To The North

Image result for toronto painting

Rock’N The City – Ylli Haruni

You’re talking yourself into this, huh? You listened to Drake’s entire discography (again) after the Eastern Conference Finals, and now you think the Raptors could do this thing, the thing only LeBron James and co. have accomplished over the past five years – and even then, only once in four tries. It will take a distinctly 2016 Cavs-esque effort, and perhaps some of the similar circumstances, for the Toronto Raptors to fell the Golden State Warriors.

Finally, after months of three-game road trips, Kia commercials and the proliferation of the phrase “load management,” we have arrived. The NBA Finals begin tonight, pitting two teams on different trajectories in a truly international showdown.

What many expect to see is the most competitive Finals in three years. Some of that ’16 Cavs luck is already with the Raps, of course – both Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins are out injured for the time being, and it is possible that we may not see either of them at all in what may be the final series of each of their respective Warrior tenures.

You likely know the oft-repeated golden stat coming in, that the Warriors are 31-1 in their last 32 games with Stephen Curry and without Durant. While there is a lot of noise around that, including the fact that many of those games were relatively meaningless late-stage regular season games, it nevertheless stands. Somehow, this has given rise to questions surrounding whether Golden State are a better team without Durant[1], or, at the very least, whether they are more fun to watch[2].

Curry’s place as a game-changing force as a shooter doesn’t dissipate when Durant is on the floor, but the Warriors’ locomotion can sometimes grind to a halt when the ball is dumped into the elbow to the latter, spurring ten seconds of ball-watching, half-speed cuts and lazy screens going nowhere while Durant tries to cull a new rabbit out of his top hat.

Without Durant, or Cousins, the Warriors booted James Harden and the Houston Rockets into the Gulf of Mexico before going Mach-4 on the Portland Trail Blazers, incinerating Damian Lillard’s watch and once again proving that Steph Curry is all the Curry you need.

Of course, Curry isn’t the sole reason Golden State has remained dominant. A slimmed-down Draymond Green is back to his familiarly spellbinding self after a late season diet during which he lost 25 pounds. Klay Thompson has had a few Klay! quarters, which means a KLAY! game is likely on the way.

Andre Iguodala remains a lockdown defender, having managed his own regular season time well enough to be effective at age 35. Kevon Looney, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jordan Bell have all been welcome injections of youth. Though these Warriors are a little older and creakier than they were the last time they didn’t have Durant for a playoff run, they remain a world-beating force nonetheless.

As for the Raptors – why, yes, what about those Raptors? This is already the greatest season in Toronto Raptors franchise history. A year after forcing his way out of San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard is already a top-five (Three? One?) figure in Raps lore, having given the team its own version of The Shot. He is playing at a level that draws legitimate comparisons to players whose names inspire the most frenzied defenses online – Jordan and LeBron. His impending free agency? Never heard of it.

Kyle Lowry, dejected following the DeMar DeRozan trade that brought Leonard in last summer, has played perhaps the best basketball of his career, and certainly the best playoff basketball. He has born witness to some of the most mind-numbing Raptors playoff failures, many at the hands of a currently-vacationing LeBron. He knows it is his time, and he has taken it by force.

Most Improved Player front runner Pascal Siakam has most consistently been the Raps’ second-best player throughout the playoffs; he will need to be at his best for Toronto to stand a chance. He is what enables the Raptors to switch as often and as readily as they do on defense, and Leonard will need to be able to rely on him for help defense and in dutiful bum rushes when the inevitable pass-pass-pass-pass sequencing frees either of Thompson or Curry for three.

Marc Gasol has found himself to be a snug fit in the pick-and-roll with Lowry, utilizing his majestic passing ability to send opposing defenders stumbling backward. Should Cousins return, which, as of now, seems to be a more imminent possibility than Durant returning, the dynamic between Gasol and him will determine who owns the paint. Serge Ibaka, back in the Finals for the first time since 2012, when he was Durant’s teammate, will have to be of some service there as well.

To that end, offensive rebounding will be key – the Warriors ranked fourth in the regular season in rebounding rate, while the Raptors were smack dab in the middle of the pack, at fifteenth. Steve Kerr loves tinkering with his own starting centers the way my dad likes to mow the lawn every other day, but monitoring who among Bell, Looney, Andrew Bogut and possibly Cousins ends up starting will impact the Raptors’ approach.

Apart from Game 5 in the conference semis against Philadelphia, Danny Green has been a nonfactor. One of he or Norm Powell is going to have to step up against Klay Thompson, on both ends of the floor.  Fred VanVleet provides sparkplug offense and has all the ability to take it to the Warriors’ limited bench squad when the starters rest. OG Anunoby, sidelined for over a month following appendicitis surgery and the resulting complications, is, as of about twenty minutes before writing this sentence, upgraded to questionable for Game 1.

The Raptors have all the versatility of the Warriors, with some depth to give. Nick Nurse knows he has a monumental task ahead of him; unlocking lineups to counter Kerr’s will quickly become of paramount importance. Relying heavily on Kawhi Leonard is as good of a head start as a coach can have against the two-time defending champions.

What Kerr ends up having at his disposal is the looming question of this series, at least for the first 2-4 games. When Durant and Cousins return, and how healthy they actually are, will enable the Warriors one way or another. They’ve been here before, while the Raptors haven’t, literally, in their entire history.

Toronto has home court advantage for its first foray into the Finals. Drake will be there. The lights will be brighter than ever. This Raptors season is already a success; the Warriors must win, or theirs will be a failure. Before the biggest offseason in years, one last series awaits.

*     *     *

[1] They’re not

[2] They are

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