Sometime last week, the Toronto Raptors completed their “upset” of East topseed Milwaukee Bucks to enter the NBA Finals for the first time. The roster moves they made last off-season, as well during it, are paying dividends. All they need is this one last big step of defending homecourt advantage to finally nail the big one.
Thing is, the well-rested Golden State Warriors are waiting for them. For those who are living under a rock for some time, the Warriors are the defending champions, as well as winners of three of their last four trips to the finals. Oh, their appearance this year is the fifth consecutive, a feat no team has achieve since Bill Russell and those 1960s Boston Celtics.
This is it, all bets are off! Two teams, a neophyte and a repeater, both egging for establishing a new team record, will battle in a best-of-seven series of hardcourt drama for the 2019 Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
For basketball lovers who are neither fans of the Warriors or the Raptors, this should be a good watch. Relax and enjoy the moment.
Keys to Raptors victory
1. Kawhi Leonard. A lot has been said about this Toronto acquisition. He doesn’t want to be up north; he will leave after this season; Toronto’s taking a big risk; etc.
These not being talked at all during Toronto’s playoff run. Him being a rental or not for a short period, Leonard or the Raptors seem not to mind at all. Both looked locked in to the task at hand and this player, who is considered the best two-way player today, is showing signs of being capable of putting a team on his back and lead them to victory.
Forget the statistics here. Toronto had been yearning for a leader who can get them out of the Eastern Conference in years past and they got it this year. Leonard, who has seen the Warriors in the past while with the Spurs, has just to do this task one more time against this familiar enemy.
2. Slowing the pace and their defense. Toronto had been firm on dictating the pace of the game on their preference. They didn’t play speed up tempo and went to getting the most of what Marc Gasol/Serge Ibaka can do. They were proven right so far.
According to NBA.com, the Raptors appeared five times in the top 14 slowest games in the playoffs. Their Game 6 victory with the Bucks generated the lowest possessions per game at 87.
This bodes well against the Warriors who like to play small by fielding Green at the five and Igoudala at the four and speed up the game.
It would be interesting to see if the Raptors, who got the deeper bench and taller players, decide not to match-up speedwise and exploit their size advantage instead. Then this would be a case of a classic offense versus defense championship match.
3. Homecourt advantage. Toronto’s fans had made their home floor one of the loudest stadiums, making the visiting team play under harshest conditions.
The Warriors showed cracks in their ability to rough up opponents after dominating the playoffs during the previous trips. They have tripped twice against the Clippers at home, including one record breaker of blundering the biggest lead in the playoffs, and yielded the first two road games against Houston.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s hot at home, losing twice only in 12 games compared with their pedestrian 4-4 record on the road. They are the second-best home team in the playoffs, outscoring their opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions while going 8-2 at Scotiabank Arena.
Keys to Warriors victory
1. Stephen Curry. While many questioned Kevin Durant’s decision to join the already stacked Warriors’, some also questioned Curry’s ability to carry the Warriors to the promise land, pointing out that Curry couldn’t hold a 3-1 lead and won only because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured in two separate instances against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They may have a point.
The basketball gods answered because, ironically, the calf injury that sidelined Durant may also have triggered a positive thing for the Warriors as it pushes the beloved small man back in the driver’s seat.
Again, forget the statistics here. The fact that the Warriors played better ball rotation after Durant was injured is a testament of how effective Curry’s (and probably Draymond Green’s too) role is in the team’s success.
Lost in the Warriors fans’ laments on the possible prolonged absence of Durant in the series is the fact that the ball is now entrusted to the team’s highest paid player, who nicely took the cudgels just in time to lead Golden State to six straight wins, including a sweep of the Portland Trailblazers in the Western Conference Finals, since the Durant injury.
2. Kevin Durant playing. Let’s face it, those who are saying the Warriors are better without him should rethink their stance. His presence is both a boon for the Warriors and a bane for the Raptors. Thing is, is he playing? At what level?
One of Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s tricks on having his team so deadly at all times during the game is he rotate the trio of Curry, Durant, and Klay Thompson so well on the floor that he leaves two of them whenever one needs to hit the bench. Missing Durant will leave a big hole in this system which Toronto’s deeper bench could exploit.
On the other hand, Durant could be assigned to guard anybody in that Toronto line-up while only few of the Raptors have a realistic chance to cover this scoring machine.
3. Continue brilliance on the road and hot starts. The Warriors have been the best road team in the playoffs, outscoring their opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions while recording a 6-2 record away from home. They also have been the best first quarter team in the playoffs by outscoring their opponents to the tune of 19.7 points per 100 possessions in the opening period.
The (forecasted!) Winner
The Raptors bagged the first game on Friday, 118-109, and protected homecourt so far. Kevin Durant travelled with the team but was still held out.
These teams looked evenly matched, especially if both will try to win on their own terms.
From the looks of it, whoever imposes their will while playing in Toronto will win the series.
My take, I see the Warriors bringing home the trophy if they win at least one of the first three road games and hold serve at home. If a third trip to Canada occurs, I pick the Raptors.
Confused? I have Golden State winning it on condition that they end it in six games or less because if they allow the series to reach its ultimate game to be held in Toronto, the Raptors will become first time NBA champs.
By: ARMANDO M. BOLISLIS, all stats from NBA.com (https://www.nba.com/article/2019/05/27/numbers-preview-finals)
Banner artwork by Don Ray Ramos