The NBA Finals tip off tonight, with the Eastern Conference Champion Toronto Raptors hosting the Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors. ABC’s live coverage will begin at 6pm Pacific from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada.
This year’s NBA Finals includes a few firsts, a few more firsts in recent memory, and at least one potential first still on the table. This is the Raptors’ first appearance in the Finals, and it is the first ever postseason meeting between the Raptors and Warriors. Tonight’s broadcast will be historic, as it will feature the first NBA Finals game to be played outside of the United States. This is the first time since 2010 that the NBA Finals will not include a team with LeBron James in the lineup, and the first time since 2014 that the Finals will not include the Cleveland Cavaliers.
For the Raptors, this is the first Finals for starters Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol. This is reserve forward Serge Ibaka’s first Finals since 2012, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are appearing in their first Finals since 2014, having appeared in consecutive Finals from 2013-14 as members of the San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors are appearing in their 5th straight Finals, the first team to accomplish the feat since the Boston Celtics appeared in 10 consecutive Finals from 1957-1966. If the Warriors win the series, they will become the first team since the 2000-2002 Los Angeles Lakers to collect three straight titles, and will join the Bulls and Celtics as the only teams in league history to accomplish the feat. If the Raptors win the series, it will be their first championship in franchise history, in addition to being the first international team to win an NBA title.
In addition to all of the “firsts”, there are some potential “lasts” on the table as well. Regardless of who wins, the scenario exists that both teams will play their last game with their current starting five, as both teams will have at least three of their current starters slated to be free agents when the new NBA year starts at 12:01am on July 1st. For Golden State, they will have to try and re-sign Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and DeMarcus Cousins. For Toronto, they will have to try and re-sign Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, and Danny Green. Those are just the starting players hitting free agency, both teams have reserves hitting the open market as well, and we here in Rip City understand how crucial it is to keep the supporting cast from becoming a revolving door if you want to stay in contention.
With superstar players on both teams, no past playoff matchups to draw from, and everything on the line, what we can expect to see from both teams in this series, who wins, and how many games will the series will go?
Here is this week’s NBA Finals themed lightning round:
1. Toronto has home court advantage to open the series and the Warriors will be down Kevin Durant for at least game one. Who do you have winning the game, and how does it impact the series?
If this game took place at Oracle Arena I would heavily favor the Warriors, so it’s a good thing the Raptors open with the home court, where they are 8-2 in these playoffs, versus a mediocre 4-3 on the road. Golden State has been equally dominant on the road or at home, so who knows what to truly expect tonight. Given that this is only the second time the Warriors have been the visitor in the opening game of a playoff series in the last five years (and they won the first one), it’s tough to say if they will struggle in a hostile environment, but the Raptors have done a solid job protecting their home court so I give them the advantage at home tonight, especially with Durant out. Toronto wins a tight game one, but this game won’t be a huge impact on the series, that comes in game two which will decide if the Warriors head home down 2-0, or if they will split and have a shot to steal home court advantage.
2. Durant’s potential matchup with Leonard could help sway the outcome of this series in either team’s favor. If Durant cannot return, does Golden State have another player they can assign to Leonard that can force him to adjust his game?.
Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are two of the best individual defenders in the game, but I would be surprised if either can handle Leonard one on one over the course of an entire game. If Durant is out his assignment probably goes to a committee and a lot of fresh legs to make sure Leonard always faces multiple defenders and never feels comfortable. Golden State doesn’t have an intimidating rim protector (no, Leonard isn’t going to hesitate to drive if he sees Green or Kevon Looney in the post), but they do throw a lot of looks and bodies at superstars to try and make them uncomfortable. I think Leonard can and will score on anyone, so the focus should be on frustrating his supporting cast in to making mental errors and force Leonard to try and take over the game He’s very capable of putting the team on his shoulders, but he is also dealing with a (allegedly) minor leg injury, so he hasn’t had his usual burst on every play and may get overly tired and frustrated if he doesn’t feel he can succeed by sharing the ball.
3. While they may lack the household names Golden State has, does the Raptors’ starting five matchup with Golden State’s “Hamptons Five”, or are they as far apart as the odds would have us believe?
To be honest, I think the odds makers are drinking a little too much Golden State Kool-Aid while looking through rose colored glasses. I don’t want to take anything away from what the previous Warriors teams have accomplished, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and call them an unbeatable juggernaut who has no equal. The Raptors are as complete a team as there is in the NBA, and they have the starting five along with a deep supporting cast to not only hang with these Warriors, but they are full of grizzly vets (pun intended) looking to beat them. I won’t be rash and say that the Raptors have already faced and handled teams like Golden State because they haven’t, but I also wouldn’t say that Golden State is ready for the Raptors simply because of what they’ve done the past few years. It’s a new year, a new matchup, and a new series. Both teams can score in bunches, they both play championship level defense, and they are both loaded with star power, so the idea that either team can run away with this series sounds like a stretch to me.
4. The Raptors defeated super teams Philadelphia and Milwaukee, what makes Golden State different from those teams?
What makes the Warriors different is that they succeed where other super teams fail, they find ways to win where other teams do not. You can swap all the coaches and marquee free agents you want until you get the “right” combination of talent and desire to win, but if those players and their coach don’t want to put their personal agendas aside and do whatever it takes to win, then they aren’t on the Warriors’ level. It wasn’t a small feat for Toronto to get past Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but the fact is that neither has anything close to the proven track record in the regular season or playoffs that the Warriors do. With LeBron heading West last summer, until further notice there isn’t a team in the East that can be recognized as an annual threat to the Warriors dynasty, so any team the Raptors faced this year would have to be seen as a lesser opponent than the Warriors until we have more data to work with. Boston is the only team other than Toronto that has been to the conference finals multiple times in the last few years, and they were destroyed by the Bucks in the semi-finals. The Bucks were just happy to be there (at least their play down the stretch made it look that way) after an 18 year hiatus, and head in to next season with multiple players needing new deals. The 76ers have a lot of big names but no recent success to speak of, and are now 19 years removed from their most recent conference finals. The Raptors certainly look like the team that has all of the pieces to fight the Warriors to the brink and beyond, but we’ll have to wait and see how it goes over the next several games before we can be sure. And should Toronto prevail, they also have a lot of tough decisions to make with their roster. Boston has so many young players and draft assets that they may actually come out of free agency stronger, without signing anyone.
5. Who wins the series, how many games does the series go, and who is your Finals MVP?
When the Finals opponents were established last Saturday night, my initial reaction after watching a very tired Leonard carry the Raptors past the Bucks was that he would have a tough draw against a rested Warriors team, given that they were supposed to be getting back one of the best players in the NBA, and had just swept the league’s best feel good story in the Portland Trail Blazers (too soon?). Now that it’s been a few days and Golden State has been idle since May 20th, and Durant has still not been cleared for game action (and Leonard has had time to catch his breath/rest his sore leg), I am leaning toward Toronto. I believe whoever wins game five will win the series. My prediction is that the Raptors win game one over the rusty Warriors, then the Warriors rebound and win game two, but drop a very heated game three at home. The Raptors lose game four and head back to Toronto for game five. The Raptors prevail in overtime, and head back to Oakland with a shot to win the series. Golden State, with a huge game from Durant, wins game six and forces a game seven. The Raptors, led by Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, win game seven on their home court and capture their first NBA championship.