For the past three years, the NBA Finals has featured the same teams looking to take home the season’s most coveted prize—the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have done this dance before as they took turns claiming the championship as if it was something to be passed around between them alone.
“It’s yours this year, then it’s mine next year, then you can have it back the year after that, ok?” Such has been the narrative of the Cavs vs. Warriors Finals from 2015 to 2017.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, that’s how things looked to be shaping up early this year.
But then, the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets started winning the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively. It helped that the Cavs are such a mess right now and the Warriors started losing games without Stephen Curry, but the Raptors and the Rockets grabbed hold of the top of their conferences by winning consistently and playing great basketball throughout the year.
If there are any teams out there that can upset the established order it’s the Raptors and the Rockets. Either or both of these teams can stop the stranglehold that the reigning conference champions have on the entire league’s collective necks.
Given the right circumstances, which of the two has a better shot at preventing Cavs vs. Warriors Part 4?
The Raptors were the first team to clinch a playoff berth in the NBA this season. They have been playing great basketball with a new offense designed to move the basketball more and spread the wealth around. Coach Dwane Casey ditched the all-too-common isolation plays that have stalled the team’s offense in favor of a more free-wheeling style inspired by the Warriors and the Rockets.
More importantly, DeMar DeRozan has been unleashed.
In a piece written by ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, the story was told of how DeRozan was summoned by the front office to urge him to take more three-pointers earlier this season. He worked on it in the summer but it was high time that he featured it in his arsenal in the coming games. It was supposed to open up more opportunities for the others while keeping him fresh from all the banging inside when he drives to the hoop.
DeRozan promptly responded with a 3-of-4 three-point shooting one night and a 6-of-9 shooting the next.
This was a brand new DeMar DeRozan and, consequently, a brand new Raptors team.
“We’ve been through the heartaches and the letdowns,” DeRozan said. “This time, with this new approach, we feel comfortable.”
The Cavs are always considered a threat to win the title as long as LeBron James is playing. No matter who had the better record in previous seasons, James was able to will his team to victory in the playoffs and bring the Cavs to the Finals for three consecutive years. The Raptors should know. He eliminated them in the playoffs more than once.
But this year, the Cavs look more vulnerable than they have ever been. They are appalling on defense and have been near the bottom of the league in defensive rating for months.
The Raptors’ offense can easily exploit this to their advantage as evidenced by their 133-99 devastation of the Cavs in January.
The playoffs may eventually show us the Cavs’ true colors as a championship contender but they have developed some bad habits on defense, something that will be hard to overcome with just the flip of a switch.
The Raptors have the best chance of anyone at dethroning the Cavs as Eastern Conference champs in this year’s playoffs. It’s time for them to show that they deserve it.
The Rockets have been hanging around the Western Conference party but never really engaged the crowd until last year. But last year ended dismally for Houston with James Harden having one of the worst playoff performances by an MVP candidate in recent memory.
This season, Harden has put that awful performance behind him, playing like an MVP once again and showing everyone that he’s a cut above everyone else. His 60-point triple-double against the Orlando Magic last January is a microcosm of how good Harden has been this season and he may well lead the Rockets past the Warriors when the opportunity arises.
The addition of Chris Paul has helped him carry the load in facilitating the offense and vice versa.
Paul wasn’t supposed to play well with Harden. It was supposed to be a disaster pairing him with another ball dominant guard. But the reverse happened as Paul complemented Harden well from the get-go. Whoever said that they saw this coming is probably lying.
The Rockets currently own the best record in the NBA and are poised to have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. But they have to finish the season strong to ensure that. Even so, these Rockets are not about the regular season.
“We know with us that everything is about building for the playoffs,” Chris Paul told ESPN via Tim McMahon. “All this stuff is what it is. It’s part of the process. We know what really matters for us.”
What matters most for them is going to the Finals and winning a championship but they know that all roads lead to Golden State. If the Rockets want to reach their desired destination, they will have to beat the Warriors in a seven-game series.
They have an offense that has flowed more smoothly, improving every year for the past four years and their defense is in the top 10 in the league, a necessary component for champion teams.
If the regular season has any bearing at all in determining the outcome of this year’s potential match-up between the Rockets and Warriors, the former has proven that they can win. For the Warriors who have been through these battles before, a win in the regular season against them has no bearing when the postseason arrives.
But for the Rockets, winning twice against the Warriors gives them the confidence that they can win in the postseason against the West’s biggest bully.
Raptors or Rockets?
Between the two teams, it’s the Raptors who have a better shot at getting to the Finals than the Rockets do. Aside from featuring a new offense and an improved defense, they have the luxury of seeing the Cavaliers stumble defensively and consequently lose games regularly.
Unless the Cavs find their defensive identity in the playoffs, the East belongs to the Raptors.
As for the Rockets, they have a tougher road ahead of them as the Warriors have only slightly fallen off of their winning ways in season’s past. They are no longer as concerned with winning so many games and exhausting their starters in the process. Health and consistency are their main concerns, making this year’s possible playoffs match-up with the Rockets a toss-up.
Don’t be surprised to see both the Raptors and Rockets facing off against one another in the Finals this year. With injuries and another year of teams being able to learn the Cavs and Warriors’ ways, it’s more possible now than ever.