Sunday, March 11, 2018

Raptors and Leafs Again

Raptors have stayed in first in the East for some time. They've made it to the playoffs four years in a row, but only played in the Eastern finals once--in 2016. The joke in recent years has been that whatever round an Eastern team plays Cleveland, that's their last round in the playoffs. Raptors lost to Cleveland in the second round last year.

Raptors have never won the Eastern Conference in the regular season; they have now led the East for some weeks. They've won the Atlantic Division four times, counting 2006-07, but the way seeding for the playoffs works now, winning a division counts for very little. Winning the conference means they don't face the Cavaliers (now in third) or Celtics (now in second) in the first round.

In their last two games, they won a tough one against Detroit--a team that is well out of the playoffs, but with recently acquired Blake Griffin they can be tough, especially in a game that is on ESPN in the U.S. When they beat the Houston Rockets on Thursday, this was their seventh straight victory. It is usually thought that the best three teams in the West are better than the best three teams in the East, and even the 4th and 5th team in the West may be under-rated because they play in the West. The win over Detroit made the Raptors the first team to clinch a playoff spot.

I've been saying the Raptors don't have a top 10 player, and now there is talk of DeMar DeRozan being an MVP candidate. He is now 12th in points per game, 25th in the stat called "effectiveness"--an attempt to combine successful plays with unsuccessful plays, not just +/-. Kyle Lowry is 47th in points, 34th in effectiveness. The Raptors still depend on their two biggest stars, but the points are spread around, there are more assists (and rebounds) than there used to be. Against Detroit, the game went to overtime, with DeRozan showing more and more of his magic. In overtime he was approaching the Detroit basket, but with about four guys on him. He passed over to the corner, Fred VanVleet who was 2 for 10 on the night. Van Vleet drained a 3 for the win.

LeBron James, with his Cavaliers a playoff-bound team in the East, is top 10 in both points and effectiveness. Kyrie Irving, now with Boston, is #11 in points, #19 in effectiveness.

Leafs had four losses on a road trip, then beat the Pittsburgh Penguins at home last night. 5-2, but the last Leafs goal was an empty netter. It was maybe a typical Leafs game for this season. 4 goals on 25 shots, whereas the Penguins got 2 goals on 40 shots. Leafs make their shots count--their shots are more likely to be in close, they make things happen fast, and this helps to fool the goalie. They take advantage of breakdowns in front of the opponents' net. Don Cherry keeps saying the Leafs wouldn't be where they are without Anderson in goal. They tend not to dominate the play in the neutral zone, or in their own end. They will surely be a better team when Auston Matthews returns from an injury.

It looks like there are a number of teams at least roughly as good as the Leafs--and Tampa has been first in the East for a long time. No team has more wins than the Leafs' 69, but there are about six teams with this number of wins. This makes it hard to predict who will make the Eastern finals, to say nothing of the Cup finals. By comparison, the Raptors look somewhat dominant in the East.

"Toronto is one of only two teams (Golden State) to rank in the top-5 in Offensive and Defensive Rating. If only looking at benches, the outlook is even better — Toronto has the only bench that ranks in the top-5 in Offensive and Defensive Rating. The significance of this stat is hard to ignore when considering Toronto’s regular season outlook."

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