By Ethan Salm
Before the 2019 NBA playoffs started, seven teams had never made the NBA Finals. Saturday night that number dropped to six. The Toronto Raptors won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals by six points in the city that they call the “6ix,” eliminating the Milwaukee Bucks and clinching the first NBA Finals trip in franchise history.
The Raptors handled the Orlando Magic in the first round pretty easily after dropping Game 1 at Scotia Bank Arena. There was a decent amount of concern that after a rough first game, the Raptors would perform the same as they had the last few years and go home way too early. This was simply not the case. Toronto responded to the initial loss by rattling off four straight wins to eliminate the Magic. They then outdueled the Philadelphia 76ers in an epic seven-game series that came down to an incredible buzzer-beating shot by Kawhi Leonard. Landing the Milwaukee Bucks as an opponent in the Conference Finals, the Raptors ultimately clenched a trip to the finals after being down 2-0 in the series.
On the other hand, coming out of the Western Conference is a very familiar foe. The Golden State Warriors are striding into the NBA Finals after beating the Los Angeles Clippers in six games, beating the Houston Rockets in six games and sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers. The Warriors have not come into this series at full strength and, while most people thought the team would struggle without their superstar Kevin Durant, the Warriors have actually done the opposite. The team has not lost since Durant left with a calf injury in Game 5 against the Rockets and even without both him and Demarcus Cousins, the Warriors seem to be hitting their stride.
The Regular Season
These two teams played twice in the regular season, Toronto winning both matchups. In their first outing, the Raptors narrowly won in overtime. Kevin Durant had 51 points and the Warriors, missing Stephen Curry that game, fell just short and lost the game by three. The result of the second outing was a little different. This time the Raptors, without Kawhi Leonard, defeated the Warriors in a 20-point victory at the Oracle. In both matchups the entirety of the Raptors performed well while the Warriors, with or without Curry, did not. With that being said, the Warriors went an impressive 57-25 in the regular season, beating every team in the league except one: the Toronto Raptors.
What to Watch For
On the Raptors side this is pretty simple: watch the play of Kawhi Leonard. This team will only win if Leonard puts them in a position to do so. Yes, there are still four other players on the floor that need to do well. Yes, the Raptors beat the Warriors by 20 without Leonard in the regular season. However, if Leonard does not average above 32 points a game in the NBA Finals (he averaged 29.8 PPG against the Bucks), I don’t think the Raptors can win the series. He is the biggest piece of this team and his play will determine whether or not Toronto can stay competitive in this series, though the play of his teammates is also key. For example, Danny Green has not been shooting the ball well and the Raptors cannot afford to have an offensive liability on the floor against a team like Golden State. Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry will need to play at a very high level as well, especially Lowry, because he will be matched up against Stephen Curry. Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol finished out the series against the Bucks extremely well and will need to continue that caliber play into the NBA Finals. If all of these things occur, then the Toronto Raptors have a chance to take down the Goliath that is the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are set up to win the NBA Finals. When healthy, the team starts five all-stars. At the beginning of this particular series, they will start three all-stars because of injuries to Kevin Durant and Boogie Cousins. The current team is essentially the same core team that won the title in 2015. Stephen Curry played lights out against Portland and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are the perfect supporting cast. The key to winning the NBA Finals for the Warriors is their health. If Curry, Thompson and Green all stay healthy and Durant or Cousins return, oh boy. This team has talent at every position, experience in the postseason and the only people that can slow the Warriors down are themselves. Be prepared to watch the same thing we have seen in the previous four NBA Finals, just without LeBron James being on the court against them. This team has absolutely everything it needs to win a championship, with or without Durant.
If Kevin Durant can be back for Game 2, the Warriors should win in five games. If Kevin Durant comes back after Game 2, or even if he misses the entire series, I don’t think it takes the Warriors more than six games to claim the three-peat victory.
Edited by Emma Moloney | email@example.com