2019 NBA Finals: Ranking the Most Critical Matchups Between the Raptors and the Warriors
At long last the NBA Finals are here, and the defending champion Golden State Warriors are set to defend their title against the Toronto Raptors. It’s a clash between the postseason’s top offense and top defense, and a series that will be defined by some very intriguing individual match-ups.
With 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard at the helm, the Raptors are loaded with length, grit, and know-how. On the other side of the coin, however, is the class of the NBA, those inevitable Golden State Warriors.
How the opposing pieces fit together in this puzzle will determine who hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy later this month. Let’s break it down:
Steph Curry vs Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry has been an All-Star for five straight seasons. This year Lowry has done well to put some of his playoff demons to bed, and has played exceptionally well this spring. Though his offensive numbers have waned, his scrappy play has been critical for the Raptors.
Steph Curry is having a very different postseason. Since Kevin Durant was sidelined with injury, Curry has gone full supernova. He’s shooting the ball once again at his impossible elite level, and absolutely humiliated the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers in quick succession.
Lowry likely won’t be tasked with guarding Curry very much, if at all. He’s too slow and too small, weaknesses a player like Curry would mercilessly exploit. It feels likely Curry guards Lowry, though.
Still, as the starting point guard’s for their respective clubs, how Lowry and Curry perform will be of critical importance. Curry is the very essence of this Golden State team, while Lowry is a critical piece for Toronto.
Kawhi Leonard vs Everybody
As crucial as Steph Curry may be for the Warriors, Kawhi Leonard has proven that much more important for the Raptors. Even with an injured leg, his brilliant play completely upended the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Kawhi has been the MVP of the postseason, and in a big way. That the Raptors are in the NBA Finals at all is a testament to Leonard’s exceptional play on both sides of the ball. To that end, Kawhi represents some intriguing matchup questions.
As soon as Kawhi began to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, the scales in the Eastern Conference Finals tipped in a massive way. Putting Leonard on Curry could be a way for the Raptors to blitz the Warriors and upend their powerful offense. Kawhi is one of the few players with the speed and length to guard Curry. This would leave the combined length of Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam left waiting to defend Draymond Green in any Curry-Green pick and rolls.
Kawhi can just as easily create headaches for the Warriors defense, too. Klay Thompson is a wildly underrated on-ball defender, but does he have the strength to stop Kawhi at the rim? Is Draymond Green fast enough to chase Kawhi around screens and off-ball actions?
Kawhi is the x-factor in this series. Deciphering the potentially matchups really begins and ends with Leonard.
Kevin Durant vs Anybody
Curry and Leonard have truly each had incredible, all-time postseasons. And yet the best player in the series might not play at all.
Though Kevin Durant will reportedly travel to Toronto with the Warriors, his status is unclear. His strained calf injury has lingered, and there doesn’t appear to be any concrete evidence as to whether or not he’ll be able to go at all during the Finals.
Durant, when healthy, might very well be the best basketball player in the world right now. Even if he comes back in a limited capacity, the entire calculus of the series changes immensely.
Kawhi and Co. might be able to bottle up the Curry-Green pick and roll. But what happens if Durant - perhaps the purest offensive player in the game - is waiting in the wings? Suddenly Toronto’s defensive assignments get completely up-ended. Kawhi may have to guard Durant, not Curry.
To that end, if Durant is healthy, he is just as unique as Kawhi. He might have the secret stuff to stop Leonard as few other players can.
It’s not all that profound to say adding one of the NBA’s best players into the fold changes things considerably. But it is worth really dwelling on how precarious and peculiar Durant’s injury is. The fate of the NBA Title may very well rest on his calf.