Imagine four months from now, you turn on your TV — or your slightly delayed stream — and hear Mike Breen’s sonorous voice bellow out the fateful words before Kendrick Lamar’s latest track plays you to commercials.
“The Houston Rockets, the Toronto Raptors. It’s the NBA Finals on ABC, coming up next!”
No, the Cavs and the Warriors did not get disqualified in the playoffs, and this isn’t an alternate reality where Drake gets to decide the Finals participants. If you look at the NBA standings as we head into the All-Star break, and, for example, FiveThirtyEight’s playoff projections, the two teams at the top are the Rockets and Raptors (on first try, my mind instinctively typed Warriors here without thinking. Sorry, Canada!).
Houston has won 10 in a row and is on pace to win 63 games — the most in franchise history. Toronto has won seven in a row and is on pace to win 59 games — also the most in franchise history. Golden State holds a better winning percentage than Toronto does, but the Raptors’ point differential (plus-8.5) and the Rockets’ (plus-8.7) both top the defending champs’. It’s a match made in basketball-nerd heaven.
Think of the possibilities. Think of the intrigue (or lack thereof), and imagine the permutations. Imagine how James Harden will fare against a top-five defense, or how the Raptors’ youth will fare against the Rockets’ depth. Imagine how Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry will match up, how Serge Ibaka will see a younger, better version of himself in Clint Capela, and how Dwane Casey will try to both stop Mike D’Antoni’s scheme and beat him with a 3-point revolution of Toronto’s own.
Both teams are the cream of the NBA crop right now. Both are top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The Raptors are fourth in both metrics, and the Rockets are second in offense and ninth in defense. And while the Warriors have looked lackadaisical, in need of experiments like player coaching (albeit at a 62-win pace, still), Houston and Toronto have so far looked more the part of teams with both the talent and the motivation to make a deep playoff run.
With Harden, Paul, and Capela on the floor, the Rockets have gone 28–1 this season. How well Harden and Paul have fit together has been an underrated part of their success —remember when “there’s only one ball” was a talking point? — but the true driving force behind the team’s machine-mode execution has been Harden, who is the runaway MVP favorite. The 28-year-old guard is leading the league in scoring with 31.3 points per game and averaging nine assists and 5.1 rebounds per contest. He’s shooting better from both the field and from 3 than he was last season, and he’s turning the ball over less.
The impressive roster Daryl Morey has built around Harden is important — Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, and even Gerald Green have all been more than serviceable — but it all begins and ends with Harden, whose über-efficiency is allowing him to carry the team without hoarding all of the shots and minutes. Good thing there aren’t a bunch of triple-doubles in the way of his trophy this season.
In the North, the Raptors have flipped the switch. They’re thriving, in part, by emulating the Rockets’ (and Warriors’) own style. Toronto has gone from taking 24 3s per game last season to taking 32 this year, a mark that puts the team in the top five for that stat —alongside the Rockets, who have shot a ridiculous 43 3s per game. The Raptors aren’t shooting lights-out from beyond the arc as a team (35.7 percent), but during their active winning streak, they’ve raised that percentage to 39.
Toronto’s schematic change isn’t its main attraction as a contender. Nor is it that DeMar DeRozan is in the middle of another All-Star season, that rookie OG Anunoby has been a revelation, or even that Kyle Lowry has been more productive in the first two months of 2018 than he was from October to December. It’s the bench. The Raptors have the best bench in basketball in terms of net rating; it’s better than that of the starters themselves. This success with the backup crew has been fueled by 30-year-old C.J. Miles and 23-year-old Fred VanVleet. Miles and VanVleet (and Lowry) are all hovering around 40 percent from 3, while the length of players like Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright has fueled the bench defense, which is tops in the league. The Raptors aren’t just for real. They’re better and deeper than they’ve ever been.
Even if you’ve read through everything above and gone through the stats, as well as watched the games where both of these teams have thrived, I don’t expect you to think either team could beat the Warriors in the playoffs (or the Cavs and Celtics, in Toronto’s case), or that Golden State won’t easily win it all. That’s the futility in this exercise. Even if, on paper, the Warriors look beatable (Houston has topped them twice this season!), it’s a fool’s errand to doubt a team with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. There’s little to no room for other possibilities, only Golden State’s inevitability. But as we head into the All-Star break, the Raptors and the Rockets have at least given us something to think about.