• Jorge Cantu

Top 5 Players in the 2019 NBA Finals

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It’s almost June, and with it always comes the most anticipated event in basketball: the NBA Finals. The Warriors were already a juggernaut and then added Kevin Durant into their already stacked mix of weapons. Two years later, the Warriors have won two championships and they are once again the favorites. The Dubs have played formidable opponents in LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers every single year, but this year is different. After a ton of moves made during the offseason and before the trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors are Finals-bound for the first time in franchise history, which means we’ll be seeing some new foes trying to take down the back-to-back champions.

You cannot reach the NBA Finals without talent, and both teams certainly have it. While there is always a subjective aspect in ranking players, here are my top five players in the NBA Finals list. Feel free to reach out via Twitter @CantuNBA to voice your thoughts and discuss these rankings.

Honorable Mention: Kyle Lowry

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Even though Kyle Lowry is not known for stepping up his production or coming up big in the Playoffs, the 6-foot-1 All-Star point guard had arguably the best NBA Playoff series of his career in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. After averaging just 12.4 points, 7.1 assists, five rebounds, and 1.4 steals on 41.2% shooting from the field and a putrid 28.1% shooting from deep throughout the first two rounds, Lowry came back to life against the Milwaukee Bucks to average 19.2 points, 5.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 0.7 steals on 50.7% field goal shooting and a whopping 46.5% from behind the three-point line while attempting 7.2 threes per game. The assist and steal numbers took a hit, but Lowry gave the Raptors some much-needed help in the scoring department to ease the burden on superstar teammate Kawhi Leonard.

While some may argue he belongs in the top 5 ranking, it’s hard to put him there given his aforementioned track record in the playoffs. If the Raptors were facing any other team in the NBA, Lowry would be a surefire top 5 player entering his first NBA Finals. But considering he’s facing a very experienced Warriors squad with five straight Finals appearances, you can’t ignore experience. The experience factor was one of my top arguments as to why the Raptors had a good chance to beat the Bucks in the ECF, but experience is not on Lowry or Toronto’s side anymore.

5. Klay Thompson

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One-half of the sharpshooting backcourt known as the Splash Brothers, Thompson has not enjoyed his most efficient postseason up to date. During the 2019 Playoffs, he has averaged 19.1 points, two assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.5 steals on 42.9% shooting from the field and 39.3% shooting from three. While this stat line is something any player would be proud of, Thompson has set the standard so high that even these numbers look not-as-impressive, particularly the shooting percentages. A career 45.9% overall shooter and a 41.9% three-point shooter, Thompson knows he can be a high-volume scorer without sacrificing a great deal of efficiency. Despite Klay’s minor offensive struggles, he has made up for it with absolute lockdown defense on the opponent’s best perimeter player. At 6-foot-7, Thompson has the length and quickness to keep up with the game’s best guards and allow the much-smaller Stephen Curry to not get destroyed on the defensive end.

I had a very hard time deciding whether to rank Klay or Draymond Green at number 5. However, I disagree with the notion that one of them does not belong in this year’s top 5 players in the Finals list.

4. Draymond Green

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Voted as one of the most overrated players in the NBA alongside Russell Westbrook by some of his fellow peers, I don’t think there is anything overrated about Green. Many of his contributions don’t always appear in the box score, but this man is as good in recording numbers into the stat sheet as he is doing the dirty work and the little things. Never really a scorer, Green has averaged 13.6 points per game in these playoffs with a 52.1% shooting success rate. Perhaps the only knock on the offensive end for Green has been his very disappointing 21.1% shooting from three, but you don’t really need Green to shoot the lights out when he’s playing alongside three of the best shooters in NBA history. His 8.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.7 blocks immediately jump out too, as he may very well be the best playmaking big man in the NBA not named Nikola Jokic, and the best interior defender at 6-foot-7. Should I also mention his screen-setting, IQ for defensive rotations, and on-court communication are some of the best in the league?

His antics and complaining to the referees is annoying. There is only so much you can complain about when you play on a team as stacked as Green does. But there is no denying Draymond leaves his heart out every time he steps foot on the court and is a totally unselfish and proven winner.

3. Kevin Durant

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Surprise! You may have not expected to see arguably the best player in the world ranked at number 3, but I think it’s appropriate given the context. Durant needs no introduction or stats to back up his production, as we all know he is a 7-foot scoring machine that can get a bucket from anywhere he chooses to on the court. The x-factor is KD’s calf injury, which held him out of the entire Western Conference Finals and will stop him from appearing in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and beyond. There isn’t a specific timetable for his return yet, and it’s likely we may not see Durant until the Warriors play at home for the first time in the series in Game 3. We saw him drop 50 points over the Clippers in the first round, though I don’t expect anything similar to happen in the Finals.

Provided he returns at some point in this series, Durant will most likely be inserted into the flow of the offense and let Curry and Green do most of the on-ball work. This serves two purposes: one, continue the “everyone eats” approach that initially elevated the Warriors into a juggernaut before Durant’s arrival and is so successful and beautiful to watch; and two, give him as little of a workload as possible due to his most recent injury. Bear with me, but I cannot place an injured Kevin Durant above the best player in the Eastern Conference and the best shooter in NBA history.

2. Kawhi Leonard

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The sole Raptor appearing in my top 5, Kawhi Leonard was pretty much a one-man show in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs. He continued his dominance in the Eastern Conference Finals, though his efficiency took a hit. Overall, he’s averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.6 steals on 50.7% field goals and 38.8% from three. Closing off a majestic playoff run with a great stat line and a huge upset victory over the Warriors would immediately put Leonard’s name in Top 50 lists. Kawhi did suffer a minor injury in the middle of the Milwaukee battle, though he and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse both downplayed it. It’s still unclear how serious the injury was or is, but hopefully it won’t affect the former Finals MVP’s production in the third Finals appearance of his career.

Leonard wasn’t really the top dog back when he won the 2015 Finals MVP, but an amazing 17.8 points per game on 61.2/57.9/78.3 shooting splits to go along with an outstanding defensive effort on prime LeBron James earned him the MVP award. I personally cannot wait to see how he performs in his return to the biggest stage and as the clear-cut number one option. Leonard is certainly a candidate for the number one spot on this list, but I give the edge to Curry.

1. Stephen Curry

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The biggest argument against Stephen Curry and his NBA Playoffs and Finals legacy is his inability to win a Finals MVP award after three championships. If you ask me, I think this is Curry’s year. It’s clear that the Warriors are often the best and most fun version of themselves when Curry runs the show, as opposed to when Kevin Durant goes into one-on-one battles with the opposition. The former back-to-back league MVP is also the best version of himself when Durant is not around, and Curry laid a gentle reminder of it in all of our heads as he has averaged 35.8 points, 6.6 assists, and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 46.6% from the field and 41.7% from three since KD went down in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. No disrespect to Kawhi, but I consider Curry the hottest player coming into the NBA Finals; not only the hottest, but also the one who can inflict the most punishment on his rivals if not game-planned appropriately for. This man has seen all types of coverages, double-teams, and gimmicky defenses that opponents have thrown his way and has 22 NBA Finals games under his belt. He’s ready for absolutely everything.

We don’t know when Durant will come back – or even if he will – but we will most likely get to see the good old Warriors facing the Raptors in Toronto for games 1 and 2 before returning to the Bay Area for games 3 and 4. Those good old Warriors feature beautiful ball movement, play-calling, screen-setting, and perfect defensive rotations like no other team in NBA history has collectively had. And it is all possible due to the best player left standing, from whom it all starts for the Dubs, Stephen Curry.

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