The Raptors and Warriors Are Treating Us to an Early NBA Finals Preview
The marquee Toronto-Golden State matchup is a taste of what could very likely be the last two teams standing in June.
Photos by John G. Mabanglo/EPA-EFE and Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song" is a seven-minute ballad that was made because George Harrison, the lead guitarist for The Beatles, told the British band that their problem was they never do ballads.
It was a direct challenge issued by a member of the legendary band and left fellow guitarist Jimmy Page desperate to accept. The song is special in its own unique way, so much so that it has two variations of tuning, one for in-studio and another when performing live. Part of why there's an adjustment to the live tuning is because it allows the band to go to the standard tuning for "Stairway to Heaven" with the change of just two strings, as opposed to the in-studio tuning that would require all six to be changed.
In sports, the best teams issue challenges to those below them all the time. Some are fine with where they are, competing at their own level and learning at their own pace. Others are a bit feistier, like Page, looking to get in on the action and have a little fun for themselves.
Over the past two seasons, especially, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has been presented with two major challenges from someone who may be the sport's best player of all time. The first was when LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers—the team that battled a Warriors squad that may go down as the greatest of all when their run is done—outscored the Raptors by 102 points from beyond the arc over an unceremonious four-game sweep. Ujiri demanded a culture change, and the results were dramatic. The Raptors passed more than they ever did, shot more threes than ever, and scored more efficiently than any time before.
Still, James said it wasn't good enough. He once again challenged Toronto with a sweep, forcing Ujiri to dig deeper. If the 2017 offseason was about playing catch-up, 2018 was about finding truly elite status. For all the success the Raptors had a season ago, they were only 24-21 against plus-.500 teams, which was in stark contrast to the Houston Rockets at 37-12 and the Warriors at 25-8 when Steph Curry played. The Raptors' defense against the league's best offenses was an abomination.
Toronto had a roster that was like a guitar with standard tuning. It will get the job done on most nights and handle the regular stuff, but in a league where only the cream of the crop compete for titles, there will always be The Rain Song that one song that forces you to change everything. That's also why they call the NBA a copycat league. When a new team shows a new way of winning and sustains itself over a period of time, at least one team is compelled to make that method work for them and as the sample size of success grows, so does the imitation.
When the Raptors were faced with making a sudden adjustment in the postseason, they couldn't quite do it. Making changes in the comfort of your own studio where you have time is one thing, but in front of a live audience where expectations are highest, there is no time for screwups. You either sink or swim. The Raptors were so rigid with their defensive schemes and so limited in how they could attack offensively that they could never quite find the alternate tuning needed against a generational talent such as James. Frankly, they never quite used the regular season in a manner to figure out if there were meaningful answers in the first place.
Houston embodied the necessity of being able to do so a year ago. The sole purpose of the Rockets' existence in the 2017-18 season was to take down the Warriors. Their defensive schemes were predicated on switching, which would be required against the champs, and their offense relied on putting the ball in the hands of their two best players and trusting them to maximize the mathematics of the shot spectrum.
The results spoke volumes. The Rockets secured home-court advantage throughout the postseason, and when the time came to prove all those habits they practiced had become muscle memory, the proactiveness showed. With two second-half leads in Games 6 and 7, they might have pulled off the ultimate heist had Chris Paul not gotten injured.
Take things for granted and think you can afford to tinker with something that's perfectly tuned and things can quickly fall apart, too. Losing two glue guys in Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has taken its toll on the Rockets, and despite the return of recently retired defensive genius Jeff Bzdelik, Houston is closing out November with a losing record and near the bottom of the West.
Toronto, meanwhile, upgraded its talent level considerably while simultaneously addressing the issues that plagued the team in the past. Playing Serge Ibaka at the five has been a game changer. Not only has it allowed him to go back to his roots by protecting the interior and scoring from the midrange and in the paint, it has allowed Pascal Siakam to start. The ability to switch between Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green has reaped tremendous dividends, and allows the Raptors to change from one song to the next with minimal fuss. Gone are the days of choosing between offense and defense. This is a team that can do both while playing every which way whether it be fast, medium or slow. Any song, any time.
The Raptors have the best record in the NBA one quarter of the way through the season, have been dominant both at home and on the road, have lost one game to the Western Conference going into their potential Finals preview matchup against Golden State, and are beating plus-.500 teams at a greater clip than a season ago. Kyle Lowry leads the league in assists, Leonard has been a top-ten player, and Ibaka is cooking up a magical renaissance season that might deserve its own How Hungry Are You? episode.
Toronto's role players aren't shy, either. Siakam has put himself in the early running for Most Improved Player, Green looks like the difference maker he was for the San Antonio Spurs back during those Finals runs of 2013 and 2014, Jonas Valanciunas is enjoying the most efficient season of his career, and even Fred VanVleet is starting to resemble the player that finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season.
The Raptors are flexing heading into their highly anticipated matchup with the defending champion Warriors and have every right to at the moment, especially with Curry and Draymond Green working their way back to 100 percent. Even without them, the Raptors will still have to contain the All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, who have both been torching teams. The Warriors are still the Warriors, and at the quarter mark of the season this is a good test for Toronto, the Eastern Conference's top team with championship aspirations.
Regular-season wins have counted for little in assessing Toronto's postseason chances in the past, but it's the method that has revealed far more. Toronto has enough three-point threats to counter the Warriors' splash effects and with each game are making a more compelling argument that a Finals appearance isn't nearly as far fetched as it seemed just months ago before the Raptors landed Leonard, made Nick Nurse the new head coach, and became the biggest force they've ever been.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.