OAKLAND — Has anyone identified the best team in the NBA yet? Asking for the Warriors.
There was this popularly-held vision and notion, since opening night, that the two-time defending champs, stacked once more, would use most if not all of this season to confirm the suspicions. But the record and place in the standings say otherwise, and so do the Toronto Raptors, fresh off a 20-point smackdown of the Warriors on the road and without Kawhi Leonard.
So here we are, raising the question.
In somewhat of an early-season surprise, the NBA penthouse seems muddled and perhaps crowded beyond the occupancy limit, with a half dozen teams claiming to a degree that they belong somewhere in the conversation.
As the NBA creeps toward Christmas Day to signal the unofficial let’s-start-taking-it-seriously season, there is confusion surrounding the issue of exactly who Goliath happens to be. Understand that, in the big picture, this is very much a now thing. Meaning, it doesn’t really matter for another few months. Eventually the truth shall set our confused minds free. Just consider this a curious and necessary checkpoint, if nothing else.
In the East, the Raptors have held it down for weeks now and boast the best record in the league, yet they’re also 0-2 against the stubborn Bucks, nipping at their sneaker heels. In the West, five different teams have held the top spot since the first week of the season, and assuming the Warriors still pass everyone’s smell test, there’s no clear-cut No. 2.
What this means: Drama.
“A lot of teams are playing well,” said Warriors forward Kevin Durant, before checking off the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors (of course) and the look-out-here-they-come Lakers. “We’re all trying to figure out who will be those teams that’ll be around in the end.”
This comes as sweet music to commissioner Adam Silver’s ears, because for the last few seasons the NBA was light on suspense. Both casual and hardcore fans sighed each October and wondered how many games the Warriors would need in The Finals to wrap this up in June. Yes, some of those seasons offered up a few detours, such as the recharged Rockets last year and the LeBron James rescue act in Cleveland. But all signs pointed toward the expected finish.
And that still could be the case once the Warriors find the cure for boredom or whatever is preventing them from flexing on everyone at the moment. Steve Kerr senses his team is fine for the most part, but others are anxious for a changing of the guard.
"We're now in a place where we're defending a title and defending sort of a mantle that we've had for several years, and it's a different vibe," Kerr said. "It's a different feeling than when you're on the climb like Toronto is, like Milwaukee is, like we were a few years ago. It's a different feeling, it's a different vibe. It's harder to get up for each game, and so there are certain nights where you can just feel it: You don't have that energy, and if you played in the NBA, you've coached in this league, you understand it. If you've followed it closely, you understand that. It's not an excuse, it's just reality.”
It’s insane that this conversation is taking place about a team that has Steph Curry flirting with shooting 50 percent on 3s this season, and Durant delivering a typically excellent string of performances, and the assorted other pieces in place that have helped the Warriors win three of the last four titles.
Also: Golden State should bring a bonus soon in DeMarcus Cousins, who has taken the next step in his recovery from Achilles surgery by getting reps in the G League.
Yes, the Warriors have been less than perfect because of Draymond Green’s temper, more missed games by Curry and a bench that’s giving mixed signals. But that’s to be expected, according to Kerr, who said his championship teams in Chicago and San Antonio and previous title teams with the Warriors all had their warts along the way.
“Championship teams are like all the other teams,” he said. “It’s no different. It’s just that their issues get more attention and are magnified more than those others. You don’t go through a season without something. It just doesn’t happen, no matter who you are.”
The Raptors just earned the best back-to-back wins of the season, looking impressive in L.A. against the Clippers and the next night in removing all suspense against the Warriors. And they did it without Leonard, bothered by a sore hip. With a few days off, Leonard could be back to finish off a tough trip in Portland and Denver.
If the Raptors get a sweep, watch out.
“They’ve been balling before that and they’ll be balling after they beat us,” said Durant. “They’ve been playing dominant basketball all season.”
With Kyle Lowry finally free of a dreadful shooting slump and Pascal Siakim making a strong run for Most Improved honors, the Raptors are bringing stars and depth. Of course, we’ve seen this before. Just last season, as a matter of fact, from a Toronto team that won 59 games, then wobbled through the playoffs before LeBron crushed their hearts yet again, leading to the departures of coach Dwane Casey and franchise face DeMar DeRozan.
Which means: Until the Raptors do this in May and possibly June, there’s nothing special to see here.
Anyway, Toronto has its attention on the rising Bucks, and Indiana finally getting Victor Oladipo back from a knee issue, and the Celtics figuring things out soon, not to mention the enigmatic-but-talented Sixers.
Out West, LeBron is rolling up MVP-quality numbers yet again, weeks before he turns 34, and the Lakers are shaking off their early-season kinks. They still need to get Brandon Ingram back from a bad ankle sprain and Rajon Rondo from a bum wrist, and then attempt to make a Christmas Day statement against the Warriors in Oakland, a game that could be for first place.
The Nuggets were the flavor of the month until hit suddenly with Gary Harris’ strained right hip that could bench him until New Year’s Day and Paul Millsap's broken toe that has him sidelined up to six weeks. Still, they’re refreshed after three days off and primed for an interesting tip Friday against Oklahoma City, where the Thunder are playing the best defense in basketball and Paul George is getting as many touches as Russell Westbrook (and, frankly, doing it more efficiently).
It’s all refreshing now, this sudden splash of suspense and constant movement near the top of the league and at least for now, some slippage by the Warriors.
“That’s how it rolls sometimes,” said Durant. “We just try to move forward.”
Here’s the bad news for the rest of the NBA: He didn’t seem or sound too worried about that.
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