On Thursday, May 30ththe Raptors and the Warriors will play Game One of the 2019 NBA Finals in Toronto, Canada. While many are suggesting that a Warriors victory is inevitable, there are several factors that, when taken into account, seem to point towards a tightly contested series. We will look at situational factors, coaching, and a position-by-position breakdown to determine what the advantages are for each team.
Kevin Durant is injured and will miss at least Game One of the Finals. Demarcus Cousins may be ready to play in Game One, but he has been out for weeks after his injury in the first round of the playoffs versus the Clippers. His Achilles tendon injury had already robbed him of much of his previous explosiveness, so it remains to be seen how effective he will be after tearing his left quadriceps and being sidelined for several weeks. As for Durant, as he has told the world, he is Kevin Durant, so it likely will not take him long to shake off the rust upon his return. The Raptors have no major injury concerns, so long as Kawhi Leonard is able to maintain his effectiveness through the tendinitis that had him visibly grimacing in pain at times during the Eastern Conference Finals. OG Anunoby may return during the NBA Finals after having an appendectomy before the postseason, but it is doubtful that he will play a significant role. As far as health goes, it appears the Raptors have the edge over the Warriors going into the series.
The Raptors have home court advantage in this series, thanks to their fifty-eight regular season wins compared to the Warriors fifty-seven. The Warriors are a tremendous road team, but the Raptors have an equally tremendous fan base that makes the home court a major advantage.
Lastly, both teams have top players who are in the last years of their contracts and have yet to resign. Kevin Durant’s pending free agency is the talk of the NBA, and Draymond Green famously called him a b***h during a heated early season argument. Leonard, on the other hand, has kept his free agency quiet, and appears to be adored by teammates, coaches, and fans.
O verall, the Raptors have home court advantage, a healthy core, and a drama-free superstar. This might just give them the edge they need to compete against the Golden State dynasty.
Indisputably, Steve Kerr is the more experienced and proven of the two head coaches in this series. However, we cannot forget that the much-maligned Tyronn Lue triumphed over Steve Kerr in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Steve Kerr has won five NBA Championships as a player, playing for Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, and three as a coach in four appearances (all with the Warriors). On the other hand, this is Nurse’s first NBA head coaching job, he never played in the NBA, and his most recent head-coaching job was in the D-League. While Nurse has been coaching since 1989, making him more experienced as a coach than Kerr, Kerr has much more experience at the highest levels of the NBA.
Without question, Nurse has done a tremendous job (with the help of Masai Ujiri’s shrewd personnel moves) getting the Raptors to play tremendous defense and efficient offense. But Kerr has helped build a generational dynasty in the Warriors. If Nurse is able to out-coach Kerr in these Finals, his stock will rise dramatically.
Edge: Golden State
Ever since Kevin Durant’s injury in the third quarter of Game Five against the Rockets, Steph Curry has been vintage, MVP-level Curry. He has carried the Warriors on their recent six-game winning streak, seemingly determined, along with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, to prove that the Warriors do not need Kevin Durant to win. For the playoffs, Curry is averaging 27 points on 45% shooting from the field and 39% shooting from behind the arc. Without Durant, and in key moments, however, Steph Curry’s production has been even greater.
Kyle Lowry has been playing at a high level in these playoffs. His performances against the Bucks and the Sixers were critical in his team’s victories. For the playoffs, Lowry is averaging 14.7 points on 44% from the field and 35% from behind the arc, to go along with 6.4 assists and 5 rebounds per game. Much of Lowry’s contribution, however, comes on the defensive end of the floor where he has been a stellar on-ball and help defender.
Clearly, Curry is the superior player of these two. However, Lowry has been leading his team and playing absolutely tremendous defense. It will be intriguing to see if Lowry’s strength and dogged determination is enough to disrupt Steph Curry’s prolific scoring.
Edge: Golden State
Klay Thompson has been playing stellar two-way basketball for the Golden State Warriors. He is one of the top shooters in the league, but is also one of the top wing defenders in the league. For the playoffs, Klay is averaging 19 points on 43% shooting from the floor and 39% shooting from behind the arc. Perhaps more importantly, his defensive versatility will allow him to match up with Kawhi Leonard very effectively at times when Golden State is resting Iguodala.
Much was made of Danny Green’s shooting woes in the Eastern Conference Finals. He is a player with invaluable experience, winning a championship with the Spurs in 2014, who is known for his lockdown defense (NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2017) and outside shooting. For these playoffs, he is averaging 6.8 points on 32% shooting from the floor and 31% shooting from behind the arc. His ability to recover his shooting stroke could be a huge factor for Toronto in these Finals.
Defensively, Golden State has just the slightest edge in this matchup. However, the gap in offensive production is enormous. Klay Thompson is one of the game’s best shooters, whereas Danny Green has not been able to buy a bucket.
Edge: Golden State
This may be where the true intrigue of this series lies. If we assume that Durant will be back healthy, it is Durant versus Kawhi Leonard. In Game One, it will likely be Leonard versus Iguodala. Iguodala is a renowned defender, yet his offensive production is generally limited to transition baskets, catching alley-oops off of a Draymond-Curry pick and roll, and the occasional spot up three-pointer. For the playoffs, he is averaging 10 points on 52% shooting from the field and 37% shooting from behind the arc. Once Durant is back, the Warriors will have another stellar defender to match up with Leonard, although Durant is not quite at Iguodala’s level as an on-ball defender. For the playoffs, Durant is averaging 34 points on 51% shooting from the field and 41% shooting from behind the arc. Yes, you read that correctly. Golden State has won six games in a row without a player who produced those numbers in his eleven postseason games prior to injury.
This brings us to Kawhi Leonard. It is difficult to recall a player who played both ends with such consistent excellence as The Claw has this postseason. He is able to carry a tremendous offensive load while simultaneously playing shutdown defense on the likes of Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton. For the playoffs, Loenard is averaging 31 points per game on 50% shooting from the field and 38% shooting from behind the arc. He is also averaging an impressive 8.8 rebounds per game, which is a critical skill against the offensive rebound ability of Kevon Looney, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala.
It is difficult to weigh these match ups against each other without fully knowing the health of Kevin Durant. However, if Kawhi is able to out-play Iguodala and Durant, it could swing the series in Toronto’s favor.
Draymond Green’s defensive ability, both as an on-ball and help defender, is comparable to that of Kawhi Leonard. His rebounding, passing, and, as of late, scoring, gives him a tremendous all-around game. He plays with an intense energy and devotion to his teammates and winning that gives his team an emotional edge. For the playoffs, he is averaging 13 points on 52% shooting from the field and 21% shooting from behind the arc. He is also averaging 9.9 rebounds and 8 assists per game.
Pascal Siakam has been a pleasant surprise for NBA fans all year long. His aggressive defense, crafty maneuvers to the rim, and ability to hit the outside shot make him a difficult matchup for most teams. For the playoffs, he is averaging 18 points on 45% shooting from the field and 29% shooting from behind the arc. He has also shown a defensive versatility and ability to secure key rebounds that could be key against Golden State.
It will be exceedingly difficult for Siakam to match the strength, savvy, and energy of Draymond Green. If he can simply compete and hold his own on the floor against Draymond, Nick Nurse will have to be satisfied.
Edge: Golden State
We know that Marc Gasol is the starting center for the Toronto Raptors. On the other hand, the Warriors may start Andrew Bogut at the five, they may even start Jordan Bell, or they may start Draymond Green if they play the Hampton’s Five (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, Green). If Demarcus Cousins returns, he could also get significant minutes at the five spot.
Marc Gasol is an intelligent passer, capable three-point shooter, capable post-up player, and excellent defender (2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year) who will likely give the Warriors trouble. For the postseason, Gasol is averaging 8 points per game on 41% shooting and 40% shooting from behind the arc. However, his timely three-pointers and heady defensive play have been key for the Raptors.
Although it is difficult to weigh Gasol against the Warriors assortment of moving parts, Gasol seems to have the head to head advantage over any particular player the Warriors throw on the floor. The exceptions would be if Cousins miraculously returned in good health and condition, or if the Warriors play Green extended minutes at the five spot, which is unlikely. Marc Gasol’s ability to stay out of foul trouble against the quickness and relentlessness of Golden State will be a key factor in this series.
The Raptors bring in Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka off the bench. They play eight players, but all three players have come off of the bench and produced as of late. Powell and VanVleet have given the Raptors consistent three-point shooting, whereas Ibaka has given the Raptors a capable jump shooter, interior scorer, rebounder and rim protector.
On the other hand, Golden State harnesses an entire array of weapons off of the bench. Kevon Looney, Shaun Livingston, Jonas Jerebko, Alfonzo McKinnie, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Quinn Cook, and maybe even Demarcus Cousins are all capable of being inserted into the game and producing. Without question, the Warriors have the far superior bench.
Foul trouble will be a major key in this series. The Raptors have very little leeway. If a key player gets in foul trouble, it could lead to a loss. The Warriors, on the other hand, have multiple options that allow them to rest a player in danger of getting in foul trouble or plug a gap left by a player who leaves the first half early with three fouls or fouls out. This may be the Warriors greatest edge in this series.
Edge: Golden State
Toronto has the edge of home court advantage and health in this series. As far as personnel, it appears that Golden State has the decisive advantage. The health of Kevin Durant and Demarcus Cousins will be key factors to watch. If all goes right for the Raptors, this series will come down to who has the best player on the floor. Can Kawhi outduel Curry, Durant, and Thompson in the game’s key moments? That is a tall task, but one that Kawhi may be ready for. If the Raptors can protect home court, they have a chance, but Golden State is one of the greatest road playoff teams ever seen.
Golden State in six.