It’s Finals season!
When the NBA Finals tip off on Thursday, the buzz around the media will be, in large part, about the impending free agency period coming up this summer. The NBA will undoubtedly dominate the headlines over the coming months, with a handful of the best players in the league expected to switch teams and change the landscape of the league. A couple of those players are featured in this year’s NBA Finals between the Raptors and the Warriors. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard have been at the center of the speculation in recent months. Personally, I hate the concept of players signing short term deals, jumping around to different teams and causing insane amounts of speculation and drama. It takes away from the product on the court and analysts spend more time analyzing where players are going to sign in 1-2 years instead of actually analyzing the damn games! However, this is the nature of the league, for better or for worse. This summer might be the most interesting offseason in NBA history, but let’s not forget that we must crown a champion first! So, let’s break it down and see who will win this year’s title.
One of the most interesting NBA seasons of all time is coming to an end. This season saw record breaking scoring numbers from Harden. The emergence of Giannis as a probable MVP and the development of the talent around him turned the Bucks into a budding Eastern Conference powerhouse. The drama with LeBron and his crew in Los Angeles dominated headlines all season. LeBron failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2005. Similar drama surrounded Kyrie Irving and his young teammates in Boston before the Celtics, many people’s favorite to win the East before the season, were smoked by the Bucks in the East semis. When the dust settled, the Raptors and the Warriors were the last two teams standing. Everyone knew the Warriors were coming out of the West. The Raptors season was similar to their superstar’s demeanor: quiet. Drama unfolded in Boston. Trades and loud personalities dominated the headlines in Philadelphia. The Milwaukee Bucks won the most games in the league and watched Giannis dominate his way to a likely MVP. However, no one really said a lot about what was going on north of the border in Toronto. The Raptors quietly won 58 games before making some serious noise in the playoffs. Kawhi had the best moment of the postseason so far with his off balance buzzer beating three in the corner to down the Sixers in game 7.
That shot will go down as one of the greatest shots in basketball history, especially if the Raptors can pull a miraculous upset in the Finals. Golden State is obviously favored going into this series but let’s break down what it’s going to take for each team to win.
Side 1: The Golden State Warriors will win their fourth title in five years
This side does not even need an argument. Back in 2016, most people would have told you that the Warriors would likely be the 2019 NBA champs. This is what happens when a team that had won a title and 73 games adds a top three player in the world. The Warriors are simply unbeatable when their core is healthy. Golden State has lost only one playoff series since 2015. They’ve won 18 of their last 19 series coming into this Finals. They are an absolute juggernaut at the height of their powers. Most people would agree that this unit is one of, if not the best, team in NBA history. The only series they lost during that stretch was without Kevin Durant. Let’s talk about Durant for a minute because his health seems to be the main story coming into this series. KD has missed the Warriors last 5 games and does not appear to be coming back soon. What was originally diagnosed as a calf strain seems to be more serious than what people initially thought. In fact, Durant may have played his last game as a Warrior if he does not return for the Finals. However, the Warriors are so deep with talent that they don’t even need Durant’s services to capture the title. The Warriors are 5-0 in the playoffs without Durant this year. They’ve now stretched their record to 31-1 when Curry plays but Durant doesn’t. That record equals a 96.9% win percentage and stretches out to a mind-bending 79 total wins over a full NBA season.
Why have the Warriors achieved remarkable sustained success without Durant? The simple answer is that they have the same core from a 2015-16 team that won 73 games without Durant. Curry, Thompson and Green are all still in their primes and they have outstanding complimentary role players that know their role and play it very well. The Warriors are able to use a more free flowing offensive system without KD. The system involves putting the ball in Draymond’s hands at the top of the key and running Klay and Steph off a million screens while Draymond waits for them to get open or for someone else to roll to the hoop for an easy finish.
Durant was always more of an isolation player and we’ve seen this continue in Golden State. Considering that Durant is, I think, the best pure scorer in basketball history, he is able to use isolations effectively. He can score the ball from literally any spot on the court at a high rate at any given time. Every shot he takes is a good shot and he can get anywhere that he wants to go on the court, whenever he wants. However, Golden State is more fun to watch when they play a faster tempo and move the ball quicker without Durant.
No team in NBA history would be better off without Durant, so let’s axe that narrative now. No, the Warriors are not a better team without Durant. Nevertheless, Durant’s absence opens opportunities for Golden State against the Raptors. The Warriors high pick and roll game against the Raptors’ big men is a huge advantage. Marc Gasol is a solid player for Toronto, but he may be riding a lot more pine in this series if Durant doesn’t play. The Warriors will run him through endless pick and rolls to get a Gasol-Curry matchup. At that point, it’s over. Steph will have a field day with that matchup.
Steph Curry is also coming off of one of the best offensive series in NBA history. He torched the Blazers for at least 36 points in all four games of the WCF sweep. His confidence seems to be at an all-time high and he goes into this series fully healthy (not always the case the previous 4 Finals) and looking to capture his first NBA Finals MVP. Injury seems to be the only way the Warriors can lose this series. KD’s status is uncertain, Iguodala (a Finals MVP and the most underrated player throughout the course of this Warriors dynasty) was banged up last round and we still don’t know what to make of Demarcus Cousins. Cousins’ status is the most interesting to me. Statistically, the Warriors were a better team with him off the floor this season than when he played. If I’m the Warriors, I probably would not even consider playing him unless he is 100% healthy. We know what the Warriors are without Cousins on the floor: one of the greatest teams of all time. Due to his injuries this year, we don’t really know what the Warriors are with him on the floor, especially in such a critical and high pressure series. Cousins is a volatile player and it seems like the Warriors can’t get any better if he plays anyways.
Golden State is the favorite for a reason. As long as they stay healthy, whether Durant returns or not, it’s hard to see them losing four games. The relentlessness of this team is absolutely remarkable. Over this five year stretch, they never became complacent or satisfied. Just when people think they are heading into a slump or there is tension in the locker room, they rip off a winning streak and make it look easy. With the Warriors having a clear talent advantage and being motivated as ever, they will win this year’s title. A major shakeup may be coming this offseason for Golden State, but for the next few weeks it’s going to be fun to watch arguably the most talented team in NBA history do their thing and win another title.
Player to watch this series: Draymond Green
Green had somewhat of a resurrection in the Blazers series. His numbers declined across the board this year and he missed his first all-star game in four years. However, his series against the Blazers was remarkable. He averaged about 17-12-9 over the sweep and those simple numbers don’t even begin to tell the story about his outstanding defense. We saw a side of Draymond that we hadn’t seen in a while. He was energized and animated. He was an uncontainable wrecking ball that reminded everyone why he is a former defensive player of the year. Green will have a huge role in this series, with or without Durant. Coming off of the best series of his career, he is my pick to win the Finals MVP. If Durant does not play, his skills will be even more impactful. Since Durant is a ball dominant player, we often forget how skilled Draymond is with the ball and his excellence will be on display if Durant is out.
Side 2: Toronto will pull a historic upset and win their first title
What an incredible season for the Raptors. Oftentimes in sports, teams have to go through traumatic lows before reaching all-time highs. Last year, Virginia basketball suffered a heart breaking first round NCAA tournament upset before plowing through the field and capturing the championship this year. Will Toronto do the same? For the last few years, the Raptors suffered merciless playoff losses and sweeps to LeBron’s Cavaliers. They came to be known as a regular season team: finishing with one of the top seeds in the East year after year without ever coming close to the Finals.
Kawhi Leonard finally pushed the Raptors over the top. Kawhi is everything to the Raptors and it’s great to see him among the game’s elite again. Two years ago, Kawhi’s Spurs team was up 23 points at the half of game one against this very Warriors team. Then Kawhi got injured and the Spurs were swept. After missing all of last season, Kawhi came back with a vengeance this year. In typical Kawhi fashion, he quietly lead the Raptors to a better record than the Warriors and delivered an all-time playoff shot before upsetting the Bucks with four straight wins to end that series. Leonard is hands down having one of the greatest postseasons in NBA history. His play, on both ends, has elevated as the postseason has gone on. As brilliant as his offense has been, his defense changed the Milwaukee series. The Raptors were down 0-2 before giving Kawhi the impossible task of defending Giannis one on one. Kawhi not only took the challenge but excelled at it. His length limited Giannis and the Raptors slowed down the Greek Freak by having Kawhi pressure him at the top and clogging the paint down low.
Kawhi is arguably the best player in the world right now. He’s getting it done consistently on both ends of the court. While the Warriors have numerous options to throw at Kawhi, they’re unlikely to slow him down. Kawhi is similar to Durant in that he can hit from any spot on the floor consistently. He doesn’t need a lot of space to get his shots off and just about any shot is a good shot for Leonard. The only concern for him is the health of his leg and general fatigue. He was visibly limping a bit in the Raptors previous two series. However, with plenty of time off to rest and recover, he should be close to 100% going into this series.
One of the Raptors biggest advantages has nothing to do with the players. The Raptors have home court in this series and this is a huge advantage for them. This is the first year during this Warriors run that they have not had home court. Considering this is the Raptors first time ever in the Finals and they have a whole country backing them, you can bet that Scotiabank arena will be rocking for the first two games.
Another strong advantage for the Raptors is their absurd length and athleticism, especially on the defensive end. Lead by Kawhi, Toronto has a deep roster of athletic and long dudes who will relentlessly strangle the Warriors. Kawhi is one of the best defenders of all time. Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all elite and versatile defenders. Additionally, the Raptors may see the return of former Hoosier OG Anunoby in this series. Anunoby isn’t a great scorer but he is a freakish athlete whose 6’8 height and 7’6 wingspan allow him to cover multiple positions. Anunoby’s return is a huge plus for the Raptors, as they have made it this far in the postseason without him. He could be a solid weapon off the bench to come in and play aggressive and pesky defense for short stretches on multiple Warriors, assuming he does return early in the series.
The defense of Kawhi cannot be understated. This is also why his days of rest before the Finals were so important. The Raptors will need him to play elite on both ends to have any chance in this series. It will be interesting to see who Kawhi starts out defending in this series. I assume they will start him on Iguodala, who will be handling the ball a lot for the Warriors. Considering the importance of saving his energy for offensive, it’s better for Kawhi to guard a player who handles the ball a lot, instead of chasing Steph and Klay around the whole court and running through a million screens. Kawhi is also good enough to switch onto Steph or Klay at a moment’s notice when one of them inevitably gets white hot. His insanely big hands and length allow him to bother ball handlers and clog passing lanes. This is another advantage for the Raptors. Golden State’s offense without Durant is predicated on nonstop movement and off ball screens. The incredible length of Toronto’s defenders will allow them to disrupt passing lanes and cause a lot of turnovers, which has always been a weakness for these Warriors.
The Warriors have not faced a defensive team like the Raptors. It’s basically impossible to beat the Warriors in a seven game series by trying to outscore them offensively. The Rockets tried it and failed two years in a row. For every three-pointer that you make, the Warriors will make two. If a team is able to drop 130 on the Warriors, the Warriors will find a way to score 135. To beat the Warriors, you must slow them down and force turnovers, and Toronto is certainly capable of that. Another huge key early in the series is for the Raptors to protect home court. They must get off to a strong start. If the Raptors drop the first two games in Toronto, the series is over. Ideally, Toronto must set a physical tone in game one and capture a victory to put pressure on Golden State.
Player to watch: Kyle Lowry
I haven’t even mentioned Lowry yet but he is the key for the Raptors. Lowry is a veteran with tons of playoff experience. He is also known as a player who has shrunk in the playoffs the last few years. Lowry was basically the leader for the last few years for this Raptors team that always played great in the regular season, only to fizzle out in the playoffs.
With Kawhi on board this year, there has been much less pressure on Lowry to perform offensively. He has played well in the playoffs so far but they need high offensive production from him this series if they have any shot of winning. This series is going to come down to if the Raptors can make shots down the stretch. Lowry is the guy who will need to step up and hit big shots with Kawhi. If struggles, I think this series will be over quick. If he can consistently knock down shots late in the game, the Raptors have a real shot in this series.
The Warriors will win this series in six games. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Warriors dynasty is how quickly they can make a lead disappear. No lead against the Warriors is safe. They’re one of the only teams in NBA history where they can be down ten points with five minutes left and you still feel confident that they will win. We saw this in their series with the Blazers. The Warriors were down double digits in the second half in each of the last three games and ended up winning all three of them. You can play great basketball against them for 42 minutes and still end up losing the game. This makes the fourth quarter even more critical for the Raptors. Can they slow the game down and limit their turnovers in the clutch? Kawhi is an outstanding clutch player. This series is going to come down to whether or not Kawhi can get buckets in the last six minutes of the game. He can put up 35 points in three and a half quarters against the Warriors but if he doesn’t get buckets in the clutch, this series could be over quick.
I see Toronto winning one of the first two games at home and then stealing another game later in this series but ultimately I don’t think they have enough offensive playmakers to keep the pressure on the Warriors. They are an outstanding defensive and athletic team but to beat the Warriors, you need multiple players who can get buckets down the stretch. Outside of Kawhi, they don’t have another player who is reliable to get good shots late in the game. I will certainly be rooting for the Raptors but they will be overwhelmed trying to contain the Warriors weapons. Golden State in six.
Finals MVP: Draymond Green
What do YOU think? Who will win the Finals and in how many games?
NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax