Call it the new kid on the block or a triumphant return for one particular former NBA Finals MVP.
While the majority of the roster is composed of American born players, the Toronto Raptors make their way to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Of course, bearing the Canadian flag, this is more than just a tale of two cities. The familiar face? Kawhi Leonard returns to the NBA Finals where he last came up victorious in 2014 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
Well, perhaps the narrative of a familiar face can go both ways. The Golden State Warriors return to their fifth straight NBA Finals becoming one of the only two teams to achieve such merit. The Boston Celtics top out at 10 straight Finals appearances.
Where there is one return from a superstar there is an absence of another. Insert Kawhi Leonard and exit Kevin Durant for the time being. The two-time Finals MVP Durant will be ruled out of Game 1 with his lingering calf injury. Durant sustained the injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets. Leonard, on the other hand, now enjoys a full-length season with his new team since sitting out the majority of last season with the Spurs.
Strength in Numbers Still
Too much speculation and the biggest question from the Warriors front will be how well can they perform without Durant. It is hard to say that the Warriors miss Durant as they swept up the Conference Finals against the Portland Trailblazers. Remember that one team that won a record 73 games a few years ago?
Stephen Curry averaged 36.7 points, 9 rebounds, and 7.3 assists in the Conference Finals. If there is one man that reaped the benefits of the subtraction of Durant it was the two time MVP. Draymond Green was the other consistent contributor with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists per game in the same series.
All signs point well for the Warriors to keep their momentum moving forward as we are well aware that with or without Durant, the show goes on to chase the three-peat. Will the Warriors miss Durant however with this match-up in the Finals?
Call in the Reinforcements
The Warriors will need any and every minute possible from their stars, if healthy, to give peace and comfort of winning this Finals. Early on there should be a few signs of concerns for the Warriors. The first sign is to seek out Toronto’s gameplan on defending Curry and Klay Thompson. The most realistic scenario is to head back to Oakland with a split series 1-1 a piece. However, if Curry starts to have early shooting struggles in this series it’s time to call in for back-up.
Panic mode for the Warriors is if they come back to Oracle for Game 3 down 2-0. The mystery of Durant returning I’m sure would be depending on the progress of the series on an as need basis. DeMarcus Cousins could potentially play as well. In a perfect scenario, I would say it’s safe to assume that he will play in limited action. The grind of a Finals will be more rigorous for Cousins to come in an be an immediate impact with heavy minutes load. A great passing big man for the second unit would be a better upgrade over Andrew Bogut for the Warriors.
Defense Wins Championships
The Raptors defense will be the anchor of keeping this series within reach. As Golden State can get off to runs easily and make a five-point lead balloon to 15, the Raptors would need to control the fire. Limiting the Warriors to one-shot and second-chance points will be two things to keep an eye on as this series progresses.
It certainly isn’t odd that the Raptors have won four straight twice in these Playoffs so far. After dropping Game 1 against the first round series against the Orlando Magic the Raptors wrapped up the series by holding the Magic to 89 points in the final four games. While Orlando has no true go-to offensive threat they still managed to score 107 points per game in the regular season.
In the respective series against the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks proved to the biggest test. For starters, Kawhi Leonard had one of the best defensive series against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Per ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, the Bucks were at 85.6 points per 100 possessions when Kawhi guarded the Greek Freak. To put this into perspective, the Bucks averaged 113.5 points per 100 possessions in the regular season.
Nick Nurse has erased any reasonable doubt that the firing of former Head Coach Dwane Casey was a bad move. I’m intrigued to see what Nurse has in place early on in the series. It’s almost like the Raptors adjust later on in the series and dominate from there. However, I think its best not to play with fire against a team full of All-Stars. With homecourt advantage and the mysterious return of Durant, the best bet is to force the Warriors to show their cards all upfront. Keeping the momentum for the role players on the road with Kawhi at the helm is important.
Toronto will need all hands on deck with the handful their opponent brings to this match-up. Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell must continue to knock down open shots and make plays for the Raptors. Again, starting off the first two games at home gives Toronto added comfort for these role players.
The frontcourt for Toronto will need to dominate the glass. Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakim supported Kawhi greatly in the Conference Finals. This also will force Steve Kerr to make a decision to either give in and play Kevon Looney more than he would like or try to bait Nick Nurse into a battle of small ball.
The Final Verdict
The firepower brewing on the back burner for the Warriors is the most difficult factor to go up against. At some point, there is the likely hood of Kevin Durant returning should the Warriors feel severely threatened.
While I think it is fair to say that the Raptors are a little more battle tested against some strong NBA defenses in their journey to the Finals, it’s also fair to say that the Warriors have their own battles with injuries and overcoming inconsistent line-ups later their journey.
This Finals match-up gives fans two teams who hit a stride at the right time and great momentum into the Finals. The excitement for a first-time appearance for the Raptors combined by the highly popular Warriors only can elevate the NBA a step higher.
In order to slow down the Warriors, the best that Toronto can hope for is that Durant’s return is delayed further than Game 1. There will be a little too much golden shine from Golden State. While this series has the potential to last seven deep, there is no guarantee that Toronto’s supporting cast can consistently deliver. For that reason, the Golden State Warriors will win the 2019 NBA Finals in six games.