9:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Warriors -, Over/Under: 215
Finally it all comes down to this, as the Golden State Warriors look to further strengthen their dynasty against the surging Toronto Raptors, in Game One of the NBA Finals from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario. For the fifth consecutive season, the Warriors (57-25, 1st in Western Conference) have advanced to the NBA Finals, where they look to secure their fourth Larry O’Brien Trophy in half a decade, and from the early outset it appears that they will have to do so without the services of one of the their brightest stars. Late in the Third Quarter of Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals, Kevin Durant (26.0 PTS, 52.1% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 5.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.1 BLK, 24.2 PER) landed awkwardly on his right leg, suffering a strained Calf Muscle, which at the time was thought to be far more serious, causing the former MVP and four-time Scoring Champion to miss not only the remainder of that Series, but the entirety of the Western Conference Finals as well. Predictably, Steve Kerr has been extremely cautious with Durant’s rehab, and though they apparently didn’t need his presence in Golden State’s impressive sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, the common opinion continues to be that in order to collect a third consecutive NBA Title, which would be their third since acquiring the ten-time All-Star, they’ll need to be at full strength. Of course, based off of what we’ve seen recently, there is certainly an argument to be made that this team will be just fine without him. That’s because, the Dubs embarrassed the Blazers with frightening ease in the Western Finals, which has granted them a wealth of time to rest before Thursday Night’s Opening Salvo north of the Border. After a comfortable 116-94 victory in Game One, the reigning Champions developed a habit of allowing Portland to amass sizable leads, only to torment them time and again by rallying back from double-digit deficits. In fact, between Games Two and Four, Golden State became the first team in NBA History to successfully rally back from three consecutive deficits of at least fifteen points. In Game Two they erased an 18-point hole en route to a 114-111 triumph, followed by climbing out of a 17-point hole in Game Three (1110-99). However, Game Four was simply the icing on the cake. Trailing by as many seventeen points in the Third Quarter, the visiting side went on a quick 12-0 run to cut the lead to 90-95 early in the fourth stanza. Eventually, the affair would go to overtime, where the triumvirate of Steph Curry (27.3 PTS, 47.2% FG, 43.7% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.4 BLK, 24.4 PER), Klay Thompson (21.5 PTS, 46.7% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.6 PER) and Draymond Green (7.4 PTS, 44.5% FG, 28.5% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 1.1 BLK, 12.9 PER) dominated the proceedings, finishing off the hosts with a 119-117 victory. Curry was fantastic, scoring a game-high Thirty-Seven Points on 11-of-25 shooting from the field (44.4%), including 7-of-16 from beyond the arc (43.8%), while Thompson made up for an uncharacteristically poor shooting display (7-of-21, 33.3%), with stifling defense on Portland’s Damian Lillard. Green logged yet another Triple-Double, with Eighteen Points on 7-of-13 shooting (53.8%), Fourteen Rebounds, and Eleven Assists, along with Three Steals and a pair of Blocks. The win put the Warriors in hallowed company, becoming just the second NBA Franchise to appear in five consecutive Finals, while also becoming just the sixth professional team in the United States to pull off that accomplishment.
While they’ll be facing a completely different opponent on Thursday Night, it’s understandable why the Warriors are indeed so heavily favored, even with Durant’s availability in question. After all, they’re performance without him in not only eliminating the threatening Houston Rockets, but more importantly manhandling the Trail Blazers speaks volumes as to what they’re capable of. Keep in mind, that this incarnation of the Dubs is not the group that could send wave after wave of talent against their opponents, with their Bench now much thinner than in year’s past, with their Rotation looking much leaner without Durant and DeMarcus Cousins (16.3 PTS, 48.0% FG, 27.4% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.5 BLK, 21.4 PER), who suffered a Quadriceps Strain back in the First Round of the Playoffs. Nonetheless, they utterly dismantled Portland over the course of four games, with the numbers suggesting that this could in fact be sustainable. Peeling back the curtain of the Western Conference Finals, Golden State averaged 114.8 Points on a healthy 49.0% shooting from the floor, including 36.2% from beyond the arc, dishing out 29.5 Assists in comparison to committing 14.5 Turnovers, while outrebounding their counterpart by 8.5 Boards. Defensively, they hounded the dynamic duo of the C.J. McCollum and the aforementioned Lillard, relegating them to 39.3% and 37.1% shooting respectively. Curry was otherworldly, averaging a staggering 36.5 Points on 46.9% shooting, including 42.6% from downtown, along with 8.3 Rebounds, and 7.3 Assists, racking up the highest scoring average for a Series ending in a sweep. Green never looked better, fulfilling a plethora of roles for the defending champions, posting averages of 16.5 Points 11.8 Rebounds, 8.8 Assists, 2.3 Steals, and 2.8 Blocks. Furthermore, for all the talk of their perceived lack of depth, the Bench really had some key moments in the Series, with Alfonzo McKinnie scoring Twelve Points as a surprise Starter in Game Four, Kevon Looney stepped up to provide excellent defense and rim protection.
Meanwhile, though we’re certainly familiar with one half of this NBA Finals, the Raptors (58-24, 2nd in Eastern Conference) are making their first appearance on the game’s grandest stage, further validating the wild gambit that has been their 2018-2019 campaign. We’ve covered at nauseum in this column, but Toronto’s path to this point has been a rather remarkable one. After suffering elimination in five consecutive Playoffs, with some being crushingly disappointing, Management ultimately decided to shake things up with a pair of gambles that would define this team moving forward. First, they parted ways with Dwayne Casey, who in leading the Raptors to a franchise-best, fifty-nine wins, earning him Coach of the Year honors as a result, replacing him with Nick Nurse, who had spent the previous term as an assistant on his staff. While that was quite the surprise, the true bombshell came shortly afterward, with General Manager Masai Ujiri trading the face of the franchise, DeMar DeRozan, to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (26.6 PTS, 49.6% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.4 BLK, 25.8 PER) and Danny Green (10.3 PTS, 46.5% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 13.0 PER). Granted, there was a great deal of risk in such a move, with Leonard entering into the final year of his contract, and for all intents and purposes expected to explore his options as an Unrestricted Free Agent this Summer. There was also the matter of his departure from San Antonio, where he missed all but nine games of the 2017-2018 campaign due to a mysterious thigh injury that caused great conflict with himself and the organization. Yes, acquiring the two-time Defensive Player of the Year was a ballsy move, but would he be healthy enough to reward them? And for that matter would he even be staying long enough to matter? Well, the first question appears to be answered with a resounding YES, for Leonard has been everything Ujiri, Nurse, and the faithful north of the Border could have hoped for, posting huge numbers throughout these Playoffs, carrying the Raptors for long stretches with 31.2 Points on 50.7% shooting from the field, including 38.8% from beyond the arc, along with 8.8 Rebounds, 3.8 Assists, 1.6 Steals, and 0.6 Blocks. Furthermore, he’s also authored some of the most defining moments in Toronto’s Postseason History, whether it was that walk-off dagger to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, or taking over in Double Overtime of Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals, where his two-way majesty turned the tide of the Series. Indeed, his defensive showing on Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was as impressive as anything witnessed in this Postseason, allowing the Raptors to overcome a 0-2 deficit and string together four consecutive victories. Against the Bucks, Leonard once again looked like a foundational superstar, averaging 29.8 Points on 44.2% shooting from the floor, including 34.4% from downtown, along with 9.5 Rebounds, 4.3 Assists, 2.2 Steals, and 1.0 Block per Game.
Despite the torrid current form of the reigning champions, there is plenty of reason for optimism for the Raptors, who continued to get better as the Series progressed against Milwaukee. As we stated earlier, Leonard was phenomenal on both ends of the floor throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, but it also helped that the Supporting Cast eventually grew into their roles, posting some excellent performances in the process. Perhaps it was poetic justice that veteran Point Guard, Kyle Lowry (14.2 PTS, 41.1% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 16.5 PER), who had long been this team’s posterchild for postseason failure, rehabilitated his reputation to a degree, with 19.2 Points on an efficient 50.7% shooting overall, including 46.5% from downtown, along with 5.5 Rebounds, and 5.2 Assists. Pascal Siakam (16.9 PTS, 54.9% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 6.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 18.7 PER), arguably the frontrunner for Most Improved Player honors, grew into the Series with aplomb, logging 14.5 Points 6.5 Rebounds, 2.3 Assists, and 12 Steals, while Reserves such as Norman Powell (8.6 PTS, 48.3% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 13.3 PER) and Fred VanVleet (11.0 PTS< 41.0% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.7 PER) accounted for 22.0 Points on 46.1% shooting, including a blistering 49.2% from long-range. In Game Six, the hosts trailed throughout the affair, rallying back from a 12-point deficit in the Third Quarter via a stellar 26-5 run that ensured the climactic 100-94 victory. Leonard ruled the night with Twenty-Seven Points, a playoff career-high Seventeen Rebounds, Seven Assists, Two Steals, and Two Blocks, while Siakam (18 Points), Lowry (17 Points), and VanVleet (14 Points) all contributed greatly. Nurse’s charges succeeded in slowing the pace of play down, with the margin for Fast Break Points (10-13) becoming far more manageable, while evening the battle of the Boards (Minus-4), and taking much better care of the basketball (11 Turnovers). If they can manage to keep these facets of their play in line, then they should be able to challenge the Warriors in what could be a very evenly-matched affair.