2019 NBA Finals Preview/Prediction
For the first time in years, we have some fresh blood in the NBA Finals. Yes, the Golden State Warriors are here for the fifth straight year. However, on the other side of the court awaits the Toronto Raptors. After years of heartbreaking flameouts in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Raptors have finally broken through. The all-in run has been highlighted by big gambles, big acquisitions, and huge wins in the playoffs. The Warriors return to the Finals has been a story of championship heart. Down two starters (one of whom could be considered the best player in the world), everyone gathered around the Warriors grave in celebration. But as it turns out, champions are hard to kill. And so here we are. Golden State seeks to become the first team since the early-2000s Lakers to win three straight championships. They would join an exclusive list including the Minneapolis Lakers of the 1950s, the Boston Celtics of the 1960s. the Bulls of the 1990s, and the aforementioned early-2000s Lakers. And finally, they would cement their stranglehold on this decade. in the 2010s, this would mark four championships and a player who has won two MVPs. The Raptors are seeking their first championship in franchise history. Their win will solidify Toronto as one of the elite sports cites as all of their teams will have won a championship. It will also change how business is done in the NBA. Suddenly, player rentals will be looked at as a viable championship strategy. And as for Kawhi, it will likely cement him as the best player in the world entering the 2020s. So let us take a look at the keys to the 2019 NBA Finals.
Keys for the Raptors
Depth Production: The Raptors are a very dangerous team when their supporting players are making an impact. Look no further than the last two series they played. Against the Sixers, the series was touch and it seemed like it would be Kawhi or bust. Against Milwaukee, Kawhi was able to get a lot of help from players such as Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka. The numbers prove this point. In the semi-finals against the Sixers, the Raptors averaged 16.3 points per game off the bench. Against the Bucks, they nearly doubled that production with 31.6 points per game.
Defense: The second key for the Raptors will be their ability to defend the Warriors in the half court. They’ll have contended with the Warriors constant movement. Fortunately for the Raptors, they have the personnel to switch everything. Their starting lineup alone features players with all-NBA defensive team credentials from the past, present, and future (Siakam). Look for Kawhi to be assigned the duty of guarding Steph Curry with Danny Green providing relief when necessary. Another important component to defending the Warriors is securing the rebound. So it will be key to box everyone out as the Warriors are notorious for having everyone crash the boards. Also, the Raptors will have to find a way to stop the Steph/Draymond pick and roll. So far, no one has been able to figure it out.
Consistency: This one goes without saying. Toronto is typically guaranteed an underachieving performance at least once in every playoff series. What has been key this season is that they’ve limited those type of performances this year. The Milwaukee series went a long way in making me believe that they have exorcised the old demons of lackluster playoff basketball. Also, consistency comes into play on the offensive side of the ball. A little too often, the Raptors seem to go into a lull where it seems like they can’t buy a bucket. Long scoreless droughts could spell disaster for them if they’re not careful.
Controlling Pace: The Raptors are at their best when they have the ability to set up their half-court defense. If they allow the Warriors to get out and run, it could turn into trouble and defensive miscommunication. Controlling the pace includes limiting turnovers and getting back quickly on defense.
Kawhi: The last time that Kawhi Leonard saw the Warriors in a seven-game series, his team was up by as much as 24 points. This season, Kawhi scored 37 points in his only meeting with the Warriors. It’s clear that he is capable of dominating this Warriors team, and that’s what will be required. He needs to continue to play at the level he is currently playing. If Kawhi is consistently the best player on the floor, the Raptors will be in a good position to win it all.
Keys for the Warriors
Establishing Pace: Golden State will face a unique challenge in the Raptors defense. Toronto ranked fifth in defensive rating during the regular season, and they’re ranked towards the top during the postseason. To counter, the Warriors have to keep the ball in motion and engage all five players on the court. The play style has been the foundation for its historic level of greatness. They also must get the ball up the court in a hurry to avoid running into the brick wall that has become the Raptors defense. This means forcing turnovers on defense and securing rebounds.
Strength in Numbers: One of the main reasons the Warriors have thrived without KD is the production from their supporting cast. Players such as Shaun Livingston, Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie, Kevon Looney, and Jonas Jerebko have answered the call when Steve Kerr puts them in the game. That trend will have to continue against a Raptors team that has a deep bench of their own. Expect Kerr to also fix his rotations to ensure that either Steph, Klay, or Draymond are on the court at all times. If Kevin Durant returns for the series, expect them to go back to their old philosophy of keeping two all-stars on the floor at all times.
Limiting Turnovers: Far too often they get a little careless in their offense and turn the ball over. It almost killed them against the multiple times in the past and could do the same in this series. Turnovers mean easy buckets for the Raptors, and that means a confidence boost as well. Golden State should know they have to tighten up as turnovers have cost them in the past.
Dealing with Kawhi: So far during this postseason, the former Finals MVP has averaged 31.2 points on 50.7 percent shooting along with 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. The last few times Kawhi has played Golden State, he dominated the matchup. Somehow, the Warriors are going to have to find a way to contain Kawhi. He is the centerpiece of the Raptors game plan and the source of their confidence. Klay Thompson will be the logical first option to guard Kawhi most of the time. Also, Andre Iguodala and Alfonzo McKinnie can expect to see some of Kawhi during the series.
KD or Curry: Fairly or unfairly, Steph Curry has been given the reputation as a bad postseason performer. One thing that can be said for certain is that Curry is having the best playoffs of his career right now. In the conference finals, Curry dominated with 36.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game on 42.6 percent shooting from downtown. He’s going to have to maintain that level of play to give the Warriors the best chance at winning. And if Curry cannot meet those high expectations, then the Warriors will need to hope that Kevin Durant can make an appearance in the Finals. His credentials in the NBA Finals are well known. In fact, KD has rarely had a bad performance on the big stage.
This blog has correctly predicted each of the last five NBA Finals, but now is a good time to take a risk. I’ll be going with the Raptors to win the series in seven games. I know it’s not wise to bet against the championship heart of Golden State, but the Raptors have the goods to win this series. They have a transcendent player leading them, the defensive capabilities to go against the Warriors, and a deep bench that can be deadly if they play up to standard. The main key I look at is the defense, the play of Kawhi Leonard, and the availability of KD. If KD cannot play for at least three games, I think that leaves a window for the Raptors to win. The Finals MVP will be Kawhi Leonard.