Maybe I’m getting some slight delirium from a nasty cold I’ve been dealing with, but in this year’s NBA Finals, I feel an upset brewing.
First of all, it’s kind of strange to call the team with the home court advantage in the best-of-seven series, the Toronto Raptors, the underdog, but that’s just how good the Golden State Warriors are. And the Warriors themselves learned the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals that great regular season success doesn’t always result in great postseason success.
In this postseason, the Warriors have played about as well as they ever have during their dynastic run of now five straight NBA Finals appearances, and have even managed to adjust and play even better ever since losing their leading scorer, Kevin Durant, to injury in the Western Conference Semifinals. Durant’s potential return from that injury will surely be a storyline that’ll hang over the Finals.
But, the Raptors will bring into the finals a player in Kawhi Leonard who has looked like the NBA’s best during Toronto’s playoff run. The rangy swingman can pretty much defend any position and do it at an elite level. On offense, Leonard’s physical, mid-range game is a welcome throwback to the Michael Jordan era of the NBA, and it’s a style that could give Golden State some fits.
Don’t expect the calm, cool and collected Leonard to wilt under the bright lights of the NBA Finals. Leonard already has an instant classic series-ending buzzer-beater this postseason against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and don’t underestimate the motivation of revenge. Don’t forget, it was a questionable close-out that saw Leonard injured his ankle in the 2017 Western Conference Finals series between the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs — a series in which Leonard never returned.
The stage should also not be too big for a team loaded with other NBA veterans — such as Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green, as well as a promising up-and-comer Pascal Siakim.
All of those players will have to step up in their own way for the Raptors, and, as a complete team, Toronto will have to control the pace against a fast-breaking Golden State team to topple the Warriors, all of which is well inside the realm of possibility.
Also, the Raptors’ confidence and image as a world-beater is as strong as ever as they head into the NBA Finals after an Eastern Conference Finals series where they stunned the regular season’s best team, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Against a Bucks team that hadn’t lost three consecutive games during the regular season and had a 10-1 record (including six straight wins) in the playoffs at the time they put the Raptors in an 0-2 hole, Toronto rattled off four wins in a row to win the series.
In an Eastern Conference Finals series that began looking like a coronation for the NBA’s next superstar, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Leonard showed that he, and not the Greek Freak, is the best two-way player in the league today.
We the North, Raptors in seven.