B/R's NBA Finals Expert Predictions: Can Kawhi's Raptors End a Dynasty?
"Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?" — Dr. Alan Grant.
Well, Dr. Grant—we're going to try.
The Golden State Warriors open as heavy favorites over the Toronto Raptors, despite Kevin Durant being out for Game 1, and it's been a recent blast of nostalgia to watch the O.G. Dubs throw it back. But right now, it's Kawhi Leonard who's become the talk of the postseason.
With all eyes on the new-look Raptors and their former Finals MVP star, the big question is whether The Klaw capturing hearts can translate into snatching a title. Toronto's tracking for a storybook ending unlike many we've seen before, but when we toss good vibes aside, there's a very real, very dynastic opponent looking to claim its fourth title in five years.
So, how can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?
That's where B/R's NBA staff comes in.
"... the Raptors Legitimately Have a Shot. But ..."
The Raptors have a shot. They really do.
Kawhi Leonard is at this moment (to borrow a Pat Riley phrase) "Best In World"—an artist on offense, a beast on defense, steady in the clutch. He's surrounded by accomplished, high-level role players with deep postseason experience: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka.
These Raptors are far superior to the patchwork Cavaliers team that got swept by the Warriors last June. And the Warriors won't have Kevin Durant to start the series—or perhaps at all. So the Raptors legitimately have a shot.
But the Warriors will win it in six. They haven't missed a beat, or lost a game, since Durant went down in the second round. Stephen Curry has been devastating. Draymond Green looks like a DPOY again. KD's absence will certainly be felt—the Raptors are stronger than any team Golden State has faced so far—but the Warriors' talent and experience still wins the day, and the series.
The Warriors get their three-peat. And Curry finally gets a Finals MVP trophy.
"The Raptors Need Leonard to Be Great at Both Ends to Have a Chance."
The virtuoso greatness on display from Kawhi Leonard is reason enough to think this series should—and probably will—go deep. Leonard does it all, including shutting down your best offensive player.
The problem, as he will learn, is that if you focus all your energy on stopping Curry, what do you do about Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and perhaps DeMarcus Cousins (questionable for Game 1)—not to mention, gulp, Kevin Durant, if he returns during the series?
Plus, if Nick Nurse decides that Leonard is his best defensive option on Curry, then Curry will likely run him ragged off the ball and around screens until Leonard is completely exhausted. Even if Leonard wins his share of those possessions, chasing Curry all night is going to extract much-needed energy from Leonard's offensive game.
The Raptors need Leonard to be great at both ends to have a chance.
There's also this underrated factor: Don't think for a minute that the "original" Warriors aren't enjoying the success they're having since Durant went down. And don't think they aren't supremely motivated to prove they can win another title without him...since, it's quite possible they'll have to do just that after this season, anyway. Why not get a head start?
"Curry’s Postseason Resume Only Has One Hole in It"
"Warriors in five" sounds lopsided, but I think it's going to go much like the Portland series did: Toronto will play five competitive games and give itself a chance, but Golden State will come out just on top most nights.
Stephen Curry's postseason resume only has one hole in it: He's never won Finals MVP. He's coming off a huge series against the Blazers, and with Kevin Durant sidelined for at least the beginning of the Finals, he has a golden opportunity to do the same against Toronto and put to bed the (overblown) perception that his production takes a hit in the playoffs.
"The Raptors Will Shock the World"
The Golden State Warriors should be the favorite for the NBA Finals, but with Kevin Durant's status unclear, the Toronto Raptors are in position to win their first championship. The Warriors excel at shutting down their opponent's top scorer, so Kawhi Leonard won't be able to do it by himself offensively. Many of his young teammates don't have experience on this level.
To win, Toronto needs big performances from Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, along with its savvy veterans Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry. As great as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are together, without Durant they're at a disadvantage against a fierce opponent with the series opening in Toronto. The Raptors will shock the world with a win in five games, and Leonard—arguably the most complete player in the league—will take Finals MVP.
"Warriors Can’t Overcome Absence of Kevin Durant"
The Raptors come equipped with the best player of these Finals in Kawhi Leonard. Danny Green is due to break out of his shooting slump, and Fred VanVleet is on fire. Toronto's guards are better equipped to chase Steph Curry and Klay Thompson around the court than any Western Conference team that Golden State faced.
The Warriors won't overcome the initial absence of Kevin Durant in the series, and DeMarcus Cousins will fail to provide much of a boost when he returns. Leonard will cap off a postseason of the ages with a Finals MVP.
"Nobody's Stopping the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green-Centered Attack"
The Warriors-Raptors Finals should be a little more competitive than people think for a few reasons. Toronto has home-court advantage. Kawhi Leonard has been absurd this postseason, re-staking his claim to top-3 to -5 status. He also has some experience taking down NBA juggernauts (he won Finals MVP against the 2014 Heatles).
For at least the start of the series, the Warriors won't have Kevin Durant to throw at Kawhi. And a Raptors bench that was sort of quiet for much of the postseason seemed to wake up against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Now, having said all that, I'm still taking Golden State in six. As good as Toronto's defense is, I don't think anyone will stop the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green-centered attack. And I think Curry will continue his ridiculous play from the Western Conference Finals and snag his first Finals MVP.
"... Star Power Is Still the Most Effective Way to Win a Title."
Kevin Durant's calf injury looms large not just for Golden State, but for Toronto, too. The Raptors match up fairly well on defense with the KD-less Warriors. Kawhi Leonard can move to Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala on defense and float around in the half-court a little bit more, and it gets harder for Marc Gasol to be played off the floor.
That all changes when—if?—Durant returns to the lineup. The Raptors and Warriors have yet to face each other at full strength this season, and he stretches Toronto's defensive matchups wafer thin.
Things get worse if Danny Green cannot get out of his shooting rut. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse treated him as borderline unplayable by the end of the Eastern Conference Finals. Green will be too important defending Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to make that same call here. And if he's not hitting his threes, it'll be easier for the Warriors to throw bodies at Leonard and disrupt a half-court offense that, at times, struggled against the Bucks' length.
Fred VanVleet going nuclear from deep has been huge for the Raptors, and both Norman Powelll and Serge Ibaka are leaving strong defensive impressions in the playoffs. Toronto is decidedly deeper. But star power is still the most effective way to win a title. And if Durant comes back as expected, the Warriors will have too much of it for the Raptors to handle.
"Two Things Have Carried Toronto This Far ... Warriors Have Antidotes for Both."
I really want a long series, and in the most objective way possible, I kind of want to see the hysteria that a Raptors title would trigger. The problem is I just don't see the Raptors' path to a win.
Two things have carried Toronto this far: Kawhi becoming the second iteration of Michael Jordan and the team's suffocating defense. The Warriors have antidotes for both.
Golden State can rotate Iguodala and Draymond—two of the best defenders in NBA history—on Kawhi, and also give Klay a few shots (not to mention Durant, too, if he returns). They might not stop him, but they'll make him work.
And we know how explosive the Warriors offense is. The Raptors could completely lock in on defense, and Golden State—and likely Finals MVP Steph Curry—are still going to get their points.
This isn't like the Bucks attack, which can be slowed via scheme and attention to detail. No matter how great your D is, you're going to have to hit shots to beat the Warriors.
I just don't think the Raptors have the firepower, or weapons, to keep up.
"... Raptors Will Be the Best Team Golden State Has Ever Faced in the Finals."
It's hard to pick the Warriors, which I am, without it feeling like an unwarranted knock on the Raptors. Toronto has everything you need to win a ring: a two-way superstar in Kawhi Leonard, plenty of shooting, several versatile defenders and enough big-game experience to stave off any nerves.
For my money, these Raptors will be the best team Golden State has ever faced in the Finals.
It's just that the Warriors have seen everything an opponent could possibly throw at them three times over, and they can't be "solved" like the one-note Bucks. Even if Kevin Durant doesn't play at all, it's easy to imagine the Warriors continuing this joyous throwback run they've been on since KD went down in Game 5 against Houston. Stephen Curry thinks it's 2015 again, Draymond Green is in peak form, and everything's clicking on both ends.
I'll take the Warriors in six.
"... Three All-Stars Playing at a High Level and a Motivated Curry ... "
While the Golden State Warriors finally get a break from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard represents almost as great of a challenge.
For the first time in their five straight Finals, the Warriors will have to open on the road and won't have the benefit of home-court advantage like they did against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Toronto was 32-9 at home and took down Golden State in both previous meetings this season.
Like in the Western Conference Finals, this Warriors team could resemble that of 2015-16, with a heavy dose of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and possibly no Kevin Durant or DeMarcus Cousins to lean on.
Leonard should be plenty motivated to face the Warriors following a dirty Zaza Pachulia closeout in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals that re-aggravated an ankle injury and ended his season. He's been the best overall player in these playoffs and could wreak havoc on a Durant-less Golden State squad.
That being said, the Warriors still have three All-Stars playing at a high level and a motivated Curry searching for his first Finals MVP. With all the defensive attention on him, look for a huge series and MVP honors for Thompson, who will break Curry's record of nine made three-pointers in a Finals game.
"... Curry Will Cook and Ultimately Win His First Finals MVP Award."
It will take six games for the Warriors to become the fourth franchise in NBA history to win back-to-back-to-back championships.
The Warriors have lollygagged at times, autopiloting their way through the regular season and even some playoff games. But they know how to turn it on for the moments that matter. That moment is now.
The Raptors are playing for their first title. The Warriors are playing for their legacy. Their place in the record books. To be perhaps the greatest dynasty of all time. This moment is too important for them to let slip away.
The Warriors are not better without Durant, but they still know how to win. They're talented and experienced enough to keep the series close, at the very least, until Durant returns. In the meantime, the Raptors know they cannot double-team Stephen Curry in pick-and-rolls. In single coverage, no matter who the Raptors throw at him, Curry will cook and ultimately win his first Finals MVP award.
Favale: Warriors in 6
Weitzman: Warriors in 5
Hughes: Warriors in 6
Swartz: Warriors in 6
Beck: Warriors in 6
Berger: Warriors in 6
Highkin: Warriors in 5
Abrams: Raptors in 7
Bailey: Warriors in 6
Pincus: Raptors in 5
Gottlieb: Warriors in 6
Finals MVP Predictions
Favale: Stephen Curry
Weitzman: Stephen Curry
Hughes: Stephen Curry
Swartz: Klay Thompson
Beck: Stephen Curry
Berger: Stephen Curry
Highkin: Stephen Curry
Abrams: Kawhi Leonard
Bailey: Stephen Curry
Pincus: Kawhi Leonard
Gottlieb: Stephen Curry