2019 NBA Finals Preview: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors
The NBA Finals are at last upon us! The representatives for each conference have been decided: the Toronto Raptors from the East and the Golden State Warriors from the West. We’re finally down to the last two teams, duking it out in a best of seven series for this year’s NBA championship.
For the Raptors, getting this far has been a tremendous success. Toronto's president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri went all in last summer, trading away a beloved player in DeMar DeRozan for an elite player in Kawhi Leonard. It was a big gamble, as Leonard was coming off an injury that sidelined him almost all of last season and also could walk away from the Raptors this summer. Last summer Ujiri also promoted Nick Nurse to head coach, following the removal of Dwayne Casey as the sacrificial lamb when the Raptors were swept again by LeBron James. Both moves paid off and now the Raptors are heading to their first NBA Finals in franchise history.
Toronto Raptors preview
The road to the Finals for the Raptors certainly wasn’t an easy one. In the opening series they dropped a close Game 1 to the Orlando Magic. The Raptors responded by winning the next four in commanding fashion to secure the series. In their second round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, it took all seven games to decide the winner. In the end, Leonard won the series off what is still one of the highlights of the playoffs.
Still amazing to see a ball bounce four times before going in, let alone that shot defining a series. While the Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks were decided in six games, it was still just as much of a challenge. The Bucks won the first two games at home, the second of which was a blowout that had the series in question. Following Game 3, Leonard was tasked with guarding Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was an effective adjustment by Nick Nurse, stalling the engine that drove the Bucks. Along with some hot shooting from Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, the Raptors won the next four games to advance to the Finals.
By no means though are they content to just be here. This Raptors team is a legitimate threat, having won 58 games in the regular season and finishing fifth in offensive rating, fifth in defensive rating, and third in overall net rating. Despite being the second seed in the East, they’ll have home court advantage over the Warriors, just edging out their 57 wins. After a season where he didn’t play any back-to-backs for “load management,” Leonard has shouldered the load for the Raptors in the postseason. He’s averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game on 50.7% shooting and a staggering 33.1% usage rate. The Claw has arguably been the best player in the playoffs, the other contender we’ll talk about later. The last time he played the Warriors, back in the 2017 Western Conference Finals, he was dominating them before an unfortunate ankle injury knocked him out of the game and the series. With a history of assassinating potential three-peats, he’ll get another chance now.
Golden State Warriors preview
For the Warriors, this has been business as usual on the way to their fifth straight NBA Finals. The only thing different this time around is they won’t be facing a LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers team. They cruised through the regular season, the biggest challenge being all the rumors surrounding Kevin Durant leaving this summer. The Warriors still finished first in offensive rating, 13th in defensive rating, but second in net rating. While the defensive rating looks alarming, that was mainly due to lack of effort, not talent. It’s hard to keep the effort up when you know you’re just waiting for April to really turn it on.
Surprisingly, they had some trouble flipping the switch once the playoffs started. It took them six games to dispatch the Los Angeles Clippers, including giving up a 31-point lead in game 2, the largest single game comeback in NBA playoff history. In the second round series against the Houston Rockets, they played sloppily but still managed to have the series tied 2-2 heading into Game 5. In the third quarter of that game Durant sprained his calf and left the game. For the first time since 2016, the Warriors were without Durant. But the Warriors reminded the world why they were a title contender before Durant, winning Game 5 and then Game 6 in Houston to close the series. Against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, the Durant-less Warriors fully revived their old self. Frantic, constant motion and hot shooting from the splash brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson while Draymond Green filled in the cracks and dominated on the defensive end. They swept the Trail Blazers in four games, with chef Curry cooking it up.
Make no mistake, though, the Warriors would love to have Durant back. After reminding the world who he was, Durant has been the other player in the conversation with Leonard for best player in these playoffs. Before the injury, Durant averaged 34.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game with 50-40-90 shooting (50% from the field, 40% from 3, 90% from the line). Like Leonard, he also bore much of the workload for the Warriors, averaging a 33% usage rate. Fortunately for the Warriors they still have another superstar in Curry, who’s averaging 34 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game since Durant has been out. Even without one of the best players in the world, the Warriors are still a real threat.
Heading into Game 1
As mentioned, Game 1 will be in Toronto as they have home court advantage. Durant is already slated to miss at least Game 1, which gives the Raptors an opportunity to take a lead in the series. There best bet will be to try to recreate what the Cavaliers did in the 2016 Finals, slow the pace, control the half court, and win a game with a score in the 90s. Leonard is the perfect type of player for the half court game. He is slow, methodical, and takes his time until he finds the right shot. Durant could return as early as Game 2, and the Warriors will be that much harder to beat once he does. If the Raptors want a chance at the title, they have to capitalize while he’s out. Overall, though, I don’t think the Raptors have enough to bridge the talent gap against the Warriors. I’m predicting Warriors get the three-peat in an entertaining six games.