A Canadian invented basketball. The first NBA game was played in Toronto. But in the days ahead of the Raptors playing host to the first NBA final game played outside the United States, historical ties to the game’s early beginnings haven’t kept Canada’s only NBA team from being installed as heavy underdogs in their impending series with the Golden State Warriors.
And you’ll understand the calculus. This is Toronto’s first time playing for a title. The Warriors are competing in their fifth straight final, gunning for their fourth title during that stretch. And even without the recent services of Kevin Durant, the two-time reigning final MVP who has missed the past five games with a lower leg injury that’s expected to keep him out of the outset of the series, the Warriors made winning the West look easy. Golden State swept the conference final against the Trail Blazers, after losing a total of four games in the two rounds before that.
So maybe it was no surprise that the betting lines that emerged after the Raptors beat the Bucks on Saturday night cast Toronto as something less than a real contender. Depending on the numbers you found, the consensus odds carried an implied probability that Golden State has something like a 76% chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the coming weeks. According to the bookmakers, Warriors in six is the most likely outcome.
But before you put much stock in those numbers, remember this: According to the bookmakers, the most likely pre-series outcome in Toronto-Milwaukee was Bucks in five. The Raptors set off an epic celebration around the city on Saturday by winning in six. So certainly the Raptors know a thing or two about overcoming the perception they’re outmatched. Consider the percentages when the Raptors found themselves down 2-0 in their Eastern final to the Bucks. Historical precedent told us that teams taking a two-nil lead in an NBA best-of-seven had won the series about 93% of the time. But when that factoid was put to Nick Nurse in the lead-up to Game 3 of the Eastern final, it was difficult not to remember his reaction. Toronto’s rookie head coach actually laughed.
“That can’t be right … That can’t be right. Check the figures,” Nurse said, chuckling. “I don’t really give a crap about that. I just want our team to come play their ass off (in Game 3) and get one game and it changes the series.”
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Asses dutifully played off four wins later, it’s worth asking the question: Are the Raptors as big an underdog as the numbers would have you believe?
A case can be made, after all, that Toronto will boast the best player in the series. So let’s take a moment to put Kawhi Leonard’s greatness in perspective. Through 18 playoff contests this spring, Toronto’s big-play machine is averaging 31 points a game. There are only three players who’ve scored more prolifically through a playoff run of 18 games or fewer, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Their names are LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Jerry West, the logo himself. So Leonard is keeping incredible company.
It’s James, of course, who can make the rare claim of knocking off the Warriors in an NBA final, leading the Cavaliers from down 3-1 in 2016 to deliver Cleveland its long-sought banner. And it was Leonard who threatened the Warriors dynasty a year later. Alas, after shredding Golden State’s defence for 26 points in 24 minutes of playing time during Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference final, ill fortune interrupted Leonard’s roll. Leonard’s Spurs led the Warriors by 23 points when he reinjured a tender ankle by landing atop the foot of Warriors forward Zaza Pachulia. He was done for the playoffs, and so were the Spurs, who watched the Warriors win in a sweep en route to another title.
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If the best player in a series often wins: advantage Raptors. If regular-season results matter: advantage Raptors, the only team the Warriors didn’t beat this season. (Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, mind you, didn’t play in one of those outings. Leonard didn’t play in the other).
But if the best shooters are the best players in an era dominated by the three-pointer — well, even if Durant doesn’t re-enter the picture it’s difficult to go against a team led by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, two of the great marksmen of all time. Not that the Raptors don’t have some hot shooters of their own at the moment. Fred VanVleet’s 14-for-17 shooting from three-point range in Games 4 through 6 of the Bucks series — an 82% clip! — is the highest percentage over a three-game span in NBA post-season history among players with at least 15 attempts, this according to Justin Kubatko at Statmuse.
Still, the Rockets and Bucks hit more three-pointers than the Warriors this season. The Spurs and Clippers shot them at a better percentage. But it’s possible no team uses the long bomb to more devastating effect than Golden State.
“People are trying to do what they do, but nobody does it like them, right?” Nurse said earlier this season, speaking of the Warriors. “They still crush you with that 30-footer — and then another one … So hopefully mentally we’ll be strong enough to deal with that. Because it’s coming, right?”
Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. While Curry is the league’s reigning master of the spirit-stealing 30-footer — he’s hit 27 bombs from 27 feet or longer in 16 playoff games — the Raptors can at least take solace in the memory of the only game they played against Curry this season. In that Toronto win, with Leonard out, it was VanVleet who was often assigned as Curry’s primary defender. And VanVleet’s dogged defence, which occasionally stretched into the full-court variety, frustrated Curry into one his worst shooting nights of the season, a 3-for-12 clankfest in which he scored just 10 points.
“There’s only one way to play Steph Curry,” Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin said after that December victory, subbing in for Nurse in the post-game press scrum. “The No. 1 way is to pray that he misses. And No. 2 is to keep a body on him and do not give him any open looks. You know he’s going to make some tough shots. That’s when you’ve got to be really resilient.”
The odds aren’t in their favour. The storylines suggest Toronto’s championship was its first ever Eastern crown. But if the Raptors have proven anything in frustrating the Bucks and the Sixers and the Magic, it’s that unshakable resilience is a specialty. The Warriors boast the best offence in these playoffs. The Raptors boast the second-best defence behind vanquished Milwaukee. We’ll begin to find out how much, if at all, the numbers matter come Thursday night.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk
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Published at Mon, 27 May 2019 01:19:41 +0000