The clock is running and James Harden is bringing the ball up the court against a ferocious Toronto crowd. DeMar DeRozan meets him at halfcourt. Harden, the reigning MVP, faces the MVP runner up in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. A win here, and Houston will add another trophy to their already historic franchise. Harden and Chris Paul are trying to shake off years of narrative that has been attached to their names from previous playoff failures.
The Raptors play with an entire country on their shoulders in their first ever NBA Finals appearance. They've banged their heads against the playoff ceiling so many times with perennial disappointment. Finally, everything came together this season in the form of a new and improved offense.
Harden isolates DeRozan so Kyle Lowry comes over to provide help. The MVP splits the double team and pulls up. The scene fades to black and the random NBA fan that was dreaming this scenario awakes in their bed. It's June and they're prepared to watch LeBron James take on Kevin Durant in Warriors vs Cavaliers part four. The actual NBA Finals everybody expects.
There is nothing wrong with the Warriors vs Cavs rivalry. It features the best players in the world and has the history to back it up. It's hard to not enjoy watching Stephen Curry pull up from 40 feet, Draymond Green screaming his head off, and James picking apart defenses with a level of precision that has never been seen before. The basketball is fantastic.
It's also been done before. Sure, there's plenty of legacy narratives that exist in this scenario. James chasing Michael Jordan in rings and MVP's. Durant's efforts to establish himself as the new top player in the NBA. Curry and the rest of the Warriors desire to become one of the greatest dynasties ever with three titles in four years.
Basketball fanatics can get behind that, but it's not for everybody. Some fans want something fresh and new. They want to see new faces, have new storylines, and see a different jersey combination besides Maroon and White vs Gold and Blue. Seeing the same two teams and familiar faces play each other constantly can get a little tiresome at times.
This is where the Raptors and Rockets come in. The game they played on Friday night was one of the most exciting matchups of the entire NBA season. The Rockets 17 game win streak coming into Toronto, on Drake night, against the Eastern Conference's top team. There was legitimate excitement going into this game. Both teams are excellent and known for blowing out their opponents. The Rockets are second in the NBA in net rating. The Raptors are third. They're both ranked top five in offensive efficiency. Top 10 in defense. This was a legitimate heavyweight fight and it was new.
There was real MVP star power in this game. Harden's been the obvious favorite since the season has gone on and for good reason. He's scoring a career high in points and somehow has the ball in his hands even more than usual. He does absolutely everything for Houston and then some. He's taken so much of a load off Paul that when the point guard does run the offense it's a flow shift that catches defenses off guard every time.
Someone arguably not getting enough MVP hype though is DeRozan. The reason the Raptors are great this season is their new offense. The reason their new offense works is because DeRozan is playing the best basketball of his career. The man who was once nicknamed Costco Kobe is no longer a mid-range chucker with a tendency to be a black hole on offense. He creates for others, takes 3-pointers, and has different decision making. He draws defenses in and opens up more for those around him. Everything the Raptors do works, because DeRozan makes it work for them.
In the past, the NBA's primetime games have featured familiar names. The Spurs, Thunder, Celtics, etc and yes the Rockets and Raptors did have a place at the table, but that's all they had. A place at the table. Both were plagued with narratives and deficiencies that, despite both making a conference finals, left them as after thoughts to the real contenders. Sure, they would appear in the playoffs, but then they would eventually fall off. That's what they always do.
However, this season just feels different with both of these teams. They lead their conferences and every step backwards has been minor as they've pushed forward. On Friday night they gave a taste of what a potential seven game series could look like between the two. Since the NBA has yet go to a 1-16 seeding format, the only way to see both of these teams in the playoffs is an NBA Finals series. This could be the exact breath of fresh air a lot of basketball fans want.
The result was the Raptors taking an early commanding lead. Harden and the Rockets had to push back and force the game into a close contest. This is where Harden was at his best. Dribble step back moves with a man in his face and it didn't phase him. He made big shots. Except DeRozan and the Raptors made more shots. They came up at the end and forced Houston into one final shot. It missed. Raptors win one of the best games of the season in dramatic fashion.
The expectation is that the NBA Finals will be another rendition of Warriors vs. Cavs. They've earned that kind of reputation. However, if Friday night is any indication, then would an NBA Finals between the Raptors and Rockets be so bad? It's refreshing, new, and exciting. A pretty decent alternative.