The NBA Finals are finally here. The Toronto Raptors will play host to the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, kicking off a potential seven-game series with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line. By the time the dust settles, either the Raptors will win their first championship in franchise history, or the Warriors will complete their coveted three-peat.
Our staff came together for its second Finals-specific roundtable of the week. You can read yesterday’s edition right here, and today, we tried to answer a simple question: Who ya got?
If the Raptors win, it’s because…
Jeff Siegel: …their defense holds up from the Milwaukee series. Toronto was downright terrifying on that end of the floor, especially in the last four games, but Golden State is an entirely different challenge. While Toronto’s sole focus was walling off the paint on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s drives, their focus has to shift entirely to the perimeter, especially in the early part of the series, when Kevin Durant won’t play.
Chris Barnewall: …Kawhi Leonard has been the best player in the NBA Playoffs by far. The only time we’ve seen any version of the the Steve Kerr era Warriors get taken down is when the best player was on the other team.
Mike Zavagno: …of their defense. Even with Draymond Green’s resurgence on the defensive end, Golden State has largely won in these playoff with their offense. Toronto is coming off a series where they successfully prevented Giannis Antetokounmpo from hurting them as a scorer. But Golden State’s offense is much different, especially without Durant. Toronto has to alter their strategy to better contain the world’s best off-the-bounce shooter in Curry.
Robby Kalland: …their defense adjusts from “Form A F*cking Wall” to, well, whatever it is you do to take away Steph and Klay and stays just as dominant, and Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series. Leonard has been unreal and getting some time off to heal whatever knee/leg injury was bothering him late in the ECF is huge. The thing with the Warriors is you have to play your best ball for at least five games to beat them in a seven-game series, because one game they’re gonna shoot so well it won’t matter what you do. Toronto’s defense is going to have to press up on shooters and rotate like mad men, but they’re as capable a group on that end as there is in the league. Oh, and their role guys have to be as good as they were against the Bucks. It takes a lot to beat the Warriors.
Brad Rowland: …Kawhi was the best player in the series. Yes, Toronto’s defense is probably the biggest factor in whether the Raptors can hold up against the Warriors but, in short, it is very, very difficult to see Golden State losing if Leonard isn’t elite. He’s been absolutely tremendous to this point in the playoffs but he’ll need to summon more of that superhuman play both both ends to bring a title to Canada.
Jamie Cooper: …the Warriors’ shooters go cold at the wrong time, Kevin Durant does not return, and Kawhi continues his LeBron-lite run through the postseason. Everything will have to go right for the Raptors, and they’ll need some help from the Warriors while they’re at it.
Nekias Duncan: …the Raptors play the type of defense they’re capable of. They have the wing defenders to bother the Splash Brothers, plus Kevin Durant whenever he comes back. They have the bigs good enough to protect the paint whenever the Warriors play a true center. Pascal Siakam especially is switch-y enough to hang on the perimeter if it comes down to it. If the Raptors can turn the series into a slugfest in the half court, they could very well win this thing.
Martin Rickman: …Kawhi continued his tour de force this postseason, and the Raptors rally around him. We know what the Warriors are capable of, with or without Kevin Durant. But much like Alabama football, mystique contributes to their success, albeit slightly. Teams can build leads against them, and then the fear factor sets in. They stop playing their game, get tentative, or press, and the Warriors — due to their overwhelming dominance, continuous calm, and trust in each other — take advantage. The Raptors win if Leonard sets the tone, brings a steady presence along with his supreme gifts, and they don’t let up when they get a lead.
Bill DiFilippo: …they’re able to muck up the Warriors offense and win four rock fights. If Golden State can get out, run, and play themselves into a rhythm, they’re going to win. But Toronto’s defense is very, very good, it has a bunch of dudes who can switch on the perimeter and be physical with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Drag them through the mud, slow things way down, and put Kawhi Leonard into positions to win games.
If the Warriors win, it’s because…
Siegel: …they find a way to slow down Kawhi Leonard. Like Milwaukee, Golden State’s best defensive player won’t be guarding Leonard, but instead will be helping as much as possible. Having already gotten through an incredibly long and athletic Bucks defense, the Raptors may find it easier to score against the Warriors, though their collective defensive intelligence usually makes up for any lacking athleticism.
Barnewall: …Draymond Green is playing free again. He hasn’t looked this good since Golden State won 73 games and that should be scary for everybody in Toronto as it tries to gameplan.
Zavagno: …Toronto finds it difficult to score. Even with Kawhi playing at an all-world level, he is largely a strength-based offensive player. He likes to use his body to create space to get to his spots. Problem is, Golden State has one of the strongest perimeter defenders in the NBA to deploy on him in Andre Iguodala. The Raptors’ “others” — particularly Fred VanVleet — stepped up against Milwaukee, but the Warriors’ superior size may give him trouble.
Kalland: …the Raptors role players don’t shoot as well as they did late in the ECF, Kawhi and Steph effectively wash each other out offensively, and Toronto simply has no answers for SoulCycle Dray. The play of Green this postseason has been truly remarkable as he’s been as much the engine making this offense go as Curry. He’s going to be a matchup nightmare for the Raptors. As we saw in the ECF, the Raptors are a dominant halfcourt defense, but Green can get out and push the ball to get them scrambling, which will open things up for Golden State’s shooters.
Rowland: …Draymond did Draymond things. Green isn’t the best player on his own team and, at best, he’s the third-best player when Kevin Durant is fully functional. Still, he’s a one-of-a-kind entity and Green brings an X-factor to the table as the preeminent “16-game player.” If he’s the guy from the last two series, the Warriors often look virtually unbeatable and there is a reason for that.
Cooper: …the Warriors keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing since Durant went down. Steph is having arguably his best playoff run yet, and Draymond is back to being a one-man wrecking crew. But they’ll still have to find a way to make things difficult for Kawhi and hope that Lowry’s consistency issues continue.
Duncan: …Steph Curry punishes whoever guards him. The Raptors aren’t going to want to put Kawhi Leonard on Curry; they’ll leave those duties to Kyle Lowry or Danny Green. If Curry wins those battles handedly, the Raptors are either going to put their defense into constant rotation with traps or reorganize their matchups in a way that probably gives Durant or Klay Thompson a more favorable matchup.
Rickman: …they’re the Warriors. This team didn’t get to five straight finals, winning three out of four, for no reason. They have an embarrassment of riches, and can throw out two options: the team ball that fans prefer with a barrage of threes and surprising bench play, or a return to the Finals MVP type of play we’ve come to expect from Durant. The Raptors have had a phenomenal season and have put that nasty playoff narrative behind them; but the Warriors have beaten better and more talented teams in a seven-game series. That’s nothing against the Raptors; it’s a testament to just how good this franchise really is.
DiFilippo: …they’re a better basketball team that has made five straight Finals and has won three of the last four. Add in a healthy Kevin Durant at some point and, well, yeah.
Who wins, in how many games, and why?
Siegel: Golden State in six. They’re just so immensely talented and it may take some time for Toronto’s defense to acclimate to the way the Warriors play, which is very, very different from the way Milwaukee played in the last series. If Golden State can grab one of the first two in Toronto and then get Durant and Cousins back as reinforcements in Games 3 and 4, then the Raptors are going to be in a lot of difficulty.
Barnewall: Warriors in five. I WANT to see the Raptors make this series go long. I really like this group, I think they’re great, and seeing Kawhi Leonard play at this level has been a treat, but they’ve had too many moments where their supporting cast has come out flat throughout these playoffs to trust them for an entire series against an incredible dynasty like this. I hope it’s fun, but I see this series ending in five.
Zavagno: I think Golden State closes this out at home in the last ever game at Oracle. I think the combination of potential fatigue and offensive issues for Toronto are going to be difficult to overcome. Nurse is also going to have to adjust their defense on the fly, as I don’t think Kerr will lack creativity in building his attack like Mike Budenholzer did. While Toronto does have guys with Finals experience, I think the atmosphere will come as a bit of a shock to some of the newcomers — an issue the old hats from the Bay won’t have.
Kalland: Warriors in six. I think they split the first two in Toronto (with GSW winning Game 1) and the Warriors take care of business at home. Kawhi is the caliber of star needed to take a couple games off of these Warriors, but once Durant gets back I just fear it’ll be too much. I think we’ll get a couple great games and a couple where the Warriors are just overwhelming.
Rowland: Warriors in six. I’d say five if Durant was playing but Golden State is just a team I can’t pick against under any semi-normal circumstances. Make no mistake, though, Toronto can win this series if they capitalize during the first two games at home with KD on the sideline.
Cooper: Warriors in six. Kawhi and Danny Green are the only Raptors with actual championship experience, and Green has been dreadful so far. Golden State has too much experience and too many weapons, and they’re firing on all cylinders after taking down the Blazers in the conference finals. Toronto might steal one or two of these games behind Kawhi’s willpower alone, but they’re quite simply overmatched.
Nekias: Raptors in six. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I’m falling prey to recency bias. Maybe I’m just not a darn coward. But this Raptors group is special. Beyond the elite defense, the depth, the absurd play of Kawhi Leonard, this team seems so mentally tough. I think the non-KD games allow the Raptors to build a head of steam early in the series, and they’re able to cap things off on the road.
Rickman: Warriors in five. The Raptors have had a wonderful story. Kawhi has been as good as advertised and made the big bet by Masai Ujiri worth it. But this is the Warriors, and this is hellworld. There’s no place for an underdog in 2019. The one percent win, and will always win, and our planet burns around us.
DiFilippo: Warriors in six. Toronto has a whole lot of fight in ’em, and while I think they have a shot, they basically need to bury Golden State before Durant gets back. As long as that happens — and, in fairness, I think the Raptors will be up 2-1 by the time he’s back — Golden State wins. If Durant can’t play, though, this is going seven, and Toronto will be champions.
Who wins Finals MVP?
Siegel: Steph Curry finally gets his Finals MVP, with Durant out for the first part of the series.
Barnewall: I think Curry hunts for this. He has to be tired of the criticism he’s received despite being an absolutely incredible player. I’d like to throw out a dark horse option though for Draymond Green. He’s been phenomenal.
Zavagno: Curry. He’s the favorite at -167 and seems like the obvious choice with Durant set to miss some time.
Kalland: Draymond. He’s going to average a triple-double, have a series-defining blocked shot in the clinching game (which is when they conduct the vote), and it is the law that Steph can’t win this award so despite averaging like 30 a game it goes to Green.
Rowland: Wouldn’t it be on-brand if Curry didn’t win it? He’s the big favorite right now but let’s go with Klay Thompson to be weird. All it would take to make things interesting is a pair of 35-point games for Klay and, well, that seems pretty plausible. (Steph should win)
Cooper: Steph Curry. He’s got narrative on his side this time, and he’s playing as well as he’s ever played, which is an astonishing thing to say in 2019. If Durant misses multiple games and Steph keeps it up, it will be his to lose.
Nekias: Kawhi Leonard. He’s been, at worst, the second best player this postseason. This 4.5 day break should help him recover some. The extra off days in this series should help him recover some. We have enough of a sample to conclude that even a marginally rested Leonard can give the Warriors nightmares. I think he’s going to go nuclear.
Rickman: Bees are dying at an alarming rate, and polar ice is disappearing, and now it’s possible aliens are here. Caring about who wins Finals MVP is like caring about the Grammys. It doesn’t matter.
DiFilippo: How’s this for a hedge: If Durant takes the floor in at least three Warriors wins, he gets it. Otherwise, Curry finally gets a Finals MVP.