The stage is set, the teams are chosen, and at last the NBA Finals are upon us. The returning champion Golden State Warriors face off against the first-time Finals attendee Toronto Raptors. The Warriors, coming off their 5th series sweep of their last 11 postseason matchups, are on the road to begin the series for the first time in any of their last few finals appearances, all of which happened in the past 5 years. Starting on the road isn’t the only difference in this series for the Warriors, as they’ll be facing a LeBron-less team. Will the change in competition yield a change in result, or will the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors become the next team to fall short of the big time against one of the deadliest superteams in NBA history?
Understandably, far fewer teams have met in the finals than in the playoffs, but no matter the Western Conference team, these finals will be all new. The Toronto Raptors have made it to the NBA Finals for their first ever time in the teams 24-year history, and they’ve done it in spectacular fashion with a near sweep of the Orlando Magic, a buzzer beater against the Philadelphia 76ers, and a 4-2 comeback from being down 2-0 against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. The Warriors put away the rest of the west in usual fashion, despite losing Demarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant for lengths of the playoffs. Here’s where it gets interesting: the Raptors hadn’t beaten the Warriors in any game since the 2013-14 season until this year, where they won both games on the season series by 3 points in OT and a 20 point blowout respectively. Despite the Raptors success this year, the Warriors lead the all-time series 28-17. It remains to be seen whether the Raptors will indeed turn back into a pumpkin and be swept over by the Warriors or whether they’ll claim Finals glory, besting the greatest team in the modern era.
Iestyn’s Things to Watch: Toronto
Admittedly, the catalyst for the Raptors this postseason has been Kawhi Leonard, but consistency from a star player is to be expected. His electric dunks, shutdown defence, and high percentage shooting carried the Raptors for a vast majority of the playoffs, but the Warriors have proven that one star player isn’t enough to best them in a series. Kawhi’s performance has undoubtedly been nothing short of masterful since taking the reins in Toronto but it’ll take more than one man to thwart the champions.
Luckily, the Raptors took all of their 4 wins over Milwaukee with the help of some other key players. Kyle Lowry played like a real NBA player for likely the first playoff series of his career, Fred VanVleet shot 14/17 from behind the 3-point line through the last 3 games, and Pascal Siakam looked like a bonafide star in his own right at times. If the Raptors can continue to find the open man, and rotate out their less eclectic shooters (Like Danny Green, who went 1/14 from distance in their 4 wins), the Raptors could genuinely shut down Golden State.
Iestyn’s Things to Watch: Golden State
Unfortunately for the Raptors, Golden State are potentially the scariest team to touch the court in the modern era. Steph Curry has led an undefeated group since losing Kevin Durant in the second-to-last game of the second round, and they seem almost better for it. Sweeping the most exciting Portland team in a few years in the Western Conference Finals was likely the proof we all need that the Warriors don’t need KD (A joke, we already knew that).
In KD’s absence Andrew Bogut, Damian Jones, and Jordan Bell have stepped into his starting role. They haven’t stayed there long however, with the three players averaging just over 8 minutes in each game started. Coach Steve Kerr has stated he prefers to coach on the fly when missing starters, rotating out players as problems arise and catering to the talent of his remaining starters. If Kerr can master the rotation once more when KD returns this series, the Warriors might make short work of Toronto.
Raul’s Things To Watch : Toronto
Toronto makes it to the finals out of a very tough conference. The East will always be mocked as being lesser than the West and with Lebron no longer in the mix but this was a very tough conference. The top half of the East were all serious contenders in Toronto, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston. Kawhi has willed the Raptors to their first finals appearance in franchise history and now face the favorites and a team looking to win their fourth title in five years, what do they need to do to get it done ?
The Toronto Raptors are undeniably Kawhi Leonard’s team but during the conference finals his supporting cast showed up and was the difference in the series. Kyle Lowry played extremely well and bumped up his play, averaging 19 PPG while shooting nearly 50% from beyond the arc against the Bucks. Marc Gasol stepped up as well, getting to double figures in the Raptors first two wins against the Bucks at home which set off their rally. Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet each provided a ton of shooting off the bench. To shock the world the “other guys” on the Raptors will have to do much of the same if they are going to have a chance. Danny Green has struggled throughout the playoffs as he shot an abysmal 4/23 against the Bucks on pretty good looks throughout. He will have to start knocking down shots in the finals and give the Raptors another scoring option along with his solid defense. As much as the role players played well, Kawhi has made his case for being best player in the league, doing something spectacular seemingly every night. During this postseason run he has averaged 31.2 PPG and has simply been phenomenal in the late moments of a game. There was a stretch where Kawhi scored or assisted on ten of the Raptors points where they were still down double digits late in the third quarter. What will be big for coach Nick Nurse is finding a way to manage the star’s workload and making sure he is fresh to take over in the fourth. There have been numerous times he has had his hands on his knees and he has been banged up during this playoff run.
Defensively, Leonard and Green will have the biggest responsibilities as those will be the two who will most likely be on the tandem of Klay and Steph. With KD ruled out for game one the Golden State offense will again be focused the off ball movement of those two. Siakam will play a huge role as well as he will have to get in the air space of Draymond and make it hard as he conducts the offense.
In order to pull off the upset the role players will have to continue to play well, and Kawhi will have to continue to play like Kawhi. If Danny Green can find his long ball again while Lowry, Van Vleet and Powell continue to shoot lights out, Toronto will have a chance. The incredible Toronto crowd has done its job as they have gone 8-2 at home this postseason. Toronto will have to defend home court and make it hard on Curry, and force guys like McKinnie and Looney to beat them.
Raul’s Things To Watch: Golden State
This is a familiar spot to be in for the Warriors. They are appearing in their fifth straight finals under the Curry, Klay and Dray core. The Warriors are once again the heavy favorites and will look to complete a three-peat and win their fourth championship in five years. After getting through their conference finals matchup without finals and with rest, are the Warriors bound to be hoisting the trophy once again?
The Warriors handled the Blazers in a difficult sweep. Game one was the only of the four victories which came easy to Golden State, the other four had to be done in comeback fashion. Can the Warriors afford to go down big against a Raptors team which has had a killer instinct throughout the postseason?
KD has once again been ruled out for game one while Cousins is questionable and it is uncertain when either will return. The Warriors will be forced to rely on the shooting backcourt of Curry and Klay with Draymond anchoring the defense. They have done well in the absence of KD as they have gone 5-0 ever since the injury in game five of their conference semifinals series against the Rockets. Curry welcomed the focus back on him as he has averaged 35.2 PPG in the five games with him as the leader. Klay has done well too, scoring 24 or more in three of the five outings.
The Warriors are the Curry and Klay show on offense but the resurgence of Draymond Green was incredible as he returned to the swiss army knife that everyone knows him as. Green put in a triple double in the last two games to close out Portland and has been a force on defence.
The biggest question mark other than the health of KD will be the job Iguodala can do on Kawhi. During the matchups with Cleveland he was always tasked with guarding Lebron and this year will be no different as they go up against Kawhi. Coming off an injury, how effective can he be in containing Leonard.
The Warriors last game was on May 20th, another question will be how they respond to the massive amount of time off. If the team gets off to a slow start will they be able to again get out of the hole especially since Toronto plays so well at home.
How will the Warriors depth be tested. McKinnie, Jerebko, Cook and Jones will have to play important minutes, how will they play on the biggest stage. If either Curry or Klay get into foul trouble, where will the scoring come from ? Quinn Cook and Livingston will need to play well to keep the Raptors honest.
Raul: Overall this should be a really fun and interesting series. Everyone is counting out the Raptors and already crowning Golden State but not so fast. The Raptors swept the Warriors in the regular season and a twenty point win over the Warriors came without Kawhi. The Raptors having home court will be key as well as they feed off the crowd and shoot well. This series will go longer than five games but at the end of the day it is hard to bet against the Warriors. Ultimately cannot see the Raptors containing Curry for four games.
Final Prediction: Warriors in 7
Iestyn: With the Raptors newfound energy and competitive play since coming out of the first round, they look like serious contenders for the crown. Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater over Philadelphia seemed to be the hit that got the ball rolling for them to finally compete at the highest level of play and their defence is one of the best in the league. If Toronto can protect home court and lock down either Curry, KD, or Klay at any point in Oakland, they can salt this series away and finally put a trophy in the cabinet.
Final Prediction: Raptors in 7