It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.
The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.
The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.
They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.
LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:
“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”
This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.
But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.
LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.
If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.
A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?
Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.
Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”
It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.
A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.
San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.
But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.
First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.
It’s a long way off, but there has been some discussion in the league office — and some momentum built up in some corners — for a play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs. While multiple variations of how this would work are in play, it involves some combination of teams seeded seven to 10 in a few single-elimination (or home-and-home) games to see who gets into the 16-team playoffs. The goal is to keep more teams — and more fan bases — engaged in the playoff chase longer.
“No, no, no,” James said Wednesday. “That’s wack. That’s wack. Why? You got to earn your spot to be in the postseason. No consolation for finishing last. That’s corny. That’s corny. That’s wack. To play for what? What are they playing for?”
So, how do you really feel?
“[Make the playoffs by winning the tournament], even if my record is better than yours? Nah, that’s wack,” James said.
As fans, we love drama and unpredictability — it’s what we love about March Madness, the upsets that ruin our bracket — and a play-in tournament would bring some to the often predictable NBA table.
However, LeBron has a point. Using the Western Conference and the current standings as an example, how excited are fans and the front offices of the Jazz and Nuggets going to be about an extra game or two for the right to get smacked down by Houston in the first round? Or for the Timberwolves to maybe be out after a game where they lose to the Clippers in a play-in, rather than getting to take on Golden State? Will this really sell well?
The only way this gets backing of most players and the union is if it could help shorten the season — if television and other revenue from these games allowed the 82 game season to drop to 72 (or whatever) and keep the money the same, then players would listen. However, that much money seems unlikely.
Maybe a mid-season NBA Tournament held in one city could generate the needed revenue to shorten the season. Maybe. But that seems more likely than a play-in.
I can’t imagine what this is like.
Cavaliers’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver will not be with the Cavaliers for an interesting showdown with Toronto on Wednesday night due to the death of his younger brother, Kirk. Korver has been given a leave of absence from the team.
Kirk Korver, 27, played four years of college ball at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
There are four Korver brothers, all of whom played college basketball or at a higher level. Kirk was the youngest of them, he reportedly fell seriously ill about a week ago.
Our thoughts are with the entire Korver family.