FOR the first time in five years we have a different NBA Finals matchup! A breath of fresh air is a welcome change after the annual Cleveland-Golden State showdowns, with the Toronto Raptors introducing the Warriors with a new challenger. While Dub Nation still remains the one to beat, a cyborg in Kawhi Leonard won’t be intimidated or shy away from the moment. Durant’s health, Lowry’s aggressiveness, Toronto’s defense vs. Golden State’s offense, homecourt advantage and of course, Drake’s courtside antics have all been discussed ad nauseam as we prep for the 2019 Finals. One more time won’t hurt, right?
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Recipe For Success: Golden State Warriors
CLEARLY the Warriors enter this series as the favourite on their quest to claim their third straight championship and fourth in five years. To do so they face a tough task and new opponent to years past in Toronto after going to war with the Cleveland Cavaliers in each of the last four Finals. The Raptors, much like the Cavs start and end with their superstar forward this time in the shape and form of Kawhi Leonard. Stopping Kawhi has proven to be a near impossible task so far this postseason and Golden State may not be able to stop the methodical master from getting to his spots and scoring at will, but they have to at least try and slow him down.
ANDRE Iguodala has made a reputation in recent seasons for locking horns with some of the best wing players the league has to offer and once again it seems like he’ll be the one who gets the call up early on. Iggy won’t be able to nullify Leonard by himself and instead, Golden State will need to take a team orientated approach to shut down driving and passing lanes for Kawhi. It’s an approach that the Warriors are used to taking with Draymond Green able to provide help defense and valuable rim protection while the craftier guards try to play the lanes and ignite their fast break opportunities.
WE know that Golden State can score in a flurry and getting out in transition can help fuel their trademark double-digit run’s and change the game in the blink of an eye. In the halfcourt setting, Curry has been the hero in recent times, arguably coming off the best playoff series in his career in a 4-0 triumph over Portland in the West Finals. Averaging 36.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists during the series Curry re-cemented his title as the best player on the Warriors and probably their most important as well. How Toronto opts to defend the dual MVP will go a long way to determining the Finals result, with Curry expected to shoulder a ton of the offensive burden as long as Kevin Durant remains sidelined.
IT’S strange to preview this battle between Toronto and Golden State without knowing exactly what role Durant will play if any at all. He’s travelling with the team and according to Steve Kerr remains a legitimate day-to-day call despite already being ruled ineligible for Game 1. Durant’s impact on this team is unquestionable and I’m not here for any of the chatter around Dub Nation being better off without him. At the time of his injury, Durant had all but reestablished himself as the best player in the league, boasting 50/40/90 shooting splits and averaging 34.2 points a night in 11 playoff contests.
SHOULD Durant miss as much time as expected then the spotlight will shine purely on Steph Curry, who has a polarizing track record in the Finals. His playoff numbers are outstanding don’t get me wrong and personally I think Curry is a bit underrated when discussing his impact in the postseason, but for better or worse he has a habit of throwing up a dud or two in the Finals. Six times in his career Curry has scored fewer than 20 points int he finals, with the Warriors owning a 3-3 record in those contests. Curry could truly establish himself as one of the 12-18 best players in the history of basketball with a Finals MVP calibre performance, one that he is more than capable of. However, if he does struggle to find his shot and score the rock, it could give Toronto the belief they need to force a long series. While that might be a catch 22 for the Raptors given Kevin Durant’s impending return, Curry has the chance to squash any chance of an upset and further enhance his legacy with a few big games early on in the Finals.
Image from in.nba.com
Recipe For Success: Toronto Raptors
TORONTO didn’t get here by accident, so don’t for a second go thinking that the Warriors are in for an easy series. While the main talking point is Kawhi Leonard and his unreal playoff heroics this Raptors team is, simply put, so much more. Noted postseason struggler Kyle Lowry looked set to be the team’s Achilles heel after an 0-7 shooting night in the opening game of Toronto’s playoff charge. However, since laying that egg Lowry has very quickly abolished the playoff demons of year’s past, culminating in his Conference Finals performances where he averaged 19.2 points while nailing 46.5% of his three-point tries.
THAT hot shooting from downtown was a constant in Toronto’s series win over the favoured Bucks, knocking down 37.4% of their attempts from behind the arc. They haven’t been known as a light’s out shooting team throughout the season and the Raptors getting hot at the right time of year could be the difference between this series being a competitive one and one that is over in the blink of an eye. Lowry converting his attempts has been a huge shot in the arm, but Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Marc Gasol, shooting 40% from three-point land was the real boost that got them over the line against Milwaukee. All of this has come with Danny Green shooting just 31.4% from three, despite making 44.5% of his tries (the second highest clip in the league) during the regular season. If he can find his touch while his Raptors teammates stay hot, the Dubs could be in trouble.
A lot has been made on Toronto’s supporting cast around Kawhi Leonard with multiple people (myself included) counting out the Raptors throughout the season. Regardless of what his teammates have dished up, Kawhi has been a staple of production throughout the playoffs so far, putting forth one of the best individual runs we have ever witnessed. While the box scores are eye-popping, the level of efficiency that Leonard has scored at is what stands out the most. 54 times a player who featured in more than 10 playoff games has averaged 30 or more points and only greats like LeBron James (’16-’17), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (’76-’77) and Kevin Durant (’18-’19) own a better true shooting percentage, a stat that purely measures a player’s ability to efficiently shoot the ball. TS% is only one metric that stands out from Kawhi’s box score, with his defensive abilities just as impressive.
IN fact, as a unit the Raptors have turned their defense into perhaps their greatest strength. It’s no huge surprise given their solid play over the 82-game season, but they kicked things into overdrive recently, which saw them romp Milwaukee after falling down 0-2 in the series. During the final four games of the East Finals, all Raptors wins, Toronto held the Bucks to just 102.3 points per 100 possessions, which was a far cry from the 113.5 points per 100 possessions Milwaukee averaged in the regular season. To put it into perspective that 102.3 points per 100 possession mark would have made Milwaukee the worst offense in the league this season as Toronto’s mix of pesky guards and lanky wings caused them to virtually self implode.
GOING head-to-head with Golden State is a different matchup entirely, however, and it’s one that should be thrilling to watch. We have all seen the trademark scoring spree’s the Warriors are capable of going on, particularly in the latter stages of games. When Golden State does inevitably score 10-15 points in quick succession, how Toronto responds will be telling. It’s all well and good to go into the game with a blueprint of how you want to play and control the outcome, but if the Raptors can’t quickly quell the best offense in basketball when they find their mojo, the Raptors’ stay in the Finals will be brief.
Image from washingtonpost.com
WHILE some may view Toronto making the Finals as a win already, there’s a real chance for them to claim their first NBA title if things break right. Of course, Durant’s impending return will be telling as Leonard will have to lock horns with him on the defensive end, potentially draining his energy that could be deployed on offense. The Raptors’ roster 2 through 15 will be where this series is won or lost in my opinion, with their three-point shooting and defensive capabilities crucial in making life hard for the GSW. Kawhi Leonard will no doubt have his superhuman performances, but one star player can only get you so far.
Numbers That Matter
6 – TORONTO’S first appearance in the NBA Finals leaves just six franchises without an appearance in their history. Raptors fans are celebrating the fact they’ve made the last dance of the NBA season 23 years after entering the league, but things could be worse. The Clippers haven’t made the finals in 49 seasons with Denver a close second, spending 43 years in the league without a Finals berth.
11 – BEFORE succumbing to injury Demarcus Cousins played his first two career playoff games, recording 11 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes. While his own injury could see him miss the Finals entirely, Cousins’ presence could be crucial, not from an offensive perspective but on the boards. Toronto lost the rebound battle to Milwaukee last round and if Boogie can come back and have a presence on the glass (something that has troubled Golden State in previous Finals) it could give them a significant boost.
Image from news.yahoo.com
32 – SINCE Kevin Durant signed with Golden State there have been 32 games in which Steph Curry laced em up and Durant was sidelined. I’m sure you’re aware, but in those matches, the Warriors own a stellar 31-1 record, leading to some declaring Golden State better off without Durant. While I find the notion absurd, there’s no denying that his absence allows more shots for not only Curry but the likes of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala as well.
107 – OVER the duration of the playoffs Kevon Looney leads the NBA in +/- off the bench boasting an impressive +107 in 16 games. Trailing only Montrezl Harrell in field goal percentage this postseason, Looney’s (shooting 72.5%) 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per doesn’t sound like a lot, but his impact is proving to be extremely important while the Warriors’ stars get their rest.
561 – THE number of points Kawhi has scored this postseason for Toronto. 561 points places him 3rd all-time for career playoff points in Raptors history, taking just one postseason to pass the likes of Chris Bosh, Jonas Valucunias and Vince Carter. Based on his per game averages of 31.16 points he’ll pass DeMar DeRozan for second in another 18 games, with Kyle Lowry currently sitting just 26 points ahead of DeRozan.
1808 – THERE’S always a feel-good feeling when the Finals roll around and this year it’s centred (pun intended) around Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies legend landed in Toronto via a mid-season trade and has now reached the NBA Finals after a long slog through 11 pro seasons. Kyle Lowry qualifying for Finals action is equally heartwarming, with the duo formerly joining forces briefly on the Grizzlies in 2008. The pair have combined to play 1,808 regular season and playoff games in the NBA, more than serving their due’s ahead of the most important seven-game stretch of their careers.
Prediction – Warriors in 5
THERE is definitely a chance that Toronto can top Golden State in the Finals, but that chance is still slim. Nearly everything needs to go perfect for the Raptors to emerge victorious in their quest for a title and the way the city celebrated after Game 6 of the East Finals, you would have thought they already won it all.
AT this time of year experience and a cool head can be the difference between blowing a game and emerging victorious and while Kawhi’s leadership will hold Toronto in good stead, I can’t see them seriously taking it to the Warriors. I hope I’m wrong and GWS in 6 seems to be the popular pick with the Raptors holding homecourt advantage. However, the Warriors have won plenty on the road throughout their dominant five-year postseason stretch and I can’t see them losing that momentum now. I hope I’m wrong for Toronto’s sake, but this one won’t be going the distance.
Banner from sfgate.com
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