The stage is set: Thursday Night Game One in Toronto, where Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors look to dethrone the 2x defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. There are a multitude of storylines, both on and off the court, that could change the landscape of the NBA going forward, depending on the series outcome. Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard’s future could sway in the balance of victory or defeat. Golden State could win their 4th title in 5 season, including a three peat to secure their place amongst the greatest teams in NBA history. Or we can see a single star (Kawhi Leonard) surrounded by good players and role players win a title for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks last did it in 2011. We also have the individual storylines that will take place on the floor: Who is the best player on the court, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant(if and when he returns)? Or how about the coaching battle between Steve Kerr and the first time head coach Nick Nurse? The series should be a long competitive series, filled with great storylines and moments. So let’s hop into the breakdown of the series.
What A Win Means For The Golden State Warriors and Kevin Durant’s Future
It sounds like a cliché that the Warriors are on the cusp of history as every NBA champion becomes apart of history. But for the Warriors, the potential to win 4 titles in 5 years, and three-peat as NBA champions puts them in rarified air. Very few teams have become dynasties, and even fewer have done what the Warriors could do with a Finals win this season. The Warriors can join the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, Jordan and Pippen Bulls, Bill Russel’s Celtics and the 1952-54 Minneapolis Lakers as the only teams to three peat in NBA history.
For the Warriors, this could also be the beginning of the end of their 5 year dynasty. If Durant decides to sign elsewhere, the NBA becomes much more of a leveled playing field and the Warriors dominance will fade a bit. Sure the Curry, Thompson, and Green trio will still be a force to be reckoned with and probably find themselves in an NBA Finals again, but the pure dominance is likely over after this season. So it is important to top off this great run with an NBA Championship.
As for Durant, a Warriors Finals win without him playing a minute will for sure send Durant packing to New York or L.A. There is no doubt about it. But if the Warriors lose the series without Durant playing a minute, it validates Durant’s worth to the Warriors, and opens a window for his potential return this summer. There is also a scenario of Durant coming back mid series to save the Warriors from a series deficit, and capture their 3rd title together, which would also allow KD to return to the Warriors without shame.
What a Win Means For The Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard
Toronto is already living on an all-time high which they’ve never experienced, a trip to the NBA Finals. But the city and team are not content with just a trip to the title games, they want to win it. I think winning the first championship in team history speaks for itself when it comes to significance, but the win goes beyond that. Winning the Finals has major implications for the NBA and Raptors going forward. They would be the team that dethrones the Warriors dynasty with just one true star player. It would bring back the idea that a single star with good supporting pieces can still win in the NBA. A win would make the Raptors the first Eastern Conference team (that did not have Lebron James) to win the NBA Finals since the 2008 Boston Celtics. It would create a sense that the Raptors are taking the throne of the East post Lebron. But more importantly is the impact it will have on Kawhi Leonard.
I am not sure what impact a win or loss has on Leonard staying with the Raptors beyond this season because nobody knows anything about Leonard. But I will say this: It is more likely that a Finals win for the Raptors makes it easier for Leonard to look back on the season and say “hey I came here, won your franchise its first title in the 24 year history and now I can go home to L.A. to live my best life.” The Raptors fans will understand that Leonard accomplished what they brought him there to do, win a title Sure the initial blow of him leaving would hurt, but he would always be cherished for his great one year run with no unfinished business. But Kawhi could also turn around and think like the logical person and say to himself “why leave the team I just won a championship with, and a country that will treat me like a king forever.” I say think logically because I can’t remember a player on Leonard’s caliber changing teams after wining a title, and most likely winning that Finals MVP. Either way, the Leonard free agency guessing game will be something to look forward to post finals, regardless of win or loss.
Steph Curry Has Something to Prove
It sounds crazy to think that a 2x MVP, 3x NBA Champion, the best shooter to ever live, and a guy who has literally changed the way the game is played at every level from the NBA to AAU, has something to prove. But there is one thing missing from his hall of fame resume, a NBA Finals MVP. In 2015 Curry had his struggles with the likes of Mathew Dellavedova and failed to receive the NBA Finals MVP, as his teammate Andre Iguodala brought home the honors. Then in 2016, Curry as the best player on his Warriors team that went 73-9, blew a 3-1 lead to Lebron James and the Cavs. The Game 7 dagger by Kyrie Irving also came at the expense of Curry who was defending on the play. And we know the past two finals, Curry was outshined by Kevin Durant who won the Finals MVP both years he had been on Golden State. For a player of Curry’s historical relevance and value, a Fianls MVP is something he needs added to his resume.
This is the best chance Curry has to get the elusive Finals MVP and Las Vegas odd makers agree. Curry is currently the favorite to win the Finals MVP at -140. Without Durant on the floor for at least 2 games, and probably more, Curry will have to step up and be the dominant force he showed he could be against Portland in the Conference Finals. If Curry has an off series, and is anything short of MVP Steph, Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors will steal this championship from them. It won’t be easy for Curry as the length of the Raptors will be an issue for the slender 6’3 frame of Curry, but if Curry just plays like Curry and wins this series without Durant, expect him to win his first Finals MVP.
Matchups to Watch
Something to watch all series long will be the front courts of both teams. We know and expect the Warriors to dominate the back court with Curry and Thompson over the combination of Lowry, Green, and Van Fleet. However, the distinct advantage for the Raptors in this series is the front court. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and of course Kawhi Leonard will need to dominate this series in order for the Raptors to win. When you look at the opposing front court of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Kevon Looney, Jonas Jerebko, Alfonso McKinnie, Jordan Bell, and maybe an Andrew Bogut appearance, it pails in comparison to Toronto’s front court. With both Durant and Cousins out for at least a portion of the series, the Warriors lack depth, especially in the front court which for the first time this playoffs will hurt them. In the previous series, the teams the Warriors beat were guard-perimeter centric offenses. When that is the game the Warriors will win every time. But the Raptors can play inside out, and bring a bully mindset if necessary to rough up the Warriors, and get easy points at the rim. Gasol should have his way on the block and on the glass regardless of who is on him in this series. Kawhi Leonard is going to get his 30 points regardless of the multiple good defenders (Green, Iguodala, Thompson) the Warriors throw his way.
But to single in on the one key battle of the series, I think it will be Draymond Green vs Pascal Siakam. Neither of their games are pretty and have often been compared. Siakam even came out and said he does not want to be the next Draymond Green, but the first Pascal Siakam. Regardless of that, whichever PF plays best will go along way in the series outcome. Who owns the rebound and second chance battle between the two of them? Who can give neigh of an offensive boost to their star scorers? And which of these two forwards will make their defensive presence felt more? What makes this matchup difficult to gage is that they may not be matched up directly all that often. Green may be asked to guard Gasol, while Iguodala or Klay get chances on Siakam. But at the end of the series when we look at the box score of each games, I expect the team that wins will also have the winner of this individual matchup between Green and Siakam.
Will Kawhi Take The Challenge of Guarding Curry in Crunch Time?
With Durant out, we are yet again robbed of the Durant-Kawhi matchup which all NBA fans deserve to see. But a Curry-Kawhi matchup in the final two minutes of a close game isn’t a bad consolation prize. Leonard is the best two way player in the league and is capable of turning the best of offensive players into just average scorers. He took the assignment of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo when the games were close in the previous series, and it changed everything. He made Antetokounmpo disappear for long stretches of the game. I don’t expect Leonard to take the assignment of chasing Curry around screens for 48 minutes a night, but in those final 4 minutes of a close game, expect Leonard to switch onto Curry and shut him down. Of course Nick Nurse will need to pick and choose when he decides to place Leonard on Curry as you don’t want to exhaust your best scorer, but in key moments, it should and probably will take place.
Prediction Time: ‘The Six’ Win in Six
I seen enough out of the Toronto Raptors taking out the 76ers, and Giannis’ Bucks in consecutive series to feel confident to pick them to win the NBA Finals in six games. The Warriors had an easy walk through series against Portland, who they never truly needed Durant to beat. The Warriors and the media are living off a high, with the notion that the Warriors don’t need Durant. But watch how the narrative changes when Kawhi explodes for 40 points and the Warriors face a deficit in the series. Everyone will come running with headlines that Durant needs to return form injury and save the Warriors. But I don’t think Durant is coming back early in the series if he even returns at all. If Durant can’t come back until Game 3 (best case scenario for a KD return at the moment) and the Raptors go up 2-0, it might be too late. So Durant would have been out 3 weeks, and would for sure take time to knock off the rust. Leonard is playing on a level we hadn’t seen form him before, and a two game advantage for there Raptors is something I don’t see them giving away. Of course Toronto winning Games 1 and 2 are crucial for this prediction of Raptors to win in 6 to become true, but have you seen the home court advantage they have? That crowd had Giannis visibly shaken at the free throw line, and had opposing role players off their game. I think the Raptors have the best player in the series, the better front court, and more depth, resulting in a very competitive series win. All that luck the Warriors got over the years of facing teams who’s star players were injured finally catches top to them, and they lose the finals in huge part because the Durant injury and to a lesser extent the DeMarcus Cousins injury.