“… 3 … 2 … 1 … It’s over! It’s over! Kawhi takes the ball and throws it in the air! I think it might land tomorrow in Vancouver! It’s an upset for the ages! Raptors shock the Warriors for their first championship!”
TORONTO — Is this a TV commentator’s (wind)pipe dream? Or can this really happen?
There’s a lot riding on the Toronto Raptors pulling off an all-time stunner in the 2019 version of The Finals. In no particular order: Canadian pride, Masai Ujiri’s gamble, Kawhi Leonard’s legacy, the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty, motivational material for underdogs everywhere and of course, millions of cases of Molson’s the night it happens.
The beauty of sports lies in its unpredictability, its occasional veer into the dark alley of the unexpected, and the sensational thrill caused by the vibration of the shocker. Such will be the case if this series ends any way other than the “Splash Brothers” splashing the bubbly in a few weeks.
It’s not as if the Raptors are lacking credibility or talent or wound up in The Finals because they took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. After all, they just eliminated the league’s best team in the regular season and, for the last four seasons, finished at or near the top of the Eastern Conference themselves. They’re not Buster Douglas, 1985 Villanova or any other sports Cinderella story.
But it’s close.
And they’re playing the two-time defending champs and winners of three of the last four titles.
And when you put those two elements together, it makes the right stew for David and Goliath and a chance for Canada to finally beat the U.S. in the Canadian game (remember, Dr. Naismith invented this).
Still, how is this possible? How can the Raptors, with only one championship-tested player in the rotation, beat the Warriors four times in seven games (or less!)? Especially when the entire basketball world, or so it seems, suspects this will be a wrap with or without Kevin Durant?
Remember, throughout the history of The Finals, ever since the Bill Russell Celtics dynasty in the 1960s, there are only two instances where a single-star-dominated team won a title: In 1975 (when Rick Barry did so with the Warriors) and in 2011 (when Dirk Nowitzki chopped down the mighty Miami Heat).
This is certainly not beyond the pale. With the right amount of good fortune, and the least amount of Durant, and a heaping supply of Leonard — along with at least one other Raptor, Toronto is equipped to win this series and turn Jurassic Park into a city within a city.
The Raptors have home-court advantage and Scotiabank Arena will be hazardous to the eardrums for 48 minutes at a time. It will be a plus if Toronto can win the first two games, in what will be Golden State’s first time opening the Finals on the road.
We start with the obvious:
1. Kawhi Leonard must be beastly
The Warriors are understandably concerned with a star they’re well familiar with, despite him playing 3,000 miles away from Oakland. Before he became a Raptor, Leonard was known for being one of the few players to run through the Warriors.
The most vivid example of this was when Leonard, then with the San Antonio Spurs, took a blowtorch to Golden State in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals. The Warriors’ defense was shook. He helped the Spurs break to a 25-point lead, racking up 26 points with eight rebounds in 23 minutes. That’s when Zaza Pachulia stuck out his foot while Kawhi levitated for another jumper, Kawhi landed funny, and neither he nor his relationship with the Spurs remained the same.
The next season, Kawhi and his creaky and controversial quad limited him to nine games. His distrust with the Spurs’ medical staff created a wedge, greasing his path from San Antonio to Toronto. Ujiri assured Kawhi the Raptors would do everything necessary and possible to preserve him for the long run, and evidently by what we’ve seen from April until now, they have.
“He made it clear that his health was a priority for him,” Ujiri said. “It was a priority for us. Kawhi’s quiet but he’s relentless. I tell you, his work ethic is almost crazy … taking care of his body and doing all the work. You could tell it was a priority for him to get back to the highest level.”
Kawhi is having the kind of postseason that usually leads to a title. He’s averaging 31.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.6 steals per game. Not only has he not missed a playoff game, he fought through a tweaky leg during the Eastern Conference finals to play 40 minutes two nights later. His minutes per game have risen throughout the playoffs, too: 34.1 minutes per game in the first in the first round, 39.7 mpg in the East semis and 41.3 mpg in the East finals.
“He said something to the effect that those first 82 games were just practice,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “Then I thought OK, he’s getting ready to throw it into another gear soon.”
Plus, Leonard is unflappable. Plenty of players shy away from the big shot because they’re worried what social media and their teammates might say if they fail. Kawhi is wired differently. He genuinely does not care. His mindset is unwavering, just as it was in 2014 when he won Finals MVP.
Earlier this season in November, in his only game against the Warriors, Kawhi scored 37 points on 24 shots. Clearly, then, the Warriors must scrap that gameplan and come up with another. Clearly, Kawhi is an attacking, opportunistic scorer who is comfortable everywhere on the floor.
“He’s been playing amazing this whole playoff run and really all season,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry. “He’s always at his own pace, and never seems to get rushed or be in a hurry. He’s obviously physically gifted and strong. He can get to his spots, but he’s become a really good shooter. Off the dribble getting to a spot, rising up. And his counters are pretty solid, too. You take one thing away from him, he can shift directions, try to get a shoulder by you, get into the paint.”
Leonard is aggressive in man-to-man defense, willing and able to come away with the clean pick, or come up with the right tonic to slow the other team’s biggest threat. Expect him to get his “claw” on Curry and Klay Thompson and if he plays, Durant.
2. Toronto must win when Durant doesn’t play
The margin for error against a team with Durant on the floor is slim. Every chance without him must count.
There’s a general feeling, not based on medical proof, that Durant may miss multiple games — if not the entire series — with his calf injury. It’s now three weeks without him in the lineup for an injury that usually requires four to six weeks, depending on the severity.
Besides, even if Durant does make an appearance, how sharp can he be after so much time off? He hasn’t practiced and shooters need rhythm … even the greats. He’d be thrown into the thick of The Finals without the luxury of a warm-up game.
Of lesser concern is how the Warriors will need to re-adjust with Durant on the floor. He’s played two-plus seasons with this team and Thompson and Curry are the most accommodating stars in the NBA. The bigger issue is Durant’s strength, wind and touch.
He’ll need all three against a team that brings the heat.
3. Toronto can play ‘defence’
Yes, that’s “defence,” the Canadian spelling, although the definition is the same. It starts with Leonard, a former back-to-back Kia Defensive Player of the Year, and brings three other players known for defense in their careers: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green.
Add Pascal Siakam as well as Fred VanVleet and the Raptors have solid stoppers.
That said, they haven’t seen the likes of Golden State this postseason, or the 1-2 punch of Curry and Thompson. The key here is Kyle Lowry. Can the Raptors successfully hide Lowry for a portion of his playing time by assigning him to a non-scorer like Andre Iguodala? If so, then they’ll be able to keep him away from mismatches and the tough task of chasing Curry or Thompson through screens.
When pressed, the Raptors devised the proper way to keep Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo from destroying them in the East finals. The Warriors bring more weapons, yet if Durant is limited or doesn’t play, that’s one less worry for Toronto.
4. ‘We The North’ needs second star
Assuming one of them is Leonard, then who’s riding shotgun?
Will Lowry have the series of his life? Can Siakam have a postseason breakout to match his regular-season showing? Will Green rediscover his missing 3-point shot? Can VanVleet continue his torrid shooting from the East finals? Those are the likely supporting-actor candidates to Leonard’s lead role who could give the Raptors the secondary source of help they’ll need.
There’s a very likely scenario where the Warriors throw two, and maybe three, bodies at Kawhi in the final minutes of a tight game and force someone else to beat them. When that ball leaves Leonard’s hands and finds its way to another’s, will that teammate shoot with confidence … or juggle the hot potato?
What the Raptors must understand is there’s no promise that they’ll ever get this far again, especially if Leonard leaves this summer in free agency. They should mirror the mentality Nowitzki’s teammates adopted in 2011. Those Mavericks supported Nowitzki and made their presence known at various points against the Heat, be it with defense, smart decisions, and making open shots when Nowitzki was doubled.
This is that challenge that awaits the Raptors.
There cannot be an upset without a heavy favorite and a team that reasonably shouldn’t win, but finds a way.
The Warriors certainly fit the first description, and now the mystery of The Finals lies with the Raptors and where they stand. We will either have a series to remember, or a dynasty to never forget.
Which will it be, Toronto?
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