The Toronto Raptors are in the NBA Finals for the first time in their 24-year history. Their path to this stage has been a wild ride, as the team has had to shrug off numerous body blows throughout the playoffs. But through all the moments of doubt, the Raps have thrived with their backs against the ropes as they’ve consistently found a way to dodge the knockout punch.
There was the brief moment of panic after losing their very first game of the postseason at home against what was supposed to be an overmatched Orlando Magic team. They coughed up their home-court advantage against the Sixers in the second round and fell in a 2-1 hole, before storming back and eventually winning that series in one of the best Game 7’s in recent memory. The image of Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating shot bouncing around the rim before falling in and advancing them to the Eastern Conference Finals has already cemented its place in Canadian sports lore for the rest of time.
Then of course, the East Final was a saga all to its own. After losing the first two games against the Bucks – the team with the best record in the league – the doubt in many Raps’ fans actually felt more like concession that this was the point where it was all going to come crashing down. Except instead of going away quietly, Toronto didn’t lose another game in the series. They took four straight from a Milwaukee team that had only lost TWO in a row one time over the course of the entire 82-game season.
The joy that has been felt all across Canada following that win has been impossible not to feel. But even with all of that being said, there is also a sense even among some of the most die-hard Raptors fans that this is where the party ends. And honestly, considering the depths that this organization has been mired in at certain points of their history, this NBA Finals berth is enough to warrant the glorious celebration it has elicited.
The obvious reason why there is trepidation in believing that the Raptors can win the whole damn thing is because their reward for getting themselves into the Finals is a match-up against the most prolific dynasty of this generation, the Golden State Warriors.
But the way things have gone in this particular postseason has me thinking, is it really that crazy to at least hold out some modicum of hope that the Raptors have what it takes to do this? Your thinking doesn’t need to be all that pie-in-the-sky to find reasons to believe.
For example, as loaded as the Warriors’ roster undoubtedly is, they are in fact missing Kevin Durant, who you may be aware is very good at this whole basketball thing. The scary part is that even though no team that employs KD could possibly consider themselves BETTER without him, the fact is that in the last 32 games where Steph Curry has played and Durant hasn’t, the Warriors have won 31 of those games. And honestly, that’s just dumb.
There’s no doubt that Curry is the engine that makes the Warriors go. He’s the best shooter in the league for a reason, and his ability to reach NBA Jam on-fire status from deep is the biggest reason why Golden State is never out of any game, even if they find themselves down double digits late in the 3rd quarter. However, there have been games during this particular playoff run where he has been less than stellar. The idea of him being guarded by Kawhi Leonard should make it reasonable to believe that he can be held in check enough that someone else is going to have to pick up the slack offensively for the Dubs. Is that Klay Thompson? Sure, it could be. And I’d be willing to bet that at least for a game or two, it will be. But any situation where the Raptors can force Golden State into relying on a strong performance from Klay to win a game is a best-case scenario for Toronto.
Getting back to the subject of Kawhi, now is the point where I address how God-like he has been during this playoff run. The man has clearly been playing hurt for a while now, and yet he has still been the best performer on any team this postseason night in and night out. His basketball IQ combined with the intangible will to win he wears on his proverbial sleeve has elevated the play of his teammates. The way he impacts the game on both ends of the floor has been a thrill to watch. In case anyone was unsure of whether or not he is worthy of being in the conversation for top-five player in the league, his performance this spring should erase any of that doubt.
Leonard’s supporting cast has been efficient, even if they’ve been inconsistent. Kyle Lowry is a perpetual enigma who has the ability to go off for 30 on any given night, but somehow also feels like he could be due for the kind of underwhelming showing that has plagued him in the past. But let’s put it this way, if Lowry is knocking down shots and creating transition offense on any given night, the Raptors are scary. If nothing else, Lowry can increase Toronto’s chances of winning enormously if he can defend Thompson well enough to force him to put the ball on the floor instead of the catch-and-shoot approach in which Klay thrives.
Fred Van Vleet has been a revelation as these playoffs have progressed. His three-point efficiency has been a pleasant surprise, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel sustainable. Pascal Siakam has had one helluva year, and should prevent Draymond Green from putting up any eye-popping offensive stat lines. But considering the all-hands-on-deck approach it’s going to take to knock off the Warriors, he’s going to have to make an impact on both ends of the floor.
Marc Gasol has been up and down this postseason, but his ability to hold Brook Lopez in check after an absurd Game 1 performance in the East Finals is a good omen considering that I think it’s safe to say that Kevon Looney is no Brook Lopez. Gasol is another guy that doesn’t necessarily HAVE to have a strong shooting performance for the Raptors to succeed, but if he does find his stroke for a game or two, it would provide a huge boost.
The Raptors are very clearly Kawhi Leonard’s team, but the performance of their bench late in the Milwaukee series was a sign that they at least have the ability to beat anyone, even Golden State. And after all that I’ve written here, I still haven’t once mentioned the name Serge Ibaka, who is one of the most proven playoff performers on the team. He brings an intensity to the floor which is one of those intangible things you won’t see quantified in a box score, but is unquestionably an asset.
At this point, I’ve laid out so many positives that the Raptors have going for them, you might be thinking I’m picking them to win this series. But here’s the thing. When it comes to beating one of the best teams ever, it’s going to take most or all of the “if this happens, then maybe” scenarios to play out exactly how Toronto wants.
When I talk about the possibility of Curry being less than amazing, or Klay being held in check, or Draymond struggling to contribute, or Lowry being a consistent scorer, or Van Vleet doing this that or the other, I’m talking about possibilities that could easily go the other way. You know, the way that would see the Raptors struggling to even win more than a game or two in this series.
On paper, no one is better than the Warriors, with or without KD. But the games aren’t played on paper. The biggest strength the Raptors have going for them is that defensively, they have done a remarkable job of forcing their opponents to get away from their identity. This was particularly evident against the Bucks. No team during this incredible MVP year that Giannis Antetokounmpo has had was able to get into his head the way the Raptors did. All Giannis wanted to do was be able to penetrate off the dribble and get to the rim with a burst of speed. But time after time, the Raptors defense converged on him at the point of attack and either forced him backwards, or caused him to get rid of the ball. If the Raptors can identify and execute the ways to cause Golden State to play an off-brand version of their game, this could be a long series.
So can the Raptors actually do this? Yes! I think it is 100% possible. Is it likely? I don’t know if I’d go that far. But one thing is for sure. I haven’t been this intrigued by an NBA Finals match-up in at least a few years. I don’t know if it’s going to yield the result that most Canadians I’ve talked to are hoping for, but it should be a joy to watch. It all starts Thursday night. I can’t wait.