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Our Model Loves The Raptors. (Maybe A Little Too Much?)

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The Toronto Raptors stole a road win Thursday night with a huge game from Kawhi Leonard and are now just one win away from taking the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

If the Raptors can win either of the next two games, they’ll move on to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. And, surprise — the FiveThirtyEight model favors the Raptors! What do you guys think about that?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): That seemed … interesting. 🤔

I suppose it’s largely about the Warriors’ many injuries? (Not that those seemed to matter much vs. Portland.)

JaredDubin (Jared Dubin, contributor): The Warriors did just sweep the Blazers without Kevin Durant, and without Andre Iguodala for Game 4.

neil: Right.

sara.ziegler: But our model doesn’t think much of the Blazers, either.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Our model is wrong.

All due respect to our model.

neil: Fightin’ words, Chris! (Haha.)

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Nate is not here to defend himself.

sara.ziegler: But why is the model wrong?

chris.herring: Even if it’s meant to be accounting for KD’s absence, the Warriors are 31-1 in their last 32 games without Durant but with Steph Curry.

JaredDubin: The Raptors were much better defensively than the Blazers during both the regular season and the playoffs. But they also haven’t played the Warriors in the playoffs.

chris.herring: I don’t think the Warriors will struggle to create half-court offense the way the Bucks have, mainly.

I’ve been pretty vocal in saying that the Bucks are the best team to take down Golden State. I don’t feel that as strongly when Toronto is the team coming out of the East.

neil: Maybe it also says as much about our model’s love for the Raptors’ players as it does about the Warriors’ injury issues. Our ratings think that almost all of Toronto’s current rotation is composed of at least above-average players, if not really good ones:

sara.ziegler: Toronto won more games on the season than Golden State and has fewer injuries. Toronto would have the home-court advantage in the finals. Aren’t those important points in the Raptors’ favor?

chris.herring: I can’t bring myself to think it matters all that much. At least not yet.

Golden State has shown it can win despite not having home-court advantage.

JaredDubin: I think I’d be more inclined to give those things weight if this were the first year of the Warriors’ run and not the fifth, and if we didn’t know that the Warriors essentially treat the regular season as an extended preseason. Draymond Green didn’t even start caring until he went on his crash diet in March, and he’s been one of the, like, three best players in the playoffs.

chris.herring: If anything, the Durant injury is the thing to watch. They’d obviously be better positioned, and make the Raptors work a lot more, if they had him. (If for no other reason because of Kawhi presumably having to guard him at times.)

But the Warriors haven’t given us any reason to suspect they can’t win the way they are. Also, one of the Raptors’ wins over the Dubs was a game in which Curry didn’t play.

sara.ziegler: I guess my point here is that the opinions on who we think will win are based most on knowing that Golden State has won.

chris.herring: That’s fair.

But I also don’t think Toronto is a particularly great postseason match for Golden State.

sara.ziegler: I get that.

And the model is about the people playing — not about how they’ll play against the specific guys on the other team.

chris.herring: I would have felt much better about the Bucks and think I’d favor them.

neil: For what it’s worth, Vegas still has it as Warriors 69 percent, Raptors 18 percent, Bucks 13 percent.

tchow: Hypothetically, if the Bucks were up 3-2, based on the CARMELO scores, they would also be favored against the Warriors in the finals at this point, no? Would we think there’s something wrong with the model then?

chris.herring: * ding ding ding *

neil: Tony, I think it might. Both teams currently have identical full-strength CARMELO ratings. Our model still thinks the Bucks and Raptors are pretty interchangeable, talent-wise.

sara.ziegler: That’s kind of amazing.

JaredDubin: This series has essentially shown that to be true, right? The Bucks and Raptors being relatively equal, talent-wise. Each team has a blowout, and the other three close games could have gone either way.

tchow: The model has been really high on Toronto, compared to other models, all playoffs long. That prediction is looking pretty good so far this series, which is making us Bucks believers (fear-ers?) look bad. Maybe I’m still salty about being wrong about Toronto, because my initial reaction on seeing the new finals projections was also “no f-ing way.”

neil: I mean, that was my honest reaction too, Tony:

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

The way the Warriors have played the Durant injury is really interesting to me. Do you guys think he’ll actually end up playing?

neil: It’s a little concerning to me that he still hasn’t begun basketball-related activites yet.

chris.herring: I have no idea what’s going on in his head, aside from a feud with Chris Broussard.

JaredDubin: I think the more interesting question is: If he doesn’t play, has he already played his last game for the Warriors.

tchow: Oh no, Jared, not this again.

sara.ziegler: Tony’s just waiting for him to get here, LOL.

JaredDubin: As a Knick fan who is all too familiar with their repeated free-agency failures, I will believe KD is signing with the Knicks when he is in Madison Square Garden wearing a Knick jersey during a regular-season game, and not a moment sooner.

tchow: That’s so many months too late, Jared.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: I like that we have the two polar opposites of Knick fandom here.

sara.ziegler: All Knicks represented.

Looking beyond KD, will DeMarcus Cousins actually play in the finals? And will he actually help the Warriors?

chris.herring: It sounds like he’ll play. Less sure about whether he’ll have an impact

My question there is, if the Raptors pull ahead in the series early, and Cousins simply doesn’t have it, can you afford to play him for long stretches? Answer seemingly is “probably not.”

As badly as you want him to feel involved.

JaredDubin: He seems more likely to have an impact against Toronto, where he can bang inside with Gasol, than Milwaukee, where Brook Lopez might space him off the floor.

I also feel like whether OG Anunoby is ready to come back from his appendicitis matters a lot, especially if Durant is able to come back during the series. Toronto’s ability to go small for extended stretches against the Death Lineup depends on having another big wing alongside Kawhi.

sara.ziegler: Though, Jared, our model actually thinks the Raptors are better without Anunoby.

JaredDubin: OG had a tough year on and off the floor (his father passed away during the season), but having another big wing is important in a matchup where you might need to go small a lot.

chris.herring: Jared’s point is spot-on.

That would be either my biggest or second-biggest question with Toronto.

They usually have one of Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka on the floor. If the Warriors go up-tempo, with Draymond as their 5, it could be tough for them to match that.

JaredDubin: Is your other biggest question, “How will Kyle Lowry deal with guarding Steph and not disappearing on offense at the same time?”

chris.herring: Yes. It is/was.

Lowry’s been pretty good in this series. Curry would be a brutal matchup for him, though.

And Fred VanVleet is playing the series of his life at the moment. But I don’t think that would continue in the next series.

JaredDubin: It was like a week ago that everyone was wondering if it was time to bench him because he hadn’t hit a shot in (seemingly) three years.

neil: A lot of things were different for Toronto (and Milwaukee) about a week ago.

chris.herring: Tell me about it!

Only five teams in NBA history have come back from down 2-0 to win a conference final in the best-of-seven era.

neil: Last one I remember being quite this surprised by might have been OKC beating the Spurs in 2012.

chris.herring: And Ibaka was on that team, which was the last team to do it.

JaredDubin: Stat! Teams trailing 3-2 in a series are 27-162 all-time, but when a team goes up 2-0 at home and then loses three straight, they are 8-7. All seven wins by the team leading 3-2 have come in Game 6. The team that went up 2-0 and then lost three in a row has won all eight Games 7.

sara.ziegler: Ooooh, that’s interesting.

I’m still trying to FEAR THE DEER.

chris.herring: It’s a bit hard to.

tchow: So Game 6 is Toronto’s Game 7.

neil: That’s why Game 6 is so huge in these circumstances. According to this playoff leverage thing I did, Game 6 with the home team up 3-2 is the second most crucial possible situation.

Trailing only (obviously) Game 7.

chris.herring: Also, Toronto is a really difficult place to play anyway, let alone in a scenario where the Raptors can clinch a ticket to the Finals

Milwaukee made a lineup change, but it kind of feels like they’re stuck in the mud on offense when they aren’t in transition.

JaredDubin: It feels like Mike Budenholzer really needs to lean in to the lineup he started last night, though. They crushed the Raptors with Bledsoe-Brogdon-Middleton-Giannis-Lopez and got destroyed in the other minutes. But he said before the game that he thinks it’s better to have 36 peak Giannis minutes than 40-plus of like 90-percent-ish minutes, basically.

chris.herring: I won’t dwell on it too much, but I was so, so impressed by how many big plays the Raptors came up with at the end of a game on the road. So perhaps seeing that is reason enough to leave open the possibility that the Bucks can do that with their backs against the wall in Toronto.

tchow: Can we talk big picture for a moment? Neil asked me this question this morning and I wanted to ask the group here: What would you put the chance of Kawhi staying in Toronto right this second? Before we know what happens in Game 6 or the end of this series.

chris.herring: I imagine it’s really high if they win the series. It will show that you essentially can’t do any better from a team success standpoint than the situation he was traded into. So at that point, if you leave, it clearly becomes about wanting to play in another market. And with the exception of LeBron James, it’s hard to find a lot of first-rate players having done that.

JaredDubin: I can’t imagine him finding a better running mate from a fit standpoint than Pascal Siakam. And if he stays, the Raptors can be even more aggressive in seeking out help for him than they were this year, and they were pretty aggressive in trading for Gasol at the deadline this year already.

chris.herring: Then again, it’s Kawhi, and no one has ever been more quiet in terms of their overall persona. Who knows?

He may be intrigued by being able to partner with a team on going out and getting a second max talent.

sara.ziegler: He’s loved in Toronto, too. He’d obviously be second fiddle in L.A.

chris.herring: Not with the Clippers!

sara.ziegler: LOL

OK, fair.

JaredDubin: Kawhi would probably hate being second fiddle.

tchow: * Kawhi laugh *

chris.herring: I said this last night, but even if the Raptors lose, you have to feel content with having gone all-in at this point.

You got a legitimate superstar, and he’s given you everything you could ask for at this point, especially if they reach the finals. All you wanted was a chance to win the whole thing.

tchow: Yeah, definitely. Last night’s game kinda proved that’s why you risk it for a player like Kawhi, even if you end up losing him.

chris.herring: If you get to that round, and he leaves anyway, that’s more about what he wanted and less about anything you as a team did wrong.

JaredDubin: Masai Ujiri, president of the Raptors, has also been trying to do a full-on rebuild with this team for years. It started with trading Rudy Gay, but then James Dolan supposedly nixed a deal for Kyle Lowry, and the Raptors turned into the Raptors team we’ve seen over the past several years. Dealing for Kawhi with a year left on his deal set them up to either extend a window of contention around a player who is likely better than any the franchise has ever had, or pivot to trading guys like Lowry and Ibaka, and build around Siakam, Anunoby and some of the other younger guys they have.

sara.ziegler: In other NBA news this week, the All-NBA teams were announced on Thursday. Any big surprises?

chris.herring: I thought Bradley Beal would make one of the teams. But honestly, when you don’t make the playoffs, it’s always a crapshoot if you’re borderline like that.

JaredDubin: There were less “surprising” things than just the reveals of incredibly tough calls. Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid for first team center, and Beal vs. Kemba Walker vs. Klay Thompson for third-team guard.

neil: It was weird seeing LeBron only be third-team All-NBA.

sara.ziegler: It was sort of weird to see LeBron make it at all!

neil: Well, he hadn’t missed first team since 2007. (But yes, it made sense for him to drop, given how much time he missed.)

chris.herring: I can’t tell whether people are sad for Klay having missed out on the supermax, or if they’re simply relaying the news that he missed out. This would have been a weird season to make a passionate argument for him, in my opinion.

All in all, I thought the teams were generally fine — I just think the setup of contracts and incentives being based on how the media votes is somewhat dumb. I think they should change it in the next CBA, but I don’t know how it should work going forward.

JaredDubin: I don’t think there’s anybody in the media who wants to have control over how much money players make.

tchow: It’s such a weird thing.

JaredDubin: But we’ve also seen with player votes for All-Star teams that they don’t necessarily take voting even as seriously as the least-serious media voters, so maybe this is the best of bad options. (Aside from getting rid of supermax qualifications based on voting altogether.)

tchow: I wonder if it goes through the minds of the media members who do vote where they ask themselves if they see a player like Klay or Beal “deserve” a super-max contract, and if answering “no” factors into their All-NBA selections.

chris.herring: As I explained all this to my girlfriend yesterday, she was quick to remind me that these guys who are up for potential supermaxes all are due to make well in excess of $100 million anyway.

It’s a crazy amount of money, but I think it’s easy to forget that A) it wasn’t really the media’s choice to have this role in the process and B) we’re talking about the very best players, and it’s not easy to decide which are the 15 best all the time.

JaredDubin: I feel like, even if I were due to make $190 million, I would still prefer to make $220 million. But I also have no idea what it feels like to make $190 million, which I’m sure surprises everyone.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

chris.herring: Yeah.

neil: The alternative is something like the baseball arbitration system, where a formula determines pay.

chris.herring: * ding ding ding *

neil: (And that is obviously also very fraught.)

JaredDubin: It has always seemed strange that the percentage-of-cap maximums are determined by your years of service in the league. It almost always leads to guys being underpaid early and overpaid late.

neil: Although that’s basically how every sport runs its business now. (Or again, if we go with the baseball model, they underpay early and then don’t pay late.)

tchow: I hope we see an angry Klay in the finals play like someone who just lost out on $30 million and irrationally blames it on the Raptors/Bucks.

JaredDubin: In the unlikely event the Finals gets to Game 6, I bet we see a Klaysplosion then. He’s incredible in Game 6.

neil: Those Toronto and/or Milwaukee based writers clearly had a vendetta against him.

sara.ziegler: Maybe the writers vote based on who gives the best interviews.

neil: He’s a great interview, if the topic is scaffolding.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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