North Bureau Chief
After eight months of scintillating basketball, we are finally here.
The NBA Finals will begin this Thursday, May 30, at 8 p.m. on ABC.
The juggernaut Golden State Warriors, going for their third straight NBA championship and their fourth in five years, looking to cement themselves as one of the league’s all-time dynasties.
On the other side, the Toronto Raptors. 25 years ago, the Raptors came into existence as an expansion team. After years of falling short to LeBron James in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they have finally gotten over the hump to appear in the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Led by Kawhi Leonard and a cadre of tough, smart, defensive-minded veterans, the Raptors came up big when they needed to and now, they’re here.
It’s a series full of superstars, future hall of famers and free agents to be. No one knows if this will be the Warriors last ride with their current core of players, and there’s no guarantee that Kawhi Leonard will be in a Raptors uniform once next season begins; he is a free agent and there are rumblings that he is looking to play for Western Conference team.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this series could change the landscape of the NBA for a long time.
Let’s dive into some of the details.
We know what the Warriors are all about by now. They’ve run roughshod over the league over the past 5 years, changing the modern game with their combination of long-range shooting and pace. They defend with the best of them and always show up in the big games. They’re the first team since the Celtics in the ‘60s to make five straight NBA Finals. They’re looking to become the first team since the 2000-2002 Los Angeles Lakers to win three titles in a row.
They’re missing Kevin Durant, one of the three best basketball players on the planet, because of a calf injury he suffered in the second round of the playoffs against Houston. A normal team would fold, but the Warriors are undefeated since that game, with Stephen Curry averaging a ridiculous 35.8 points per game during their 5-0 run.
Draymond Green has come alive, defending, playmaking and being a general nuisance all over the floor. Klay Thompson has hit timely shots and picked up the scoring slack left over in Durant’s absence. And the Golden State role players have looked poised and unflappable in big moments, buying the Golden State starters precious minutes of rest when the bench comes into the game.
Durant did travel with the team to Toronto, but he is officially out for Game 1 and it seems doubtful that he will play in Game 2 either.
Durant isn’t the only injury question mark for the Warriors.
Demarcus Cousins has been out since the first round of the playoffs with a quadriceps injury. He is officially listed as questionable for the first game. The Raptors are a big, bruising team that will look to bully Golden State down low, so Cousins’ presence could be an x-factor in this series.
This was a season of firsts for the Raptors. First time they’ve advanced to the NBA Finals. First non-American team in NBA history to advance to the championship round. Even their coach, Nick Nurse, is a rookie, captaining an NBA ship for the first time in his career.
They are led by Kawhi Leonard, the poised swingman with a massive wingspan and All-NBA talent on offense and defense.
Leonard is in the midst of one of the best playoff runs for an individual player since Michael Jordan back in the’90s. He has hit timely shots, including a Game 7 buzzer-beater to eliminate Philadelphia; he outplayed likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Raptors roared back from two games down against Milwaukee; and he has anchored the Raptors’ defense throughout these playoffs; by defensive rating, Toronto has the stingiest defense of any playoff team. Kawhi Leonard is the biggest reason for that.
Golden State is massively favored in this series, both in Las Vegas and amongst casual fans. But it would be a mistake to overlook Kawhi and his teammates in this series. This Raptors team may not have LeBron James, but Kawhi is easily in the conversation for best player in the game and these Raptors are deeper than any of the Cleveland Cavaliers teams that challenged Golden State for the title the last 4 years.
The Raptors are a resilient, battle-tested bunch that has not folded in the face of adversity during these playoffs. They’re the first team since the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to advance to the Finals after trailing in every series. They’ve gotten behind in a series over and over and have clawed back every time.
The Raptors don’t have another big-time scorer outside of Leonard, but they’re doing it by committee in these playoffs. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka have all chipped in on the offensive side of the ball.
Still, Leonard is carrying a tremendous load. He is already hobbled from an undisclosed leg injury, and the Raptors rely on him to initiate their offense as well as play exhausting defense for 40-plus minutes every game. At some point, he may run out of gas.
Ultimately, I think the Warriors are on a mission. It’s likely that Kevin Durant will return at some point during this series, but I would still favor Golden State even without Durant. The Warriors know this is their last ride, and that Durant and Klay Thompson may be in different uniforms next season. They’re looking to cement themselves as the greatest team of all time.
This is a match up of stylistic differences; the Warriors are going to look to go small and push the tempo, while the Raptors’ cupboard is full of heavy, bruising defenders. The Raptors will look to get second-chance baskets and offensive rebounds because of their height advantage, but they may struggle to defend the quicker Golden State players. Height does nothing for the Raptors when the Warriors are spreading the floor and shooting three pointers.
Still, this could be a serendipitous series. The Warriors have the number-one ranked offense of any team and the eighth ranked defense; the Raptors are the inverse, with the number-one playoff defense and number-eight ranked offense. Something has got to give.
Golden State has lost one game combined in the past two Finals that they’ve played. I think they lose more than that here; they’re playing the first two games on the road, which is a first for Golden State in a Finals series. In the end, the Warriors’ quickness, experience, depth and shooting give them the edges in this series over Toronto; Golden State will put the cherry on top of their incredible five-year run and prevail in six games over Toronto, with Durant returning at some point before riding off into the free-agency sunset.
Photos courtesy of (in order): Copyright 2019 NBAE by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images and Copyright 2019 Jonathan Daniel/via Getty Images