With the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors looking all but certain to meet up in the 2017 NBA Finals, it’s easy to overlook the two second-seeded teams in the respective conferences.
Although the San Antonio Spurs get a lot of love for their accomplishments without Tim Duncan, the Toronto Raptors are seemingly non-existent. Aside from being conspicuously absent from the league’s Christmas Day lineup, the Raptors are not widely considered to be a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Surprisingly, though, it is the Raptors who enter play on December 27 as the NBA’s top-ranked team in offensive efficiency—not the Warriors, not the Cavaliers and not the Spurs.
Obviously, being a good offensive team in and of itself doesn’t guarantee anything to anyone. Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns know that quite well, as do the Warriors. On Christmas Day, the Cavaliers again proved that battling on the defensive end is the most effective way to win a basketball game. They tightened the clamps on the Warriors and held the club to 5-for-13 shooting over the game’s final nine minutes. It was during that stretch that the Cavs outscored the Warriors, 29-14.
The Raptors happen to be 0-3 against the Cavaliers this season and met the same fate as the Warriors, but the three contests were decided by a total of just 11 points. The Raptors have scored victories over the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz. Through 30 games, they have gone 22-8 and are currently on pace to win 60 games. The million dollar question in all of this, though, is are they a better team than they were last season?
Simply? The Raptors are benefiting from continuity and chemistry. Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are in their fifth season together and the pieces around them—Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll—fit within their system. The club happens to be coming off of the winningest season in franchise history and its first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
What’s most encouraging for the Raptors, though, is that the team has demonstrated that they can win tough road games. Monday night’s 95-91 victory at the Portland Trail Blazers improved the Raptors to 2-0 on their current six-game road trip, but also gave the squad their seventh consecutive road victory—a franchise record. The club enters play on December 27 with an 11-5 home record compared to an 11-3 road record, putting them in rare company as a team that wins more frequently on the road than they do at home.
However, even more impressive is that the Raptors have been able to fly under the radar. A few days after the Cavs scored one of their biggest wins of the season by defeating the Warriors, the Raptors enter play on December 27 trailing them by one game in the standings.
There’s a lot more season to be played, so it’ll be interesting to see where the Raptors end up, and whether they can secure home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs because that’s what they’re playing for.
The Clippers Can’t Seem to Catch a Break
With Blake Griffin and Chris Paul hampered by injuries and the Clippers having lost three straight games and four of their last six, the last thing the franchise needed was more bad news. Unfortunately, some came on Tuesday.
According to accounts from both TMZ Sports and ESPN , DeAndre Jordan was involved in what appears to have been a minor car accident. Jordan seems unscathed, as he was able to travel with the team ahead of Wednesday night’s game in New Orleans against the Pelicans. Still, the recent bout of bad luck that the Clippers seem to be experiencing probably isn’t welcomed. After defeating the Spurs on December 22, the Clippers have suffered three consecutive losses to less than stellar completion—the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Lakers and Denver Nuggets. The three have a combined winning percentage of just 35.4 percent, meaning that, at least in the early going, the Clippers haven’t been able to beat even some of the league’s weaker competition without their two superstars in Paul and Griffin.
The prevailing sentiment as it relates to the Clippers is that—especially with Paul and Griffin potentially becoming free agents this summer—this is their last best shot at winning a championship. The team’s bench had been considered their Achilles’ heel, but those concerns were thought to have been rectified with a seemingly stronger second unit this season.
Now, the reserves in Los Angeles will get an opportunity to prove those thoughts to be correct. For the sake of Doc Rivers and the club’s hopes of holding onto one of the top three seeds out East, let’s hope the Clips can find a way to man the fort until their superstars return.
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