Ladies and gentlemen, in less than 24 hours the NBA Finals will grace our eyes and ears with all the best basketball a human being can handle.
This year’s NBA Finals has a bunch of firsts that people can get behind: it’s Canada versus the United States; it’s Kawhi Leonard versus Steph Curry on the world’s biggest stage; it’s the Golden State Warriors versus a team not based in Cleveland.
The other big first that can’t just be shaken off: for the first time in the Warriors’ recent history, they will not have the home-court advantage. That will go to the Toronto Raptors, who have gone through hell and high water to provide Canada with their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.
In The Ball Out’s NBA Finals preview, we will go over three main factors in what will determine whether the Warriors win their fourth championship in five years, or whether Toronto will claim their first championship.
1) THE KAWHI FACTOR
In all seriousness, the Toronto Raptors (who finished with the second-best regular season record at 58-24) might be the best team that the Warriors have faced this postseason. After falling down 0-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard literally placed the Raptors on his shoulders and willed this team to a 4-2 series victory. Leonard averaged 29.8 points per game, 9.5 rebounds and nearly 5 assists a game in the series.
We’re used to Kawhi Leonard being an all-NBA talent, but this post-season has become a defining moment for the soon-to-be free agent. After being traded from the San Antonio Spurs last summer, there was a lot of speculation as to whether Leonard would even suit up for them, much less be the difference maker he is now. The basketball world got the answers to both: Leonard didn’t just suit up, but also became the greatest Toronto Raptor to ever don the uniform.
Leonard’s performance has people turning on its heads, comparing it to the greatest player to ever palm a basketball. Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said in a recent preview that “he is the most like (Michael) Jordan we’ve seen.”
“There’s a lot of great players – LeBron (James) is phenomenal, KD (Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant) is phenomenal but…not like he is Jordan or anything like that…but he’s the most like him,” Rivers said. “Big hands, post game, can finish, great leaper, great defender, in-between game, if you beat him to the spot he bumps you off, and then you add the three-point shooting. I don’t like to get into who’s the best player…but he’s in that group.”
It’s more than likely that Golden State forward and defensive extraordinaire Draymond Green will draw the assignment of defending Leonard. And while Green is capable of defending all five positions, Leonard is not your usual player. With a 7-foot, 3-inch wingspan and fairly nimble feet, Leonard can find his way through or around Green to attack the basket.
If Kawhi Leonard can average his postseason normal, then the Toronto Raptors should have a serious chance at making this a competitive NBA Finals. Which leads to the next factor…
2) THE OTHER TORONTO RAPTORS
Will anyone not named Kawhi Leonard please stand up?
The remainder of the Toronto Raptors squad will need to put together a more consistent performance together. Besides Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, the rest of the team has been very inconsistent. We saw that on full display during the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, and it almost cost them in their last series.
Against the Golden State Warriors, not only is no lead safe, but it takes a damn-near flawless effort on both ends of the court. The Warriors have too many weapons to allow them to all go off at once. Not having two-time consecutive Finals MVP Kevin Durant on the floor for Game 1 will help this lineup, but if Leonard’s supporting cast (and head coach Nick Nurse) cannot find a way to take advantage and scheme around that, it won’t matter.
The Warriors are known for being the best small-ball team possibly in history, and the Raptors may have the big guys that will force them into playing bigger: Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. By having both of them on the floor, the Warriors will have to depend on Andrew Bogut to give them some space, which is not preferred.
That being said, if Leonard isn’t doing the scoring, where will the points come from? Leonard has averaged 31.2 points a game during this post-season. However, the rest of the starting lineup (Lowry, Gasol, Danny Green and Siakam) are only averaging 17 points more combined (48.8). The Warriors have two guys (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) who are averaging that nearly by themselves (the duo have combined to average 46.4 PPG). This leads to the final factor…
3) THE DEFENDING CHAMPS
The Golden State Warriors have done something that has not been done since the 1960’s.
The Warriors are the first team since the Boston Celtics (10 straight NBA Finals from 1957 to 1966, won 9) to appear in five straight NBA Finals. And like the Celtics, they won their first trip before losing the second and then going on a massive tear, winning the last two with the feared ‘Hamptons 5’ line-up of the aforementioned Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant. However, this playoffs may have been the most daunting of the last five for the Warriors, despite the results.
Starting center DeMarcus Cousins injured his right quadriceps in Game 2 of the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers; Durant injured his right calf in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Houston Rockets and missed the entire conference finals, then Iguodala missed the final game of the conference finals with a similar calf injury. That being said, both Cousins and Igoudala are possibilities to play Game One.
The argument has been made since the end of the semi-finals that the Warriors sans Durant have gone back to begin the powerhouse they were when they won the championship back in 2015. And admittedly, there is a damn good argument for that. With Durant out, Curry has been the focal point of the offense and has shown why he was the first-ever unanimous MVP (35.8 PPG, 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists in the last five games), Green has revived his role as the do-it-all playmaker and the ball is moving around better.
However, you also can’t definitively say the Warriors are better off without Kevin Durant. In the 11 games Durant played in this post-season, he has averaged 34.2 points, shot 90 percent from the free-throw line and has shot 41.6 percent from three. With Durant on the floor, he would most likely attract the attention of Leonard, which would keep Curry and Thompson free. And as I mentioned earlier, the Warriors have too many weapons to just try and make one person beat you.
THE FINAL SAY
This series has the potential to either be an all-time great series, or a complete showing of domination. The Warriors have proven with or without Durant that they are capable of running a clean sweep, so the Raptors will have to throw everything they can at them to stand a fighting chance.
That being said, if Durant does come back at least 80 percent of his normal self, this series will be a short one. Toronto has the depth, but not enough consistency to beat the Warriors at near-full strength.
PREDICTION: GOLDEN STATE IN 6
Game One of the NBA Finals will air Thursday, May 30 at 6 p.m. PST on the ABC Network.