The NBA Finals are here. From the West, the Warriors are back in the championship round for the fifth straight season, still led by their sweet-shooting backcourt, particularly amid injuries to Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. And from the East, the Raptors are making their first appearance in the Finals, carried by Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance and a veteran cast brimming with postseason experience. After four years of Golden State vs. Cleveland, there is now something new to look forward to. Let’s preview the last few games of the NBA season.
Most Intriguing Storyline: Who will be the best player on the floor?
This question is an extension of something The Crossover touched on before the start of the conference finals—who is the best basketball player in the world? It may be a reductive thought, but in the context of one series, having the best player is (obviously) very important. Both Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry submitted exemplary performances in the previous round. Kawhi averaged 29.9 points per game against the Bucks, collecting 9.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per night while also playing the best defense of anyone this season against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Curry had arguably the best playoff series of his career against the Blazers, averaging 36.5 points per game, hitting over six threes each contest.
If the ultimate matchup in the Finals is Kawhi vs Steph, Toronto should feel a little bit better about its chances. Curry can absolutely still wreck a team by himself, but Leonard’s two-way impact is better than anyone else’s on the planet right now. If Durant isn’t playing, Leonard will draw a more favorable matchup offensively, and he can focus his defensive efforts on Steph. Durant’s return would complicate that situation dramatically. If KD is healthy, he can credibly check Leonard on one end, and score more easily than him on the other.
The battle between the most talented players on the floor will be illustrative of the larger series at hand. Kawhi has a chance to outplay Steph if Curry is his biggest target, and that gives the Raptors a legitimate chance to win. If KD returns, Toronto’s odds of winning are much more perilous.
One Thing to Watch: How Will the Raptors Defend the Steph-Draymond Pick and Roll?
I wrote more wide-ranging thoughts about Toronto’s defensive challenges earlier this week, but its biggest test will be the Curry-Draymond Green pick and roll. That play killed both the Rockets and Blazers in Durant’s absence, and it’s the action that basically sent the NBA scrambling for mobile centers and small-ball lineups after its emergence in the 2014–15 season. Without Durant, the Warriors have played more lineups with a center on the floor, but have still gone small for stretches with the likes of Alfonzo McKinnie or Jordan Bell on the court. Toronto has the personnel to play a switching defense if it wants, The Raptors can theoretically put Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, and Kawhi in the frontcourt to counter Golden State’s athleticism, though that group could open the door to offensive rebounds. Toronto will have to play a much different style of defense against the Dubs than the Bucks, but the collective IQ of the Raptors’ roster should be better equipped for the challenge than most teams.
If Toronto can find the formula to snuff out Golden State’s pet play, then this series becomes a lot more interesting. The Warriors were running roughshod through the Blazers’ slow-footed bigs in the conference finals, also finding success with a Steph-Kevon Looney pick and roll. The Raptors can mitigate that by keeping Marc Gasol off the floor and playing more of Serge Ibaka at center. That chess match, which at its core is about preventing Curry from getting space from three, will be especially critical in the fourth quarter.
X-Factor: Golden State’s health
Kevin Durant is out for Game 1. DeMarcus Cousins is questionable. Andre Iguodala is returning from a calf injury. The Warriors’ health is what will swing this series. If Durant can’t go, Golden State is in a tricky spot. If Cousins is ready to play, the Raptors will likely be forced to counter with more bulk. If Iguodala re-aggravates his injury, the Warriors may not be able to play as many small lineups. The presence of these three players will loom large over this series. It would be great if both teams were at full strength—Toronto would love to have OG Anunoby right now, though a return is possible—but health will absolutely be a factor in how this series plays out. With Durant currently out, the Raptors are the bigger beneficiaries headed into Game 1.
The Pick: Warriors in six
If Durant were ruled out for the series, I think I would pick the Raptors. This is a worse version of the 2016 Warriors team that lost to the Cavaliers, and I think this Toronto team could replicate some of what Cleveland did to give the Dubs trouble. Kawhi is on another level, and the Raptors have enough defenders to throw at a Durant-less squad. But I also think if Golden State is in serious danger of losing, KD will return and tip the balance of this series. I’m not questioning the severity of Durant’s injury, instead thinking he will push through whatever he has to push through to ensure the Warriors pull off the three-peat. Even if he didn’t play, it’s not like this series would be a walk in the park for the Raptors. After all, we just saw what Curry can do by himself. The Raptors will make this a fight, but I think the Warriors’ run comes to somewhat of an end this month with one more trophy.