Before I start, let's just say that my prediction of Milwaukee facing OKC in the finals with Milwaukee winning, didn't go well. Damien Lillard's amazing 30 ft shot eliminated the Thunder while the Raptors led by Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and a stifling defense, eliminated the Bucks in 6 games after falling behind 0-2. So how about we go over this year's Finals matchup between one team with lots of talent in the Golden State Warriors, and the team who made it after firing their head coach and trading away their best player in the Toronto Raptors.
The Golden State Warriors had a season that was less impressive compared to their others. Their home record was the worst among all Western Conference teams with home court, and they looked like they quit in some games. But counting them out isn't exactly the smartest thing to do. Especially when you have not only all stars like Klay Thompson, but generational players like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Even if they do complain more than any other NBA team so they could get their way.
In the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors flaws at home continued as they went 1-2 at home during the series. In game 2, they blew a 31 point lead - something that would have never happened 2 years ago. But nonetheless, they also showed their skills on the road as they went 3-0 at Staples Center. Durant dropped a career high 50 playoff points in game 6 to move Golden State on the second. The semifinals brought up a rematch against the Houston Rockets dating back to last year's conference finals. Every game in the series was decided in the closing seconds and by the end of game 4, Houston had tied the series at 2. Game 5 saw the Warriors hold off a Rockets rally in the second half to go up 3 games to 2. Houston led for most of game 6, but Golden State kept coming back. Eventually, Thompson, a 33 point second half from Curry, and some questionable officiating, helped Golden State reach the Conference Finals despite Durant missing game 6 due to a calf injury.
In the conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Warriors surprisingly swept them in 4 games. It wasn't an easy sweep, as the final 3 games were decided by close scores. Lillard was also playing with bad ribs which was a big factor as he didn't look comfortable attempting the winning shot in game 2 even though he was kind of fouled, and missed the winning layup in game 4. Either way, the bottom line was that Warriors like Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green, were well equipped for this stage of playoff basketball, and the Trail Blazers weren't.
As they enter this year's finals, they won't be with Durant, as his return is questionable as well as Demarcus Cousins. But the weird thing, is that the Warriors have executed their system a lot more fluently without Durant. Durant has still made the Warriors a better team, but they are obviously an elite team without him. This factor will probably influence his decision in free agency in which I think he'll be wearing orange and blue next season. But for now, it'll be interesting to see if Durant's absence for some of these games will really hurt the Warriors this time.
This season saw the Toronto Raptors go through changes. They hired a new coach in Nick Nurse, and traded their best player DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for another great talent in Kawhi Leonard. These moves paid off. They racked up a number of statement wins en route to a 58 win season. Leonard played at a M.V.P. level, Kyle Lowry remained one of the top floor generals, and Pascal Siakam's play took a major leap this season. Their defense was one of the top defenses in the league, and it only got better when they acquired former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. So when they entered the playoffs, a deep playoff run was expected.
In the first round against the Orlando Magic, the Raptors stunningly lost game 1, but recovered to win the next 4 games thanks to Leonard and breakout performances by Siakam. The second round saw a star studded matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers led by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler. It proved to be a matchup of heavyweights and there needed to be a game 7 in order to decide this series. Defense ruled as Philadelphia shot 41% while Toronto shot 38%. Despite all of the scorers, only one of them had scored over 25 points. That was Leonard. In fact, he had 39, but he needed one more free throw to make it a 3 point game. He missed it and a Butler layup had tied the game up. Fortunately, Toronto still had time and that was all Leonard needed. He got the ball on the left side far away from the basket. He drove all the way to the right corner and attempted a falling jumper over Embiid. Four bounces, later the Raptors were on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. This was the first time in this year's playoffs where the Raptors didn't have the home court advantage. They lost it to the Milwaukee Bucks: a team that had won an N.B.A. best 60 games and seemed destined for a championship. For the first 2 games, the Bucks showed why they were the ones to represent the league, as they took a 2-0 series lead. But the Raptors managed to grind out a double overtime victory in game 3 and blew out the Bucks in game 4. Milwaukee got off to a good start in game 5, but Toronto clawed back. In the fourth quarter, back to back Leonard three pointers gave Toronto a 4 point lead. Milwaukee fought back to tie the game, but backup point guard Fred VanVleet and a clutch offensive rebound by Marc Gasol in the final seconds, gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee wasn't going down in game 6 without a fight, and it showed as they built a 15 point lead in the third quarter. But Toronto came back and built an eight point lead midway in the fourth quarter. The Bucks did everything to come back, but clutch baskets and offensive rebounds granted the Raptors their first finals appearance in franchise history. Leonard's health is a question, but he seemed fine as he posterized MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo in game 6. His finals experience which saw him win MVP in his second appearance in 2014, gives the Raptors a major boost. The only other players with experience on the Raptors, are power forward Serge Ibaka who played on the 2012 Thunder, and Danny Green who played with Leonard in the Spurs' last 2 Finals appearances. But Toronto is carrying a lot of momentum and confidence and sometimes, all of that can be the difference.
In what has been another N.B.A. season filled with lots of headlines, highlights, lowlights, and goodbyes to legends, 2 teams now remain standing. One team is now in the finals for the 5th straight year. With all the talent and great coaching they have, a three peat is in sight. The other team brought in a new coach and traded for an All NBA player after failing to make the Finals after 5 years with the same core. Their culture changed and they are now competing for a championship for the first time in franchise history. Those 2 teams are the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors.
My prediction? Raptors 4 Warriors 3