After four consecutive runs at the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James is finally giving someone else a shot. Instead of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals will be another team driven by one dominant superstar—but not the one most expected it to be as recently as a week ago. After taking down the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 2 with one stunning shot, Kawhi Leonard bested the Milwaukee Bucks in the East finals, sending the Toronto Raptors to their first Finals and denying Giannis Antetokounmpo his coronation. And as intriguing as a clash between the best regular-season team and the most talented team would’ve been, Leonard’s return to the Finals—where he first made his bones as the player LeBron did not want to face—brings with it all sorts of intrigue. Will Leonard finally get revenge on the Warriors after an injury cut down his chance two years ago? And could a surprise win against the champs convince him to stay in Toronto this summer?
Here are three immediate questions about this matchup:
Do the Warriors Need Kevin Durant?
In November, in the first of two matchups between the Raptors and Warriors this regular season, Steph Curry was the one hurt (groin strain) while Durant traded blows with Kawhi.
Now the roles of Golden State’s two MVPs are reversed—Durant is hurt with a calf strain and Curry is leading the Warriors back to success (they are 5-0 since Durant went out). As of Friday, Durant had yet to return to on-court activities, and, per The Athletic’s Anthony Slater, was walking with a “light limp.” Durant has now been away from the floor for more than two weeks, and it doesn’t sound promising that he’ll be back in time for Thursday’s Game 1.
The Warriors don’t need to Durant to win it all. Curry is playing perhaps better than he ever has in the playoffs (33 points per game in his last seven), and the team as a whole has looked dominant without him. The use of the unstoppable Draymond Green-Curry pick-and-roll has risen, and there is more speed and pace and passing. You adjust your offense to fit a former MVP every time, but Kerr Ball is still incredibly effective.
And yet, as good as the Warriors have been in 2015 mode and with a renewed sense of urgency on almost every play, they still need Durant as a safety valve. The Warriors smashed the Trail Blazers’ porous defense during their four-game sweep in the West finals to the tune of a 116.4 offensive rating. But it’s obviously pretty helpful to be able to give the ball to the reigning two-time Finals MVP in the fourth quarter and watch him be the best player in the world.
Looking back on that November matchup, a 131-128 Raptors win, you get the feeling that if Curry was in and Durant was out it could have been a 20-point blowout in favor of either team. Without Durant, the Warriors’ ceiling is higher but the floor is lower. That seems like what’s in store for this Finals against a Raptors team that has also vacillated this postseason depending on how much help Leonard’s supporting cast provides. If the Raptors blow out the Warriors by 20, maybe there will be a renewed appreciation for Durant—something he seems to be chasing with this presumed move to New York this summer. But if the Warriors blow out the Raptors by 20, you can bet that there will be a lot of tweets.
Can Kawhi Leonard Keep Carrying the Raptors?
Let’s go back to Game 1 of the 2017 West finals, when, inside Oracle Arena, the Spurs were up 22 in the third quarter and Kawhi stepped back to take a midrange jumper. Zaza Pachulia slid underneath Leonard as he contested the shot, and Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot and re-injured his already-hurt left ankle. He didn’t play the rest of the series, the Warriors swept, and Kawhi’s Spurs tenure was more or less over. Now Leonard is a Raptor, at least for the time being, and has another chance to take down Golden State.
The mountain Kawhi and Toronto have to climb is steep—perhaps far steeper than two years ago, when the Spurs won 61 games. The Warriors have looked more vulnerable than ever at times this season, including in the first round, when it took six games to dispatch a scrappy Clippers team. But, suddenly, the Warriors look more like the dominant team that lost only one game that entire 2017 postseason. At the same time, it’s hard to doubt Kawhi given what he has done during these playoffs. Heading into Saturday’s Game 6 win, Leonard was averaging 31.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.5 steals while shooting 56.6 effective field goal percentage. Only three other players have ever put up 30-8-3 on 55 eFG% in 10 playoff games or more: LeBron, Kareem, and Shaq. However, only three of those nine previous instances led to a championship.
Leonard was able to rip through the Bucks’ top-ranked defense for four games of 30-plus points, so he will have his moments against Golden State, too. But with the Warriors able to throw multiple elite defenders at him, the Raptors’ success will likely come down to how Leonard gets his other teammates involved. On nights like Thursday’s Game 5, in which Fred VanVleet shoots 7-for-9 for 3, Toronto should be able to make the Warriors pay. Unfortunately, those nights are few and far between, and once the Raptors get to Norman Powell, their eighth man, they’re basically out of options (unless OG Anunoby can make a surprise return).
Will Steph Curry Have His Finals Moment?
Curry has been adamant that the Warriors still need Durant. On Friday, he expressed his frustration with how wildly the perception of the team can swing. “Nobody can be happy when people are playing well; that’s the most surprising part to me,” Curry told reporters. “If KD is playing well, it’s, ‘Oh, they’re playing a different style and it’s not as much fun to watch.’ When he’s out and we’re winning games, it’s, ‘Are we better or more fun (without him)?’”
But after sacrificing shots, stats, and his best argument as the best player in the world to make room for KD, the likely end of the Durant era couldn’t have worked out any better for Curry. For all the accolades he has received since he became a dominant force a half-decade ago, Curry has yet to win a Finals MVP. And with Durant on the mend and voters probably second-guessing giving the Bill Russell Award to Andre Iguodala in 2015, everything is lining up in Curry’s favor.