It's that time of the year again, the NBA Finals is here with a distinctly different flavour as we open the Finals without the 2 marquee players from the last 2 Finals - Lebron James and Kevin Durant. In fact this will be the 1st time since the turn of the decade that King James will not be there after making 8 finals in a row between 2011-2018, 4 each with the Heat and Cavs.
And for the first time we will be going North of the Border where basketball is exploding thanks to the exploits of a certain Kawhi Leonard, carrying his new team to uncharted territory.
But this isn't the young Sixers or inexperienced Bucks, they are now facing the 2 time Defending Champions so can the Raptors shock the world and take down the mighty Warriors?
On paper the Team who has been to the last 5 Finals should have the distinct edge but this Warriors team has two injured starters, including arguably the greatest player in the world in Kevin Durant and a less than 100% Andre Iguodala who had to miss Game 4 of the Conference Finals due to a calf injury just like KD.
But Iggy only missed one game and is cleared to play so he should be able to contribute straight away but KD is ruled out at least for Game 1 and Demarcus Cousins has recovered from injury but of course Steve Kerr is hesitant to give big minutes to a lumbering Big Man who hasn't played in 6 weeks.
And there have been some internal rumours that Durant's injury is more serious than initially thought and there is a good chance he misses more games and possibly even the whole series. So for arguments sake and to make the result less predictable, I will assume Kevin Durant will not play and DeMarcus Cousins will not be a factor.
So can the Raptors challenge and possibly beat a Warriors team without KD and Boogie? Firstly let's compare the players position by position.
Steph Curry Kyle Lowry
Scoring 10/10 7/10
Shooting 10/10 8/10
Rebounding 6.5/10 6/10
Passing 8/10 8/10
Defense 6/10 8.5/10
Skills 10/10 7.5/10
Mental / IQ 9.5/10 9/10
Leadership 9.5/10 9/10
Total 69.5 63
Curry - 27.3 ppg, 6.3 reb, 5.6 ast, 0.9 stl, 0.2 blk
FG 45%, FT 94%, 3P 39% (4.3 3PM)
Lowry - 14.7 ppg, 5.2 reb, 6.4 ast, 1.2 stl, 0.2 blk
FG 45%, FT 81%, 3P 36% (2.1 3PM)
Obviously the 2 Time MVP has a big advantage here with defence being the only category Kyle Lowry can claim to be better at. Curry has been unstoppable without KD in the lineup, first with 33 second half points to kill the Rockets and then scoring 35+ in all 4 Conference Finals games to set a new record for most points scored in a 4 game sweep (146 points).
But don't underestimate Lowry's importance to the Raptors and his ability to slow down Curry will be a key factor in the Series. Even in games where he is shooting badly, he usually plays great defense and has the biggest impact and best +/- on the team. He leads all playoff players in charges drawn and loose balls recovered, two effort stats that do not show up in the box score.
Klay Thompson Danny Green
Scoring 8.5/10 5/10
Shooting 9.5/10 8/10
Rebounding 5.5/10 5/10
Passing 5.5/10 4.5/10
Defense 9/10 8.5/10
Skills 7.5/10 5.5/10
Mental / IQ 9/10 8.5/10
Leadership 8.5/10 8/10
Total 63 53
Thompson - 19.1 ppg, 3.9 reb, 2 ast, 1.5 stl, 0.9 blk
FG 43%, FT 92%, 3P 39% (2.9 3PM)
Green - 6.8 ppg, 3.7 reb, 1.1 ast, 1.4 stl, 0.4 blk
FG 33%, FT 91%, 3P 31% (1.5 3PM)
Another clear advantage for the Dubs, Klay Thompson is the ultimate X Factor in any series. If Klay gets hot then usually the game is over. Very rarely does Klay have a great game and the Warriors lose but he can also be inconsistent, so which Klay turns up the finals will have a huge impact on the result.
Danny Green was terrible in the Conference Finals averaging just 3.5 pts on a dismal 17.4% shooting from the field. He will not only need to limit Klay as much as possible, but he will need to make his open shots for the Raptors to have a chance.
Advantage: Golden State Warriors
Andre Iguodala Kawhi Leonard
Scoring 6/10 9.5/10
Shooting 6.5/10 9/10
Rebounding 5.5/10 8/10
Passing 6.5/10 6.5/10
Defense 9/10 10/10
Skills 7.5/10 9.5/10
Mental / IQ 9.5/10 9.5/10
Leadership 8.5/10 9/10
Total 59 71
Iguodala - 10.1 ppg, 4.3 reb, 3.9 ast, 1.2 stl, 0.9 blk
FG 52%, FT 39%, 3P 37% (1.3 3PM)
Leonard - 31.2 ppg, 8.8 reb, 3.8 ast, 1.6 stl, 0.6 blk
FG 51%, FT 88%, 3P 39% (2.2 3PM)
Assuming Kevin Durant is out of the lineup, then clearly this position is Toronto's biggest edge over the Warriors. Kawhi has clearly been the best player both offensively and defensively this playoffs, averaging over 31 points and shutting down the likes of Ben Simmons and MVP Giannis in the Conference Finals.
Andre Iguodala will be the main guy tasked with stopping The Klaw and there are not too many smarter or better defenders in the league for the job. If Iggy can make Kawhi take a lot of shots to get his points then the Raptors are going to struggle.
Advantage: Toronto Raptors
Draymond Green Pascal Siakam
Scoring 6.5/10 8/10
Shooting 5/10 7.5/10
Rebounding 8.5/10 7.5/10
Passing 8.5/10 6/10
Defense 9.5/10 8.5/10
Skills 8/10 8.5/10
Mental / IQ 9.5/10 8/10
Leadership 10/10 7.5/10
Total 65.5 61.5
Green - 13.6 ppg, 9.9 reb, 8.2 ast, 1.4 stl, 1.7 blk
FG 52%, FT 66%, 3P 21% (0.5 3PM)
Siakam - 18.7 ppg, 7 reb, 2.4 ast, 1.2 stl, 0.7 blk
FG 46%, FT 76%, 3P 29% (1.3 3PM)
This is probably the closest positional matchup in the Series. Pascal Siakam clearly had the better regular season and looked like the better player at the start of the playoffs. But what Draymond Green has done especially since KD went down has been incredible. He is playing the best basketball of his career, getting triple doubles almost every game while being extra aggressive driving the ball and dominating on the defensive end.
Green is playing like a top 10 player at the moment and so I give the Warriors a slight edge here. But if Siakam can win this matchup, it may tilt the series in Toronto's favour.
Advantage: Golden State Warriors
Andrew Bogut Marc Gasol
Scoring 4/10 5.5/10
Shooting 3/10 7/10
Rebounding 8.5/10 7.5/10
Passing 6/10 7/10
Defense 8.5/10 9/10
Skills 5/10 7/10
Mental / IQ 8.5/10 8.5/10
Leadership 8/10 8.5/10
Total 51.5 60
Bogut - 2.9 ppg, 4.2 reb, 1.3 ast, 0.3 stl, 0.4 blk
FG 62%, FT 80%
Gasol - 8.6 ppg, 6.1 reb, 3.2 ast, 1 stl, 1.3 blk
FG 41%, FT 80%, 3P 40% (1.6 3PM)
It is a mystery who the Dubs will start at Center but since Marc Gasol is not the fastest player, Kerr may opt for experience and start Andrew Bogut rather than young players such as Jordan Bell. Kevon Looney is clearly the best player available but Golden State has started 11 different players this playoffs and Looney hasn't been one of them so don't expect Kerr to change that now.
Gasol has not been efficient these playoffs, especially on the road where his effective field goal percentage has been only 39%, and overall he is only averaging 8.6 points per game. But his defense has been outstanding, shutting down All Stars Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid in the first 2 rounds.
Even though Gasol is the better then Bogut, Bell or even Looney, the question remains can Gasol even stay on the floor against Golden State's small ball lineup or will Nick Nurse be forced to use the quicker more agile Serge Ibaka.
Advantage: Toronto Raptors
Golden State Toronto
(Looney, McKinnie, (Ibaka, V.Vleet
Livingston, Cook, Bell) Powell)
Scoring 5/10 8/10
Shooting 6/10 8.5/10
Rebounding 7.5/10 7.5/10
Passing 5/10 6/10
Defense 7.5/10 8.5/10
Skills 6.5/10 7/10
Mental / IQ 8.5/10 7.5/10
Leadership 7/10 7.5/10
Total 53 60.5
Even though the Warriors go 11 deep (Jerebko gets min too), the Raptors 8 still provide much more scoring and shooting as well as tougher D. The question is which Raptors bench is going to show up, the Game 1-3 Bench against the Bucks (22 ppg, 38% FG, 32% 3P) or the Game 4-6 Bench (38 ppg on 51% FG, 53% 3P). Van Vleet himself shot 14/17 (82%!) from 3 in games 4 to 6 against the Bucks and the Raptors will be very difficult to beat if he can stay hot.
Advantage: Toronto Raptors
OG Anunoby (Appendectomy) Out 7-10 Days
DeMarcus Cousins (Quad) Questionable for Game 1
Kevin Durant (Calf) Out for Game 1 at least
5 Keys to the Series
Apart from the obvious injury X Factors on whether KD and Cousins come back and how they will be integrated into the team, these are some other key points to focus on.
Toronto has been the worst rebounding team amongst the final 8 teams in the playoffs and 15th out of 16 playoff teams in offensive rebounding. Meanwhile Golden State is 4th in offensive rebounding even though they spend the majority of their minutes playing small ball.
If their shooters Danny Green, Ibaka, Gasol and Siakam continue to struggle from the field, then the Raptors have to improve their offensive rebounding to give them more opportunities.
And on the other end the Raps cannot give the Warriors and the Splash Bros in particular any second chance shots. Nothing can be more deflating then playing 24 seconds of great defense to force up a bad shot, but then giving up the rebound that ends up being a Steph or Klay dagger 3.
2. Holding Leads
The Raptors are 9-1 in the playoffs when holding a double digit lead (their only loss was to the Bucks in Game 1) and 2-5 when trailing by double digits.
And since the Warriors blew a record 31 point lead to the Clippers in Game 2, they have not given up any double digit lead going 7-0 since. They have gone 4-3 when trailing by double digits including 3-0 when trailing by 15 or more points since KD got injured (all against the Blazers).
The ability for Toronto to build and hold onto big leads as well as start well and not fall behind early will be key to the series.
3. Warriors Offense vs Raptors Defense
Golden State had the best offense in the league again this season and still improved their offense better than any team in the playoffs (+1.5 pts per 100 possession increase in the playoffs).
The Warriors easily lead all teams in the playoffs in points scored, offensive rating, passes per game and assists (67% of their baskets have been assisted). They have 8 games in the playoffs with 30 or more assists and the rest of the league only had 9 games combined.
Toronto on the other hand has been average offensively but have been the 2nd best team defensively in the playoffs. Every main rotation player is a good defender lead by the best defender in the world in Kawhi Leonard, former DPOY winner Marc Gasol and All Defense Team candidates Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, who was outstanding against the Bucks.
Off the bench Serge Ibaka is another versatile defender that can block shots, while Fred Van Vleet played great defense on Curry during the regular season holding Steph to just 4 points in almost 40 possessions guarding him.
4. Road Warriors
Can the Raptors capitalize on their homecourt advantage?
The Warriors have won at least 1 game on the road in every single series of Steph Curry's career dating back to 2013. That's an amazing 22 straight playoff series with a road win, an NBA record!
But they have never opened on the road in the Finals and everyone knows about Toronto's shaky Game 1 performances so it will be interesting to see how they start the series. Game 1 will be key, and if the Raptors let Golden State start comfortably and get in a groove from the 1st game then it could be a short series.
5. Klay and Dray vs Kyle and Pascal
You can expect the stars of both teams Steph and Kawhi to perform at a high level and have a great series, but what about their side kicks?
Lowry has never been to this stage and Siakam is young and has been pushed into a starring role at such a fast pace (this time last year he was just a 7ppg role player). So how will they respond under the bright lights of the NBA Finals?
Klay and Dray have been there and done that but how aggressive they are scoring will determine how this series plays out. If Draymond plays with the same vigour and 'wrecking ball' attitude, driving to the basket and looking for his shot then the Raptors will be in big trouble. And if Klay catches fire then it could be a wrap because the Warriors simply don't lose when Klay is making shots.
As discussed above the Warriors are superior on offense, rebounding and passing and they have the better starting lineup. The Raptors win on defense and have the best overall player in the series and the best bench. Toronto also has home court advantage and health wise only have OG Anunoby missing compared to reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant as well as a questionable DeMarcus Cousins for the Warriors.
And although Nick Nurse is a Coach of the Year candidate and out coached Mike Budenholzer in the last series, you still have to give the coaching edge to the Warriors. Steve Kerr has been through absolutely everything in the last 5 years and he has navigated through adversity and shown an incredible ability to make adjustments to swing Series in his favour.
I hate to bet against The Klaw who has been the best player in these playoffs and maybe the best player in the world right now. But even without KD, the Warriors just have too much firepower and championship experience for the 1st time Raptors. I think they will split the 1st 4 games with each team winning once on each other's floor. Then Golden State will turn it on to take the pivotal Game 5 before returning home and having the perfect ending to their last game ever at Oracle Arena, with Steph Curry finally getting his well deserved Finals MVP award.
Warriors in 6
Finals MVP: Steph Curry
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