The 2019 NBA Finals are going international.
For the first time in franchise history, the Raptors are playing for a championship. Thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s postseason heroics, Toronto will have home-court advantage in their series against the Golden State Warriors, who are making history themselves by appearing in a fifth consecutive NBA Finals. Golden State will be looking for a three-peat while Toronto hopes it can cap off a magical season with its first title.
Health will play a significant factor in this matchup.
Golden State will be without superstar Kevin Durant for at least Game 1 of the series, while DeMarcus Cousins, who suffered a torn left quadriceps against the LA Clippers, is listed as questionable. The Warriors didn’t need either player in a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, but the Raptors are a different animal.
Toronto has also been hampered by injuries in the playoffs, with Leonard and Kyle Lowry both struggling to stay healthy. But despite the injuries to their two most important players, the Raptors are four wins away from history.
Here’s how the two teams compare heading into the Finals.
|Playoff Splits (via NBA.com)||Points Per Game||FG %||3-point %||Opponent Points Per Game||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
|Golden State Warriors||117.3||48.7||37.0||110.5||116.4||110.2|
The Warriors are the superior offensive team, but the Raptors have locked in defensively. Leonard and Marc Gasol create a formidable perimeter-paint defensive duo, but Golden State’s small-ball lineups could take Gasol out of his comfort zone and force him into some tough matchups.
Will Leonard pick up Steph Curry for a majority of the game? Do the Raptors have individual defenders capable of limiting Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? These are questions Nick Nurse will have to find answers to in order for Toronto to pull off the upset.
On the other side of the ball, the Warriors haven’t been as dominant defensively as they have in years past. Knowing that, Leonard will put pressure on Golden State’s entire defense. The Raptors will also need Lowry to attack Curry defensively in an effort to wear him down, similar to what the Cleveland Cavaliers did in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Gasol’s ability to stretch the floor could create lanes for cutters, giving the big man a chance to make his pinpoint passes that lead to easy Toronto buckets. Fred VanVleet, Danny Green and Norman Powell will need to continue their hot play — the trio shot a combined 40.2 percent from behind the arc against the Milwaukee Bucks.
And then there’s Pascal Siakam.
Siakam’s rise this season has been spectacular. The 25-year-old forward took a big leap offensively, starting 79 games and providing a strong third scoring option alongside Leonard and Lowry. He was a natural buffer during the former’s season-long “load management” saga and that developmental time paid off in the playoffs.
|Pascal Siakam’s Splits||Minutes||Points||FG %||3-point %||Assists||Rebounds|
While his ability to score from the perimeter is volatile, Siakam should still generate good opportunities against Golden State’s defense. Will Green be forced to lock in on Siakam if he gets hot? Do the Warriors feel Andre Iguodala could challenge Siakam one-on-one?
Those are questions to keep in mind as the series progresses.
KEY MATCHUP: Steph Curry vs. Kyle Lowry
After Durant suffered his calf strain in Game 5 against the Rockets, Curry exploded. He was always the driving force behind Golden State’s success, but Curry’s greatness came to the forefront during the next five games without KD on the floor.
|Steph Curry’s Splits||Points||FG %||3-point %||Assists||Rebounds||Basketball-Reference.com Game Score|
|First 11 Games||23.5||44.4||37.1||5.2||5.7||17.0|
|Last 5 Games||35.8||46.6||41.7||6.6||7.6||27.1|
The Warriors were able to return to their old system with Durant out. Green shined as an offensive fulcrum, while Curry continued to carry the load. His consistent bulk scoring helped the Warriors overcome double-digit deficits in three of their four games against Portland.
Keep in mind that during Golden State’s three most recent championship runs, Curry was never named NBA Finals MVP. Don’t be shocked if that trend ends this June.
As for Lowry, he was on fire against the Bucks.
He averaged 19.2 points per game and shot 46.5 percent from behind the arc. The Raptors need their point guard to keep producing at that level, particularly against Curry. If Lowry can force Curry to work on the defensive end, it’ll only help Toronto’s defense against him.
Lowry has never been a great defender, so his effort level against Curry on that side will be key. If Lowry can generate a couple of steals and avoid falling behind in pick-and-roll coverage, it’ll help Toronto limit Curry’s impact.
X-FACTORS: Andre Iguodala and Fred VanVleet
It feels odd calling Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, a potential x-factor for Golden State, but Iggy will likely shoulder heavy minutes until Durant returns, and he must provide the same impact that he did in 2015. Iguodala’s outside shooting is back, with the forward canning 37 percent of his 3s this postseason, giving Golden State great spacing even with Durant out.
On the defensive end, Iguodala will be part of the gameplan against Leonard. Can he do to Kawhi what he did to LeBron James in 2015?
|LeBron James’ 2015 NBA Finals Splits*||Points||FG %||3-point %||Basketball-Reference.com Game Score|
*Iguodala was introduced to the starting lineup in Game 4 of that series.
VanVleet was expected to miss five weeks late in the season with a thumb injury, but he came back in four and immediately became a factor. The third-year guard averaged 30.1 minutes in the final 13 regular season contests, putting up 12.5 points and 5.6 assists per game. The most important development, however, was the return of his 3-point shot. VanVleet shot 42.2 percent from behind the arc to close the season, which has continued in the playoffs.
Despite struggling from the rest of the field this spring, he’s shooting 37.9 percent from 3 during the postseason, and VanVleet caught lightning in a bottle against the Bucks, nailing 57.1 percent of his triples. He likely won’t shoot at the same rate against the Warriors, but VanVleet’s perimeter shooting is guaranteed to impact the Finals one way or another.
THE COACHES: Steve Kerr vs. Nick Nurse
Kerr knows there’s a chance Golden State’s dominant run ends this summer. He also knows about the difficulty of three-peating. When asked earlier in the year about whether he was using his experience with the Bulls, Kerr offered the following comment.
“This year, I’m trying not to focus on anything from the past,” said Kerr. “I’m just trying to help these guys enjoy every moment of what’s happening now.”
Five NBA Finals appearances in five seasons is a difficult task for any team, even one as dominant as Golden State. Kerr has been able to manage egos, roles and relationships for one of the best teams in basketball history. At this point, there’s nothing he doesn’t know about the roster he’s got. Kerr can make adjustments on the fly and knows what tactics to use to motivate his group.
On the flip side, Nurse is a first-year head coach headed to the Finals, and he’ll need to devise a gameplan capable of ending the dynasty in the Bay. Luckily for Toronto fans, Nurse has already shown that he’s not afraid of the moment.
His “I don’t really give a crap about that” rant after being down 2-0 against Milwaukee certainly energized Toronto’s locker room. Nurse also made several smart coaching adjustments that neutralized Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Raptors’ perimeter shooters.
He’ll have to come up with another effective strategy if he wants to win four games against Golden State.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: Kawhi Leonard
Leonard has been the best player this postseason, and it’s not even close.
He knocked out Philadelphia’s fearsome foursome (with the help of a friendly bounce) AND the likely league MVP to advance to his third career NBA Finals. Although Leonard is focused on this series and the task at hand, he’s guaranteed to be the top free agent in the 2019 class when Toronto’s magical season eventually ends.
He’s also the only player outside of James Harden to truly give the KD-era Warriors a run for their money. Don’t forget that Leonard and the Spurs were up 76-55 on Golden State in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Zaza Pachulia’s fateful slide into Leonard directly changed the trajectory of the two franchises — as well as the Raptors.
A championship with Toronto would instantly elevate Leonard into the “all-time greats” conversation, which is why this series has a chance to be remembered as Leonard’s defining moment if the Raptors come out on top.
PREDICTION: Warriors Win in Six
The Raptors are coming off four strong games, twice fighting back from double-digit deficits. With Leonard playing out of his mind, they’ll have confidence. However, despite reaching the NBA Finals for the first time ever, Toronto has still struggled in Game 1s this postseason, going 1-2 in their previous Game 1s this postseason.
Golden State has lost just one Game 1 during Kerr’s reign — that loss came to Durant’s Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. So if Golden State steals home-court advantage in Game 1, the Raptors will have their hands full.
While the Raptors have the personnel required to beat Golden State, a three-peat just seems inevitable. The talented Warriors will win their third straight championship, and Curry will be named the NBA Finals MVP for the first time in his career.