Now that NBA All-Star weekend is winding down, the true hype can begin.
Only seven weeks of play remain before the playoffs bring a Toronto-Houston matchup in the NBA Finals.
Not what the hype machine is programmed to produce? Yet the NBA standings say take your Golden State assumptions and LeBron James destiny and reboot the system.
The All-Star break gives the Raptors and Rockets a full week as the top teams in each conference — Toronto at 41-16, two games ahead of Boston, and Houston at 44-13, half a game ahead of Golden State.
Many are going to give those standings the chance to last about as long as the All-Star staging at Microsoft Square.
Houston can put together many compelling arguments to be considered the Western Conference favorite, and it will not matter to most people. Injury or work stoppage seems more likely to take down the Warriors before the Rockets can do it.
For the first time since 2014, Golden State is not the West’s All-Star break leader because the Rockets have the MVP favorite in James Harden, a defense that has improved from 18th last season to ninth now and a running mate for Harden in Chris Paul that makes this the franchise’s best version of a title contender in 23 years.
Houston will come out of the All-Star break on a 10-game winning streak, having beaten San Antonio by 11 and 32, Minnesota by 18 and Denver by 26 during that time.
“To me, the biggest obstacle really for the Rockets will be the injury bug,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller said. “Will Chris Paul be able to make it to the finish line? Those great runs he had with the Clippers, he was never really able to make it to the finish line.”
Because when Paul plays with Harden and versatile center Clint Capela, the Rockets are a staggering 28-1.
This is when Golden State’s ball-care issues (29th in turnover percentage) are supposed to create doubt. This is when the Warriors are supposed to seem uninterested because they have won two of the last three championships and Steve Kerr is going Gregg Popovich with Jedi huddle tactics.
“They have a chance to be like the Celtics, to be like the Bulls, to be like the Lakers when they were having championship runs,” Miller said.
But it seems like this West discussion is forgetting something — San Antonio. The Spurs have flown under the radar into a third-place tie with Minnesota despite not having their MVP candidate, Kawhi Leonard, for 50 games and losing their major offseason addition, Rudy Gay, for 25 games. Yet, the Spurs still have the second-ranked defense and are more athletic with changes like 21-year-old point guard Dejounte Murray in the starting lineup.
“I see them playing better, getting better as the playoffs round and getting into championship form,” Turner Sports analyst Chris Webber said. “I still think they’ll be a dangerous route against anyone.”
The problem with the Eastern Conference race is whether it is as interesting as it appears.
Boston only trails Toronto by two games but has gone from a 22-4 start to an 18-15 fade. The Celtics lead the NBA in defensive rating and opponent field goal percentage but do not have a consistent scorer beyond Kyrie Irving.
The Celtics lost three consecutive home games before the break, including a 22-point loss to Cleveland. Earlier this month, they lost to Toronto by 20.
“I’m wondering, and I hope I’m wrong here, I’m wondering if they have reached their ceiling,” Miller said.
“Teams don’t fear them like they fear LeBron James and maybe now this new cast in Cleveland. They don’t fear them like Golden State or Houston. And nobody is even talking about Toronto.”
Dwane Casey is a candidate for coach of the year, as he usually should be, after overhauling the Raptors’ offensive style from a ball-pounding, isolation-heavy team to a squad that embraces the space-and-pace era with more three-pointers. DeMar DeRozan embodies that by yielding a strength, his mid-range game, to create another three-point threat.
The Raptors, versatile enough to spread the floor or play big, are on pace for a franchise-best 59 wins.
“The reason why it’s easier to concentrate if you’re on a good team at the end of practice or when All-Star break comes is because you see that light at the tunnel and you know it’s a way out,” Webber said. “For most teams, it’s a train coming toward you and you just want to get the season over. But for the teams who play well, you’re excited. You’re ready to get to the playoffs.”
Toronto would be excited to rewrite its playoff history. The Raptors have become an Eastern Conference power but they exited the playoffs in the first round in 2014 and 2015, then had a 2016 conference finals run that was followed by last season’s second-round exit.
But who is going to doubt LeBron James making the NBA Finals? For the last seven years, it has been as certain as a Mike Breen “Bang!” With three trades and two subsequent quality road wins, Cleveland seems resurrected.
“To me, it’s Cleveland, Toronto and Boston,” Miller said. “That’s my pecking order.”
The standings say Toronto and Houston are the best in each conference but a show of hands might be sticking with the familiar Cleveland-Golden State matchup of the last three NBA Finals.