Monday, December 25, 2017

Don’t Overlook the Spurs and Raptors

By Ross Lancaster

The Christmas Day showcase of games in the NBA makes for an almost perfect dividing line as a six-month, 82-game regular season moves from its opening stages to the midseason.

It's not so deep into the season where teams can't make pushes up the standings or into the playoff race, but it's also a time where enough games have been played that the teams occupying the top spots in the standings, barring injury, are likely to stay up there.

For this season, even with only about 40 percent of regular season games played, there's a sense that both conferences have collision course written all over them — Warriors/Rockets in the West, Celtics/Cavs in the East, with the Warriors and Cavs prohibitively favored to meet in the NBA Finals for a fourth year running.

Below those top two teams in each conference, there's quality, but a lack of separation from third place on down to ninth or 10th, making for a fun final 45-50 games of playoff jockeying, but possibly a lack of drama in the first two playoff rounds.

The problem is, I'm not sure if that's the case at all, and I owe it to each conference's "third" team, the Raptors in the East and the Spurs in the West.

(As of the time I'm writing this on Dec. 23, the Raptors are actually 2nd in the East, but let's be honest: due to getting trounced by Cleveland last year in the playoffs and the Cavs' 19-2 burst after starting 5-7 in November, Toronto is a distant third in the pecking order.)

In both cases, the third team in each conference has won two-thirds of its games or more, which is about 55-to-60 win pace — usually the marker of an elite regular season. And yet, the perception seems to be that each team is closer to the bottom playoff seeds than the top.

Let's start with the Spurs, who somehow welcomed Kawhi Leonard back for his first minutes of the season on Dec. 12 at Dallas sitting at 19-8.

Of course, no one was really surprised by that because this is Gregg Popovich's Spurs were talking about. Yet, massive acclaim has to be given to LaMarcus Aldridge for his season thus far, shouldering the offensive load and being the de-facto anchor of the defense with Leonard out.

Aldridge's improvement on 2016-17 is an extremely encouraging indicator of San Antonio's chances of staying third and above the standings logjam in the West, where fourth and ninth are separated by just 4.5 games.

That's because it seems unlikely that Leonard is going to be back to the two-way beast that finished third in MVP voting last year until around the All-Star Break or so. In just four games back, Kawhi is averaging only about half of the minutes he did in his last two seasons and is regularly being held out of games for rest.

However, Kyle Anderson has shown that he's an extremely worthy NBA starter in the games Leonard can't go, shooting 52 percent from the floor and defending especially well on a Spurs team that's No. 2 in the NBA in defensive rating. There's also Rudy Gay, who as many predicted before the season, is having his most efficient NBA season while also having the fewest minutes and shots of his career off the bench for San Antonio in a stretch-four role.

Even as Houston and Golden State light up the league with historically great offenses, it's not too hard to see a playoff scenario this spring where San Antonio and Houston are matched up again before the conference finals, and Popovich again gets the better of Mike D'Antoni.

For the other forgotten excellent team this season, it's a bit harder to make that leap of faith into mid-May for the Raptors, but Toronto has only had one of seven games against Cleveland and Boston so far this season.

Much was made before the season about the Raptors modernizing their offense to play faster and shoot more threes. There's no doubt those things have helped the Raptors, who now play the 10th fastest in the league after six straight seasons in the 20s under Dwane Casey and take the seventh-most three-pointers for an offense that ranks fourth in the NBA.

However, the defense has also improved, from 11th the past two seasons to sixth so far this year.

Additionally, where the Raptors felt like a team that didn't know how to play well together after trading for Serge Ibaka close to last year's deadline, this year's team has figured it out. In particular, lineups with both Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas were middling at best and a disaster at worst last season, and now each big man starts successfully for Toronto.

Also, each of the Raptors' top four players on offense (DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Ibaka, Valanciunas) has seen their shot totals go down from 2016-17 as the offense has emphasized ball movement more. The last player in the Raptors' regular starting five, rookie OG Anunoby, has been stellar, shooting 45.6 percent from three.

Through each team playing at least 30 games, the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, and Cavs are the class of the league. But if one or more of those teams slips up big or suffers a season-changing injury, the Spurs or Raptors would make for a worthy, under-appreciated contender.

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