November. The struggling Clippers created a stir when they traded superstar Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons at the trade deadline.
Avery Bradley, the rising two-way guard they got from the Griffin deal, is out indefinitely with a lower abdominal injury. Currently, the Clippers are at 8th place in the West but they are tied with the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets. Should the inconsistent Clippers suddenly blow cold, especially with a streak shooting Lou Williams leading them, they could easily be out of a playoff spot when the season is over.
Wolves Losing Steam
Another early favorite that is losing steam right now are the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota was supposed to be one of the Top teams in the West after acquiring Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls during the offseason. But like many key players in other teams, Butler is out of commission.
Butler suffered a torn meniscus late in February and is expected to be out for 4-6 weeks. There is still a chance that Butler can return, regardless of what shape, but most probably in the playoffs. The problem is, the Wolves are currently crashing down without him. At #6 as of March 9th, they are just 1.5 games ahead of the 8-10th seeds. Minnesota has lost six of its last 10 games and could be worse. Sure, Butler can still come back but that is if the Wolves make the playoffs.
Nothing Wrong With Warriors
As for everybody’s perennial pre-season favorite, there’s nothing wrong with the Golden State Warriors really. And as head coach Steve Kerr said, they aren’t concerned with the Rockets taking over as the #1 team in the Western Conference. Not only are the Warriors just half a game behind the Rockets ( as of March 9, 2018 ), they also are too experienced to worry about home court advantage.
But the thing about the Warriors isn’t their ability to beat the Rockets ( or any team for that matter ). Like most of the pre-season favorites, the worry is about their health. No, the team hasn’t lost a player to a serious injury.
But right now, Stephen Curry is out with an ankle sprain. That’s just a normal minor injury, you would say. But this isn’t the first time that Curry has hurt his ankle this season. And if you know your history, you have to feel some worry because Curry’s had a history of ankle injuries.
Threats Have Emerged
To prove out case, Golden State is 8-2 in their last 10 games. So they’re still pretty much the super team that we know they are. But while the Warriors have remained as deadly, there are teams in the West that have emerged as possible threats to the Warriors. Count the Houston Rockets as one and perhaps the top challenger to the Dubs’ reign out West.
But aside from the Rockets, the Portland Trail Blazers and the New Orleans Pelicans have emerged as solid contenders. The Blazers have won 9 games in a row ( as of March 9, 2018 ) while the Pelicans are 9-1 in their last 10 games. Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis have stepped up after the All-Star break for the Blazers and Pelicans, respectively. With both playing at an MVP level these days, beating the Blazers and Pelicans won’t be any easy.
Take Friday’s game for example. The Warriors played minus Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala. The Blazers sweet shooting backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum combined for 58 points and Portland beat Golden State 125-108. Despite playing without Steph Curry, they still had another MVP in Kevin Durant. They still had Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Blazers were just a step better that even with Curry, Portland would probably still have won. Sure, you can argue that the Dubs played on back to back nights but the point is, Portland now is as serious a threat as the Rockets.
Game Lived Up To Hype
On Friday night, we didn’t just see the Blazers beat the Warriors. We also saw the Clippers dismantle the Cavaliers. And out North, we saw the Toronto Raptors play the Houston Rockets in one of the best games of the season so far. Air Canada Centre was packed to the rafters and the crowd chanted ‘Let’s go Raptors’ right from the opening tip.
The game lived up to the hype. Toronto raced to an early lead behind DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. But as expected, the Rockets made a run behind MVP leader James Harden. Harden’s three pointer tied the game with two minutes left. From there, it was a playoff type atmosphere where two great offensive teams made one impressive defensive stand after another. DeRozan hit the big basket in the end. Harden missed the potential game tying three pointer at the buzzer. The Raptors won 108-105. Many said the game could have been the preview of the 2018 NBA Finals. And they may be correct.
Some have begun to put the Rockets over the Warriors in terms of title favorites. And why not, Houston has lost just once in the last 18 games and the Rockets aren’t showing any signs of slowing down, albeit losing to the Raptors on Friday night in Toronto. The Rockets own the Warriors this season, winning the season series 2-1. Sure, regular season is entirely different from the postseason and the Warriors have all the playoff experience in the world. But with the way the Rockets are currently playing, you can’t be so sure, even if you are the Warriors.
Out East, the Toronto Raptors have surprised many experts. Boston and Cleveland were supposed to battle neck to neck for the East title. But the Raptors have proven their worth. Behind a new look offense and a career best season from DeMar DeRozan, they have taken the driver’s seat in the East. And with the way things are going right now, they don’t look like they’re going to yield it soon.
Toronto still has plenty of prove in the playoffs, especially winning Game 1’s. They have never been in the NBA Finals in franchise history. Their best finish was a 2-4 loss to the Cavs in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. But if they finish at #1 in the East, that could be good for them.
The Raptors have the NBA’s best home record at 28-5. And judging from Friday’s win over the Rockets, they would be tough to beat at home in the playoffs with an entire country behind them. Not to mention, ‘sixth man’ Drake who provided some of the dramatics in the end game. Getting to the Finals may be looking too far ahead but given how good the Raptors are, you can’t just say they don’t have the experience to get there.
A Refreshing Alternative
A Finals match-up between the Rockets and Raptors would also feature a duel between young superstars James Harden and DeMar DeRozan. Both know each other very well, having played against each other as kids. They were also both born in Los Angeles two weeks apart in August 1989. Wouldn’t that be an excellent alternative to a LeBron vs Steph rivalry?
The expectation that Golden State will face Cleveland in the 2018 NBA Finals is fast fading, thanks in part to the fall of the Cavs in the East. The Warriors are still pretty much the main guys in the West but given the rise of the Rockets, Blazers and Pelicans, who knows what will happen. If you’ve been following it closely, there is a different feel to the current NBA season.
Talking about a Rockets vs Raptors Finals showdown is pretty much premature. But should that happen, it will be a new, exciting and refreshing alternative to the monotonous NBA Finals we’ve witnessed the last three years. Who wouldn’t want that?
Subscribe to Sport.ONE
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox