Let me tell you two stories. The first is of unparalleled success, while the next is of years of toil. One starts with a gamble. The other ends with two.
The year is 2014. Former NBA guard Mark Jackson was just fired as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. He was a good leader and he steered the Warriors to multiple playoff appearances, but he wasn’t great. Golden State gambled and hired another former NBA guard, Steve Kerr. Kerr, who had no coaching experience, was close to signing a contract with the Knicks. He would’ve joined his former coach, Phil Jackson, in NY, but he preferred California for its location and young talent. Kerr made the right choice.
In the 2013-14 season, the Warriors finished 6th in the Western Conference and took the Clippers to game 7. They were good, but not quite there yet. A young man named Stephen Curry had made his first all-star appearance. The son of Dell Curry, he was drafted 7th overall in 2009 after the TWolves drafted not one, but two point guards before him (Johnny Flynn and Ricky Rubio) at numbers 5 and 6. Needless to say, neither of those guys amounted to anything near Curry. Anyhow, Klay Thompson and David Lee had averaged just over 18 points. Going into the next season, Lee looked like the starting power forward. Kerr had a good core to work with, and he did his job by elevating the young Warriors.
An early injury to David Lee didn’t bring Golden State down, but it actually bolstered their squad. A second year power forward out of Michigan State named Draymond Green stepped right in. He immediately made a huge impact. He made everyone forget about Lee so fast that the former star only ended up starting four games that year. During Green’s rise, Thompson, Curry, and Harrison Barnes all shot above 40% from 3-point range. Curry and Thompson started the All-Star game. These four young studs lead the Warriors to a 67-15 record, which was best in the league. They also led the NBA in points per game. Under the guiding hand of Steve Kerr, the Warriors were a force to be reckoned with. They stormed through the playoffs, too. They rolled over teams led by Anthony Davis, Mike Conley, and then James Harden. No one could stop their “Death Lineup” of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green, and veteran Andre Iguodala. Their small-ball approach destroyed teams by the three-ball. Then, they faced their biggest challenge yet, Lebron James and the Cavs. However, Cleveland was weakened by injuries to Kevin Love earlier in the playoffs and Kyrie Irving in game 1. So, what looked like their greatest challenge turned into a relatively easy 4-2 series win and an NBA championship for the upstart Warriors. Curry won MVP and Golden State looked like the destination of a budding dynasty.
If you thought the “Dubs” were good in 2015, they were great in 2016. They ripped off 24 straight wins to start off the season under interim head coach Luke Walton. Steve Kerr then came back and at the All-Star break, they were 48-4. Curry, Thompson, and Green made the All-Star team. They eventually became the winningest team in a single season at 73-9, beating the ‘95-’96 Bulls (72-10). They led the league in points per game again, but they averaged 4.9 more than 2015 (at 114.9). Curry had a career year and won MVP with 30.1 points per game. He broke the record for threes in a season with 402 (5.1 per game). Overall, the Warriors just dominated the regular season. In the playoffs, they steamrolled the Rockets and Blazers. Then, the Dubs squared off with the Thunder. OKC took a 3-1 lead, but the Warriors stormed back and beat Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. This series was infamous in many ways, including Draymond kicking Steven Adams in the crotch twice. It was infamous for another reason, but we’ll get to that later. Golden State’s greatest test of their 5-year and counting run came next. The Cavs, back and equipped with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, were ready for revenge. Long story short, the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead, just like the Thunder did before. Game 7 of the 2016 Finals was the best basketball game of the 21st century so far. Lebron had a huge block on Iguodala and Kyrie hit the dagger three that buried the Warriors for good. But, what happened next, will go down in basketball history as the greatest betrayal of all time.
Kevin Durant, after losing to the Warriors the season before, signed with the already-stacked Warriors. Rumor has it, Draymond texted KD after the game 7 loss to Cleveland telling Durant to head to Golden State in July, and he listened. The nicknames “Cupcake” and “Snake” circulated around the Internet for KD, but it didn’t matter to the Warriors. They went on to beat the Cavs in the 2017 and 2018 NBA Championships. They beat the Clippers, Rockets, and Blazers relatively easily to make it to the familiar stage this season. Now, they’re back with DeMarcus Cousins, trying to complete a three-peat. Curry, Durant, and their perpetually stacked team haven’t had their fill yet.
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The Toronto Raptors are on the opposite side of the NBA Playoff success spectrum. In the same season the Warriors won their first title since 1975, the Raptors enjoyed a 49-33 season atop the Atlantic Division. Then, the wheels fell off in the playoffs. They were swept by John Wall and the Wizards in round 1. Kyle Lowry averaged just 12.3 points per game in that series. They added DeMare Carroll in the offseason and had an even better regular season. They went 56-26 and took the second seed in the East. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan averaged 21.2 and 23.5 points per game, respectively. They made it far in the playoffs, too. They took down the Pacers and Heat on their way to getting smoked by Lebron in the Eastern Conferene Finals. Lowry and DeRozan showed up for the fight, but no one else did. However, their future still looked bright.
Then, the Raptors added Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka. The core around Lowry and DeRozan was growing better, but they still fell short. They finished the regular season 51-31 and faltered in the playoffs once more. Lebron and his Cavs swept Toronto in round 2. However, DeMar DeRozan had a career year with 27.3 points per game and their bench turned out to be one of the best in the NBA. It included youngsters Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl. Surely their luck would turn around next season, right? Wrong. The Raptors had a great regular season, finishing 59-23 with the first seed. Dwane Casey won Coach of the Year. They finished second in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating. They basically had a deep, eleven-man rotation. They cruised through round 1 against the Wizards. Then, something you would never expect happened. Oh wait, you’ve probably been expecting it the whole time. Lebron swept Toronto again. He averaged almost as many points as Lowry and DeRozan combined. You can’t really fault them too much for losing to Lebron because he’s, well, Lebron and only the Warriors had an answer for him. However, it got to the point where people were calling their city “Lebronto”. Some changes had to be made, or the organization would sit in mediocrity for yet another season.
The changes the Raptors made were monumental. They fired their Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and promoted Nick Nurse to head coach. This wasn’t even their biggest move. They acquired Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs (which I called last June and I wish I had a blog then because I would’ve totally written about it). They gave up DeMar DeRozan, which led to some hard feelings from their old shooting guard. DeRozan is a good player, but he’s no Kawhi. DeRozan was incapable of leading the Raptors to the Finals, and so it seems was Casey. Nurse and Leonard were both gambles, but at least Nurse had been in Toronto as an assistant coach beforehand. Kawhi was a complete mystery, though. He was coming off a season in which he had played just nine games. He’ll be a free agent this summer, so he might end up being a one-year rental. Despite the uncertainty, Kawhi has been nothing short of great for this squad. On top of that, they added Marc Gasol near the trade deadline.
After this makeover, the Raptors looked much better. They earned the second seed in the East. In game 1 against the Orlando Magic, they faltered, though. Watching that game, I couldn’t help but think that maybe their playoff struggles were still following them and an upset from the Magic wasn’t out of the question. Then, they took four straight and put my supposings to bed. The Sixers were not as easy, though. It took a shot that bounced on the rim four times from Kawhi to beat Philly. The magnitude of that shot was monstrous. If the shot didn’t go in, the Raptors could’ve been the laughing stock of the NBA again with the likely departure of Leonard looming. However, the craziest bucket I’ve ever seen propelled Toronto all the way to Milwaukee. The Bucks took games 1 and 2 and I counted the Raps out again. I thought that Giannis was just the next Lebron, bowling through a hapless Jurassic defense. But, I didn’t account for the Kawhi Factor. Kawhi dropped 36 in a 2OT win over Milwaukee in game 3, and Toronto never let their momentum go. They took the next 3 games and advanced to their first NBA Finals appearance ever. Leonard carried them to this stage and they owe everything to him (cough, cough, he needs a max deal, Toronto). Now, they face the ultimate challenge, the reigning champs.
Now, we’ll get to the preview. The Warriors will likely be without Kevin Durant in game 1 and maybe longer, but that doesn’t matter. They closed out the series in Houston and swept Portland with the big three (Curry, Klay, Green) that won them their 2015 title. Plus, DeMarcus Cousins will likely be back. This series will be great no matter when KD comes to play. Don’t expect him to rush his recovery because I’d bet health and free agency value matters most to him at this point. Here’s a look at what the matchups will look like this series when Durant is back:
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While KD is gone, the matchup to watch will be Lowry and Curry. Lowry showed his impact on defense against the Bucks. Locking up Steph will be much harder than Eric Bledsoe, though. Another interesting matchup is Siakam v. Green. Siakam is a force, but Green can put the clamps on almost anyone. The question is, will GSW be able to handle Toronto’s size without Durant? I think they will be able to with Cousins. Also, height has never been a factor in Golden State’s lineups. They pretty much always dictate the pace of the game no matter the size of the opponent. They can roll out a small-ball lineup and usually win. So, no, I don’t think size will matter too much. However, having someone to guard Kawhi matters. Say Durant misses the first three games. The way Leonard has been playing, that could easily be a 3-0 hole for the Warriors. They’ll need an answer for Kawhi while they’re away in Canada for the first two matches. The same goes for the Raptors, who will need an answer to the 3-point shot. The Bucks hit a ton of threes against Toronto, so imagine what the Warriors could do.
At the end of the day, this series has so many implications on the NBA it’s nuts. Will the Warriors complete a three-peat? Will this bout impact whether Durant and Leonard will re-sign with their respective teams? Would a fourth championship put Curry in a conversation with Magic Johnson as best point guard of all time? Can the Raptors bring Jurassic Park it’s first title? All of these questions will be answered soon enough, but here’s what I think will happen.
The Raptors take games 1 and 2 with Durant out. Kawhi destroys, but KD returns for game 3. The Warriors take the next two at the Oracle, breezing by on a pair of 30-point games from the “Snake”. However, Toronto buckles down and steals game 5 in overtime. You can bet Drake has lost his voice by the end of the night. In the last game at Oracle Arena, Golden State takes game 6 to force game 7 in Canada. If this series goes to game 7, I think TV ratings could reach the level of the 2016 NBA Finals game 7 (about 30 million viewers). Finally, in game 7, Kawhi and KD duel until Kawhi gets the last shot. And you know what he’ll do? He’ll bury it. Because that’s what Kawhi does. Ice-cold. Then, KD heads for New York, leaving Draymond, Steph, and Klay back where they started. Kawhi will be tempted by the LA Clippers, but he’ll eventually stay in Toronto on a short-term deal so he’ll have the freedom to leave for Cali whenever he pleases. If this all happens, I’m a basketball profit. Maybe I’d even get more than 100 viewers.
The reality is, no matter what happens in the coming weeks, it’s gonna be fun. We of course have the Finals, then the Draft, the NBA Awards show, and then, hopefully, one of the most eventful free agencies ever. I personally want Kawhi and KD to test free agency because I like when the league is shaken up, but we’ll see. Right now two beasts, one from the northeast and one from the pacific, clash for the honor of being the champion. Only one squad will be able to call themselves NBA champions and there’s no clear-cut answer as to who it’ll be. Now, turn your eyes to the central event of basketball because our game will never be the same.
*All the stats I gathered for this article came from https://www.basketball-reference.com/. It’s a great, thorough website and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for sports information.