Well, here we are again. Another season in the books. Thirty(-ish) teams came into this season with high hopes and dreams of getting their hands on the coveted Naismith trophy at the end of it all. Out of those thirty teams we’re now down to two. The Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors.
This is the first finals since 2015 to not be between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, it is also the first NBA Finals in eight years to not feature LeBron James. However, as a testament to the sustained greatness of the franchise the Warriors have returned to their fifth NBA Finals in as many years.
Golden State are odds-on favourites to threepeat this year, even with the absence of Kevin Durant, and with good reason as well.
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have stepped up in Durant’s absence. Curry went supernova against the Trail Blazers averaging 36.5 points per game in the Western Conference Finals. Durant going down has simultaneously unchained the Warriors core big-three to reach their peak abilities whilst also giving the Warriors added motivation to prove to the rest of the league that they can win without Durant. After all, these were the players who achieved the best regular season record of all time in 2016 as well as winning a ring in 2015, both times without Durant.
Coming into this matchup against the Raptors, it is unlikely that Kawhi will be guarding either Curry or Klay on defence. It is more than likely going to be a mixture of Lowry, Danny Green, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet‘s job to chase the “Splash Brothers” around screens and in transition hopefully limiting their shooting.
Kawhi, just like LeBron in each of the previous Cavs-Warriors matchups will be guarding Draymond or Iguodala. This is key as Kawhi is coming off a gruelling six game series against the Bucks in which he had to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton whilst also taking 40 shots a game. Draymond and Iguodala are quality players but will give Kawhi a lot less trouble than Giannis did in the previous series.
Focusing on Toronto, this is the first ever Finals appearance for not only Toronto, but all of Canada. The Raptors hold home-court advantage. A factor which has flown under the radar in all the lead-up to the Finals. Given the fact that the last time the Warriors had to play in a hostile atmosphere in the Finals was 2016 when they imploded.
After all, 2017 and 2018 the atmosphere in Cleveland felt like a funeral. As we’ve seen before, if the Warriors start off shooting poorly and the crowd is on top of them then the “12th man” could be a bigger factor in this series than people are giving it credit for.
On the court, the Finals will ultimately be decided on if the Raptors role-players step up or not, as we have seen in years previous. Unless the Warriors have an extreme off-night, the only way to beat this team is out-scoring them. Something that is now a reality again due to Durant’s injury. Kyle Lowry was huge for the Raptors against the Bucks, often hitting big three after big three whenever the Raptors needed him. His leadership, as well as his scoring, will be heavily needed against Golden State.
If Pascal Siakam can step-up and win each battle against the reborn Draymond Green then the Raptors have a real chance. Same with Marc Gasol at centre. The big man brings added experience and spacing to this Raptors line-up.
But of course, the hopes of Toronto and Canada rest on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. This postseason the “Klaw” has established himself as one of, if not the best, players in the world. I’m not afraid to say that Kawhi Leonard is the closest thing we’ve had to resembling Michael Jordan since peak Kobe Bryant. His smothering defence, his giant-sized hands, his deadly mid-range pull-up, his athletic explosiveness all combined into the body of a stone-cold killer.
The basketball Kawhi Leonard is playing right now is almost romantic, it is the closest thing we have to the fabled stars of the 80s and 90s. “Everyone get out of the way. I got this.” That’s the type of basketball Kawhi is playing.
This is the biggest moment in Kawhi’s career. Already a champion with San Antonio, Kawhi has been to the promise land but this feels bigger. The small forward has a chance to cement one of the biggest legacies in NBA history. To win a ring on par with that of Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 and LeBron James in 2016. To achieve the goal that his contemporary Kevin Durant has spent his entire career chasing.
The analytical side of me is saying original Golden State three monster will overpower the eager-eyed Toronto. But this has a feeling of destiny about it. Maybe the basketball stars will align and add credence to the age-old basketball discussions of intangibles. Mamba mentality, blood, sweat and tears. Jordan against the Jazz, Kobe against the Celtics, Dirk against the Heat, James against the Warriors…. Kawhi against the Warriors?
Whatever the result. This NBA Finals will be a fascinating watch and will have implications that will ripple through the league throughout the summer and future seasons.