After three rounds and 44 days, we’ve finally hit NBA Finals week. Our NBA staff digs in on all of the major story lines with three more days to go before Game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors.
1. What’s the most interesting thing about the 2019 NBA Finals?
Danny Chau: Kawhi’s revenge. Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals was startling; the Spurs were in complete control of a Warriors team that could very well be considered the greatest of all time—until Zaza Pachulia happened. Leonard had 26 points in less than 24 minutes; the Warriors trailed by as many as 25; and then, one misplaced foot undercut it all. The Warriors know Leonard can single-handedly decide a series, and during the past two weeks the rest of the world learned the same thing. Leonard is already in the midst of an all-time postseason run. How he’ll fare against the champs could vault him into rare, rare company.
Dan Devine: The three-way dance for the title of Best Player in the World. (At least, among those governing bodies that have stripped LeBron James of his belt for not defending his title.)
Kevin Durant and Leonard spent most of the first two rounds of the 2019 postseason making their cases. Then Durant got hurt, and Stephen Curry promptly finished off the Rockets and annihilated the Trail Blazers, reminding us that just because he hasn’t been the two-time-MVP-destroyer-of-worlds version of himself since KD came to town, that doesn’t mean he can’t do it anymore. While the Warriors rested, Kawhi labored, battling both a wounded wheel and another contender for the crown to produce perhaps the greatest performances of his career in games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
As Curry and Leonard go, so go the Warriors and Raptors … until Durant comes back, at which time the two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP could determine the fates of both teams. (Um, Durant is coming back, right?) They’re such different players—Steph, a joyous explosion, a rising tide; KD, a shoulder-slumping unicorn, majesty shredding; Kawhi, a math-rock MJ, two-way inevitability, grim destiny—and they’re all so, so good. Let’s see who’s best.
John Gonzalez: Kawhi. He’s been the best player in the playoffs, and I don’t think second place is particularly close. This postseason, according to Basketball-Reference, he’s had single-game personal playoff highs in minutes played (52 in a Game 3 double-OT win over the Bucks), rebounds (17 in Game 6 against the Bucks), assists (nine in Game 5 against the Bucks), points (45 in a Game 1 win over the Sixers), and GameScore (39.9, also in Game 1 against the Sixers). Among forwards, his numbers put him in historic company. He has won games for the Raptors in every possible way—including and most memorably by defying physics to make the first game-winner at the buzzer in a Game 7 in playoff history. He’s been hot for a month and a half now, and I’m excited to watch him cook a little while longer.
Zach Kram: Will Leonard lock on Curry, to try to thwart the fulcrum around which the Warriors offense whirs? Will he guard Draymond Green, to try to stymie the Warriors’ pick-and-roll game, which shredded the Rockets and Blazers after Durant went down? Will he take Durant if the two-time reigning Finals MVP returns from injury?
The Raptors beat Milwaukee because of their defense: The Bucks scored 113.5 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, 113.4 in the first two playoff rounds, and then just 106.3 against Toronto. In the last four games, all Raptors wins, that number was 102.3—which would have made Milwaukee the league’s worst offense during the regular season. In the Finals, can the best individual defender in the world slow the best team offense in the world? The only players in NBA history to win the Finals MVP award for multiple teams are LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If Toronto is to win, Leonard must become the third.
Chris Ryan: To take nothing away from what’s about to happen during the next couple of weeks, I’m most interested in what it will mean for the next couple of years. Is this the beginning of something or the end of something? Is this the end of the Death Star Warriors? A return to the Death Lineup Warriors? Is this KD’s swan song with Golden State? Will he be healthy enough to take a final bow? Will the answer to any of those previous three questions change whether he’ll go, and even more so, where he’ll land?
Is Kawhi the New LeBron in the Eastern Conference or is his stay in Toronto merely a gap year before he moves back west? Was making the Finals a mission accomplished for him? Would coming up short feel like there was unfinished business and prompt him to return to Toronto? Is he so friggin’ good that it doesn’t really matter what uniform he’s wearing—his team is a contender? What does his legendary postseason mean for his free agency? It will be fascinating to project how this Finals will reverberate into the future.
Justin Verrier: Will DeMarcus Cousins come back? And if he does, how much can the Warriors afford to play him? The decisions of Durant, Leonard, and Klay Thompson will likely shape the NBA for years to come, but their offers on the open market are pretty straightforward—they can get a max from any team of their choosing. But how much do you pay a 28-year-old coming off an Achilles rupture and a torn quad all in the same leg, all within a 15-month span? And which team is willing to gamble that he can still tap into the brutish physicality that unlocks his smash-and-splash game, or that he’ll be mobile enough to not get played off the court like most other player of his size?
If Cousins indeed returns, the Finals will be an audition—which means a lot of migraines for Steve Kerr. Kevon Looney has thrived this postseason—he has the best net rating (14) on the team!—and as a result, the rest of the Warriors’ centers have been relegated to spot duty. And despite how Zen Cousins sounds now, he’ll want to get more than garbage time in his first Finals. Kerr can simply ignore any bellyaches that come as a result of keeping Cousins on the bench, but the Warriors would be wise to consider the future too. The best solution for the capped-out Warriors to replace KD may be to re-sign Cousins at the 120 percent raise on his current salary ($5.3 million) that they’re allotted. A base salary in the seven figures once seemed like a low-ball for the four-time All-Star, but now such a deal may be wise for both parties.
Paolo Uggetti: It’s gotta be the juxtaposition between the superteam and the superstar. The Warriors are built around the idea that more talent is better than less (duh), even with Durant out. But the only number that really matters for Toronto is Kawhi’s. His burden has gotten heavier by the round, and it will not get any lighter in the Finals, where Golden State will have had nine days of rest and four days to prepare for him.
It’s easy to say that what the Raptors’ role players do playing off Leonard may be the difference, but I beg to differ. The difference will be how effective Kawhi can be in the face of a swarming Golden State defense. The Warriors were supposed to be on fumes by this point and feeling the pressure of Durant’s looming free agency. But now they’ve found an extra gear hidden somewhere in Draymond Green’s SoulCycle bag. We have seen this one-man-against-the-machine thing the past four Finals with LeBron; now we’re getting it with a different protagonist. While the equation is still lopsided, it’s hard to doubt that Kawhi can do something to level the playing field all by himself.
2. Do the Warriors need Kevin Durant to win the Finals?
Ryan: The Warriors are unbeatable with Durant. I don’t like to bet against hard evidence, and I haven’t seen anything over the past three years that makes me think a Durant-Warriors team can lose a series. That has nothing to do with whether they can win without him—they most certainly can against the Raps, I think they probably will, and maybe even pretty handily. Durant’s absence—and I’m not happy to say this—makes this series more interesting. The Warriors don’t need him to win, but his presence all but guarantees victory.
3. Do the Raptors need to win the Finals to convince Kawhi to stay?
Uggetti: Not to start things off by going galaxy brain here, but if the Raptors win the NBA Finals, you’d think that’d seal Kawhi’s exit from Toronto. His mission would be over—one season, one playoff run, one title. If the Raptors lose—and especially if they lose in a close series—one could make the case that there is something to come back for.
The cynical outlook is that if Kawhi has always wanted to go home to Los Angeles, nothing will change that—not even the basketball side of this decision. Even after advancing to the Finals, Kawhi’s sister was live on Instagram when a voice behind her appeared to say, “They know darn well he ain’t gonna be there next year.” (The video was eventually deleted.)
Then again, it’s hard to imagine someone with his basketball IQ won’t prioritize winning in some form. And while the Lakers have LeBron and the Clippers have the infrastructure, both are clouded with unknowns—chief among them what James has left in his historic tank and whether the Clips can land a second star. Toronto now has tangible results.
There was one way to turn what seemed like a fait accompli into a conversation, and the Raptors did that by making it to the Finals. That’s good news for Toronto, but there’s still zero guarantee that putting a ring on it will be the start of a long-term relationship. If anything, it might be what seals his departure.
4. What’s the key for the Warriors?
Devine: As always, it’s Curry. He missed Toronto’s first win over Golden State during the regular season in November and struggled in the second, with 3-for-12 shooting and four turnovers. But that was within the context of the Warriors’ superstar timeshare. Since Durant’s injury, Curry has been unleashed to an entirely different degree—35.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists on 47/42/95 shooting splits while attempting 14.4 long balls a game. On the flip side of that production, though, lies pain; over those five KD-free games, Golden State has scored a scorching 118 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court, and a putrid 95.1 points-per-100 when he’s been off it. If guards Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Fred VanVleet can in any way limit Curry’s quick-trigger effectiveness and attack him on the other end, and if Toronto can make hay in the minutes that Steph rests, the Raptors could be in business. But if screen-setting offensive linemen like Green, Looney, Andrew Bogut (and maybe Cousins?) can keep Curry clean, upright, and out of foul trouble, the Warriors should have the firepower to reduce even an excellent Raptors defense to cinders.
5. What’s the key for the Raptors?
Chau: Kawhi will do what he does, but for his team to stand a chance against the Warriors, the onus is on everyone else. Toronto will have to win the minutes when the Warriors have a traditional center in the lineup, be it with Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. The Raptors faced a fairly tough road to the Finals as a whole, but they faced opponents who didn’t always take advantage of Gasol’s aging, lumbering frame. Joel Embiid wasn’t always healthy enough to use his athletic advantages; Mike Budenholzer’s insistence on keeping Brook Lopez on the floor meant Gasol always had a doppelgänger to shadow.
That will change against the Warriors, who aren’t beholden to what works in the regular season. In the Warriors, the Raptors will finally face a team built to run Gasol off the floor. Ibaka may be the more effective big of the two; he is an active and mobile offensive rebounder, though his discipline defending the rim still lags behind his physical ability to. The Raptors can downsize with Pascal Siakam at the 5 and Kawhi at the 4, but they don’t have nearly the margin for error as does the team that essentially reinvented the small-ball game in 2015—not if Siakam can’t regain his regular-season assertiveness.
(Oh, and if VanVleet can’t shoot 76.5 percent from 3 like he did in the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals, Toronto had better hope someone else can.)
6. Who’s the most intriguing That Guy of the Finals?
Kram: Patrick McCaw. He likely won’t play much in these Finals. He hasn’t appeared for Toronto since the closing blowout minutes of Game 6 of the conference semifinals, and with Nick Nurse shrinking his rotation as the playoffs have progressed, McCaw would be an odd choice for a notable minutes boost this round. Even if he does play, perhaps to provide depth to combat Golden State’s small lineups, he likely won’t make much of an impact. The Warrior turned Raptor, by way of the Cavaliers, scored just 13 points across nine games in his last two Finals trips, both with Golden State.
But that’s the fun of McCaw’s presence in this series: If the Raptors win to give McCaw his third Finals victory after his previous pair with Golden State, he will have as many rings as Steph Curry. He will have as many rings as Klay Thompson. He will have as many rings as Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. He will have more rings than Kevin Durant. McCaw could have three rings in three NBA seasons—so watch out, Robert Horry. Nobody outside the 1960s Celtics core has more rings than Horry’s seven, but if winning is everything, it would be impossible to imagine a more rewarding start to a career.
7. Should Drake be barred from the Finals?
Gonzalez: I’ve gone through a journey on Drake. At first I was Drake-agnostic. If he wanted to position himself as the Raptors superfan and Toronto was cool with it, that didn’t much matter to me. Then I was out on him entirely when he decided to reverse his own curse by wearing Sixers shorts and staying home for that fateful Game 7 in Toronto.
How narcissistic do you have to be to dream up and believe in your own curse? Not to mention that the Toronto Raptors’ no. 1 fan missed the Toronto Raptors’ no. 1 playoff moment in franchise history. Boo. I booed that man. But then he gave Nurse multiple public back rubs, and now I’m back in. Not only did he knowingly and willfully meme himself, but he invited some hilarious and earnest pearl clutching about whether his “antics [are] good or bad.” I say set him up courtside with some oil and a massage table, and let’s get weird.
8. Whose legacy will be changed the most by winning the Finals?
Verrier: Kawhi’s. The clear 1B is Curry, who has an opportunity to win that elusive Finals MVP; earn his fourth ring (i.e., one more than LeBron); and vault back to the front of the conversation for the league’s best player, free of any asterisks about not being the best player on his own team. But with all due respect, it’s Leonard. At this time last year, he career was on one leg. And even as he regained form as an esteemed house guest in Toronto, his brilliance was dulled by signs of what was lost in customs—the constant load management, a vertical leap that couldn’t clear a coffee table. Giannis clobbered the East through physical dominance, like an early-career Shaq; Leonard got by more on guile, like a late-career Kobe.
But in four games, Leonard snatched Giannis’s chain and emerged as the true successor to LeBron in the East. Besting the conference’s best player and lifting the Raptors to the Finals, after damn near a half-decade of the franchise failing at that very task, instantly vaults Leonard back into the upper echelon of current-day players (and probably ensures that he’ll eat for free in Toronto forever, no matter what he decides this summer). But becoming only the second player to bring down perhaps the greatest team ever assembled? That’s the stuff of legends.
9. Commit to it: Who will win and in how many games?
Ryan: Warriors in six. I think they’ll play for that, too, knowing they can win it with the last game at Oracle.
Devine: Warriors in six. I believe that home-court advantage matters; I just don’t believe it matters all that much against the Warriors, who have won at least one road game in 22 straight playoff series. They’ll make it 23 by getting either Game 1 or Game 2 in Toronto before finishing off a very-good-but-not-quite-good-enough Raptors team at home, completing a three-peat and a run of four championships in five years to send Oracle (and maybe KD?) out in style.
Chau: Warriors in six. Kawhi is enough to swing a few games by himself. It’s everyone around him that is making me anxious.
Gonzalez: Warriors in six.
Kram: Warriors in five. No need for overly complicated analysis. Without Durant, the Warriors aren’t as dominant as they looked against a relatively weak conference finals opponent in Portland. But they’re still the Warriors, who have won 18 of 19 playoff series in the last five seasons; who still boast Curry’s offensive magic; who call on multiple Hall of Famers as supporting members; who will enter the Finals with more than a week of rest. The Raptors don’t seem to possess the guard and wing depth to match Golden State’s small lineups, and their role players are much more inconsistent than Green and Thompson. Golden State will complete the NBA’s first three-peat since the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in relative ease.
Verrier: Warriors in six. Kawhi’s Rambo act through the Eastern Conference has been as impressive as some of LeBron’s best in recent history, but it took a miracle—and an ill-timed dick punch—for even James to take down the Warriors’ death machine.
Uggetti: Warriors in six. Kawhi is too good, even for Golden State’s defense … but it will get Toronto two games—which is two games more than anyone would give them without Kawhi on their team. Curry will set fire to the first two games before Durant comes back and closes it out. Durant will get Finals MVP over Steph by a vote, and Twitter will melt.
An earlier version of this article stated an incorrect number for the streak of Warriors postseason series with at least one road win. It is 22, not 19.