NBA Finals a Matchup Years in the Making
Each year 2,460 regular season games are played. This year there have already been 76 playoff games played. But in just a few more hours the entire NBA universe will be laser-focused on Scotiabank Arena as the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors square off for game one for the NBA Finals. It is a matchup two years in the making. Kawhi Leonard was forced from action by a Zaza Pachulia closeout in 2017 and the Dubs swept the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi missed most of 2018, including the playoffs, and the Warriors took out the Spurs in five games.
We haven’t really gotten to see a fully healthy Kawhi against the NBA’s latest dynasty. He had 26/8/3 in ‘17 before exiting. In his lone appearance against them this season it was 37/8/3, 58.3 percent from the floor and, 50 percent from deep. He averages 16.5/6.5/2.2 against Golden State, but that includes games before all parties reached their current peak levels. Who knows if he can keep it up, but the Klaw has been asserting his dominance all postseason.
Leonard averaged 26.6/7.3/3.3 in the regular season, one of only five players with those numbers. He also slashed 49.6/37.1/84.5, marks matched by only five others, none of whom are in the same breath as Kawhi. But in the playoffs, Leonard has been unconscious. He is averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 boards, and 3.8 assists on a 50.7/38.8/87.5 shooting line. The quiet superstar started this postseason with crazy efficiency (55.6/53.8/89.3 in the first round), and while that has waned, he has put the team on his back. Just in case you forgot, he did this.
The Western Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks was different. Pascal Siakam was the Robin to Leonard’s Batman through the first two rounds averaging 20.8 points. Perhaps still bothered by an injured calf, he only averaged 14.5 versus the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell served as the cavalry. Lowry, in particular, has been big. His floor game has been steady, but he has also upped his scoring output from 11.4 in the first round to 13.1 in round two. He goes into the Finals scoring 19.2 points on 50.7/46.5/84.4 shooting versus Milwaukee.
If Toronto is going to pull off the upset, they are going to need more from their complementary parts. Siakam and Lowry have taken turns as top wingman. But the Raptors need the Spicy P from rounds one and two and for Lowry to stay hot. One has to imagine they will also need more from Marc Gasol and Danny Green. Gasol has done yeoman’s work in the playoffs, clogging the paint and generally making smart decisions with the ball. But he faces the real risk of being unplayable in this series should Golden State decide to go small. Green joins Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka as contributors who will need to have a big game here and there to finish the job.
When Kevin Durant went down, many in the NBA world questioned if there would be a significant dropoff. At a minimum, the expectation was they would need their best player eventually, right? Well all Steph Curry has done in the five games since is average 35.8 points on 46.6 percent shooting (41.7 percent 3PT) with 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists. Much has been made of the Warriors success sans Durant but with Curry in the lineup. Still, those are stellar numbers. Should Durant remain out and/or Steph stays en fuego, he is a good bet to earn his first FInals MVP.
Klay Thompson has found his stroke as well. He has put up 22.6 points per game since Durant’s injury. In fact, Thompson’s scoring output has gone up each round; from 17.3 in the opening round to 19.2 in the Conference Semis to 21.5 in the sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. He will also be tasked with defending Leonard. It is a tall order indeed. But if there is anyone up to the task, it’s Thompson, perhaps the best two-way guard in the NBA. It will be two very similar players facing off. That is when Kawhi is not chasing Steph around a multitude of screens.
The elephant in the room, Durant has already been ruled out for game one. Most recently, the idea was broached that a Warriors title without him is the Easy Money Sniper’s worst nightmare. He would certainly bristle at the notion, but it should not be dismissed by the rest of us so easily. This could be used as an opportunity to diminish Durant’s standing in the league hierarchy. That will not happen here. It has already been noted that KD is so great is that the Warriors diverge from what made them great prior to his arrival.
Draymond Green is healthy and locked in this postseason. His job gets interesting this series as he will have to deal with Siakam. Green is the defensive anchor in the Bay. He roams the middle of the floor, setting the defense and playing center field. He will have to stay with Siakam, who despite seeing his numbers fall of late, is always active on both ends of the floor. He (Siakam) generates most of his offense in the paint but will likely play a bit more of a perimeter-based game to draw Green away from the basket. That is where Kevon Looney will have to keep giving solid minutes. That is, of course, unless Boogie Cousins makes his return to action.
In The End
There will have to be significant contributions by the benches, that should go without saying. But this series will undoubtedly feature a lot of 40-plus’s in the box scores for the starters of both teams. As things stand, the Warriors are still themselves, with or without KD and Boogie. But what do they do if they keep winning when those two are ready to return? Do they rush them back if they fall into an early deficit? Would either player try to force their way back into the rotation/lineup?
The Raptors are not immune to the nagging questions. This team is by and large the same group that wilted in the presence of LeBron James three straight years, including last year’s sweep. How will Lowry and Siakam perform this round? Especially if the Warriors defense shuts Leonard down. Will Gasol and Green provide stats that show up in the boxscore? Maybe more important than any of that, has Toronto done enough to secure the (sorry in advance) Klawtograph? Will they have to win it all to do so (and will that even be enough)? We are about to find out.