As we approach the 2019 NBA Finals, we get the first new matchup since 2015. The Warriors, the Western Conference standard bearers for five NBA Finals now, return as champions of the West to defend their 2018 title. On the opposite side we have first time NBA Finalists, the Toronto Raptors led by San Antonio escape artist Kawhi Leonard. For Raptors fans this, sadly, might be the best and worst thing that could have happened to them.
If you know anything about Toronto, you know that they have never been to the NBA Finals. Not during the days of Vinsanity. Not during the Chris Bosh era. Not during the Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan era.
This is not to say that Toronto hasn’t had good to great teams during their history. Hell, this is isn’t even to say that Toronto hasn’t had entertaining teams over the years. It’s simply a statement of fact.
Look at their history:
For 14 of their 24 NBA seasons they finished under .500
Their current streak of making the playoffs (6 seasons) is the longest in franchise history and doubles their previous longest run.
They’ve been a top 4 team in the East in each of the last six seasons and this is their first Finals appearance.
5 off their 11 postseason appearances have ended in the first round
After all that losing, this Finals run is exactly what Toronto wanted/needed to accomplish out of the Kawhi trade, mission accomplished.
I’ll start off of the back of my first point:
“After all that losing, this Finals run is exactly what Toronto wanted/needed to accomplish out of the Kawhi trade, mission accomplished.”
There’s nothing that spells doom for a franchise than the general thought being “mission accomplished” prior to actually winning the championship.
While the new King of the North is no stranger to the Finals, the rest of his team could potentially have a “we’re just happy to finally be here” vibe that would be a death knell to any hope of beating Golden State – Durant or not.
It’s not just that, Raptors fans – and some media members – have already exclaimed that Kawhi was worth it. That means that in order for next season to be considered a success they have to make and win the Finals. Maybe, just maybe, Kawhi doesn’t want that pressure. You never know, this generation of NBA players operate a lot differently that in eras past.
While we all knew that we needed to potentially change our thought process on the Raptors once they added Kawhi, it was tough to imagine a scenario where Toronto beat the Bucks and the Greak Freek with a limping Leonard.
It shows you just how much he has added to this team. Toronto was able to overcome Kyle Lowry’s annual playoff disappearing act, and in a way mitigate the level of disappearance.
Thus is the stabilizing force of nature that Kawhi has been for these Toronto Raptors.
Once again, there is a negative flip to that last point – …Toronto beat the Bucks and the Greak Freek with a limping Leonard.
Leonard has as one writer put it “dragged his right leg around like there was a nail hammered into it.” The best part, it seems that Toronto is acting like there’s nothing to see here.
Come on guys, we know Kawhi is some level of hurt. He may have displayed cyborg tendencies in the past…
…but nonetheless he has been proven to be human and regardless of Durant’s availability on the other side, there is NO WAY Toronto disposes of the Dubs with an ailing Kawhi Leonard.
They are catching Golden State at the most “vulnerable” they have ever been.
Golden State doesn’t have home court in the Finals.
Golden State scored less points overall in their series with the Blazers than the Blazers did.
Golden State is without Kevin Durant for at least two Finals games, possibly more.
Without a doubt, this is the most “vulnerable” that Golden State has ever been in the NBA Finals.
You might have already spotted the formula by now, but we are flipping that best thing into a worst thing. Because… what does “vulnerable” even mean for Golden State?
Golden State’s greatness has transcended the need for home court.
Golden State scored less points overall in their series with the Blazers that the Blazers did… and swept them anyway.
Golden State was without KD for all of their playoff series against the Blazers… and swept them anyway.
Without a doubt, this is the most “vulnerable” that Golden State has ever been in the NBA Finals, by the common metric of vulnerability. But does that concept even apply when we see how the Warriors have still demolished the competition in its march to its fifth consecutive Finals appearance?
*Editor’s note, I started writing this on Monday with every intention of posting Thursday morning, but life hasn’t been kind to me and writing and deadlines. Thus…*
I think the Raptors have a chance… to win The Finals. We have seen defense be the key determinant in sports over and over. Every time we think offense has exploded, this is now the way to win chips, a team comes along or a player comes along or some other circumstances (KD’s injury, Raptors having home court) occur that allow defense to shine and put a temporary end to the notion that there is nothing defenders can do to catch up.
I don’t think the Raptors have a chance… to keep Kawhi Leonard. Let’s say Toronto pulls this off, Kawhi would have done what he needed to do. He would have won a championship without Pop. He would have won a championship as the definitive focal point of a team. He would have exorcised every playoff demon from the Toronto franchise.
Fact is, outside of the championship, he would have accomplished most of those things as well – or come close enough that there is no way to feel successful next season in Toronto for Kawhi. Anything less than a repeat or championship or even Finals appearance would be a letdown.
I say Kawhi bolts for an LA team – Lakers or Clippers – no matter what.
As with all of these things, only time will tell.