We’ve finally come to the end of what has been a long playoffs in the NBA, but before we get into a preview of the Finals, a very quick recap of the playoffs. This year’s version brought us some excitement but a little more of a same-old same-old feeling. One the one hand, we had exciting buzzer beaters and down to the wire finishes, and on the other we had lots of predictable outcomes. This year all the top seeds advanced out of the first round for the first time since 2008, giving us one more example of how competition seems to be growing thin in the NBA, but at least we have a new team in the Finals after 4 straight years of Warriors-Cavs, so there’s something to give us hope for a new age in the NBA. The Celtics dominated Game 1 of the second round against the Bucks, and after Paul pierce declaring the series to be over (just one of that many stupid things to come out of his mouth) the Bucks won 4 straight to win the series in 5 games. The Rockets fell once again to Golden State in the second round after blowing several opportunities and crying to the refs every 5 seconds. The Trail Blazers fell in the Western Finals after blowing leads in games 2, 3, and 4, which brought us the nonsense notion that the Nuggets would’ve given the Warriors a better series (they wouldn’t have), and the Milwaukee Bucks went up 2-1 in the Eastern Finals only to lose 3 straight and fall in 6 games to the Raptors.
This year’s Finals matchup pits the Golden State Warriors, who have made their 5th straight Finals appearance, against the Toronto Raptors, who are making their first ever Finals appearance in team history. You always like seeing these types of championship matchups, the ones where the championship newcomers go up against the juggernaut dynasty. Always brings a good story, but don’t expect a very competitive finals, this series could end before it even starts.
This year, the Warriors don’t have home-court advantage in the Finals for the first time in their 5 years being there, Game 1 will be in Toronto this Thursday. They will be without Kevin Durant when they head to Canada, who’s still dealing with his nagging calf injury, although Demarcus Cousins could be back for the start of the series after dealing with a torn quad. Even with these losses they still have their 2 other all-stars in the Splash Brothers, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who combined to average 57 points in the Western Conference Finals against Portland, so they should be relatively fine until both of those guys come back.
Toronto has to take advantage of these losses if they want to even have a chance in this series, and Kawhi Leonard will have to play better than he’s had all season. Kawhi is making a good case for being one of the most dominant players in the NBA right now and for good reason, he’s averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists so far in these playoffs, and has gotten the Raptors over the hump after many years of playoff futility and failure. He’s backed up by Kyle Lowry and an emerging Pascal Siakam, who has gone from an obscure bench player at the start of the season to regular starter for Toronto.
On paper the Warriors look to be the clear, runaway favorite, however Toronto did win the 2 matchups against Golden State this season, including a 20-point blowout win in Oakland. However, the Warriors have only gotten stronger since that point, coasting to the Finals on the back of their all-star lineup. They do have some questions coming into the series though. Like will Durant and Cousins return? And if so when? Golden State’s main problem is injuries, and if that continues to hold them back, it could open a door for Toronto. However they have way more questions than Golden State does. Like can Pascal Siakam matchup against Draymond Green, who’s been on fire in the playoffs and playing better than ever. Can Kawhi Leonard carry his form over into the Finals and continue his so far exceptional playoffs. Who guards Curry? Is it Kyle Lowry, who has gotten to defend less talented players so far in the playoffs, or Fred VanVleet, a guy who shot lights out in the Eastern Conference Finals but hasn’t shown any capability of defending well, and he certainly hasn’t guarded people like Curry well. A lot of things seem to be up in the air for the Raptors, and it could prove costly if they don’t figure out a good enough gameplan to deal with it.
They do have some X-factors however. Take Marc Gasol, who wasn’t on the team when the Raptors played their 2 games against Golden State, he’s one of the better passing big men in the NBA along with a high basketball IQ. The Warriors tend to lose focus sometimes on both ends of the floor, and Gasol has the ability to pick apart lazy defenses. They also have great outside shooters in Danny Green and Norman Powell. The Warriors of course, are the best shooting team in the league, if not all time, so if the Raptors hope to control the tempo and keep up, they need consistent contributions from both Green and Powell. Powell can be one of those X-factors off the bench for Toronto and provides a level of explosiveness that no one else on their bench has. He can get hot in a hurry, and he’s not afraid to shoot the ball a lot. Danny Green has been a little cold for the Raptors in these playoffs, but he has a tendency to get hot at the right time on the big stage, as we saw when he was with San Antonio during their championship run. If both of those guys can make an impact, the Raptors could hope to match the Warriors shooting power.
For the Warriors, they need to figure out a way to guard Kawhi Leonard, and while Durant will be matched up with him in the series, they could hope to get a little help from the bench in their sixth man, Andre Iguodala. Iguodala won Finals MVP in 2015 by locking down Lebron James and making key stops on defense. He’s made the same type of efforts during these playoffs too, helping Golden State manage to keep a distance on the scoreboard against their opponents. He’ll be starting at least Game 1 for Golden State, and he has the size to contain Leonard, and while he may not completely shut him down, he can make those key stops that could be crucial for the Warriors.
The main key for Toronto is to control the tempo of the game, and find a way to slow down the Warriors offense. They need Leonard to continue to shine by making key plays on both sides of the ball, including locking down Kevin Durant (who he will be guarding), and consistently putting up points. The main key for Golden State is to just keep doing what they are doing and stick to their own gameplan. They need Curry and Thompson to step up like they have been in the absence of KD and Cousins, and they need to push the pace if they can’t make enough defensive stops, which is another thing they need to try and accomplish.
For me, I can sit here and pretend that the Warriors don’t have the firepower to compete with Toronto due to injuries, and that the Raptors are just too good right now and will push Golden State to their limit to win the series. But I’m going to be real here, it’s the Warriors who are just too good right now. The Raptors may have won both games in the regular season, but those come with some giant asterisks. In the first game Curry and Draymond Green didn’t play and Demarcus Cousins didn’t play in either game. Cousins is coming back, and so is Durant, and the Raptors really only have one star player that has carried them to this point in Kawhi Leonard. Kyle Lowry is showing signs of aging and it looks like he might be on his last legs. The same thing could be said for Marc Gasol, although he is still contributing at a good amount for Toronto. Needless to say, the Warriors don’t really have a major flaw that the Raptors can exploit, and that’s why they’ve been able to coast through the playoffs and get into the Finals with ease. Sure they have had a few bumps in the road, especially when they blew a 31 point lead to the Clippers in the first road, but the Warriors are the Warriors, and sadly they are just a few steps above everyone else in the league. They are currently making a case for being one of the best teams of all time, and after winning their 4th title in 5 years, they can make an even better one.