NBA Finals preview: Can Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors dethrone the Warriors?
For the first time, the NBA Finals will be played outside the United States.
One of the teams has been a mainstay, as the Golden State Warriors are aiming for their third title in a row and fourth in the last five years. And for the first time during this stretch, they won’t face the Cleveland Cavaliers (or LeBron James, now with the Los Angeles Lakers).
This year’s challenger: the Toronto Raptors, who are making their NBA Finals debut in their 24th season. Game 1 is Thursday at 9 p.m. ET in Toronto and on ABC.
Canada is in a title drought in the four major North American sports (the NBA, MLB, NHL and the NFL, the last of which has no team north of the US border). Besides Toronto FC winning the MLS Cup in 2017, the country hasn’t won a major championship since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup that June and the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in the fall.
“I can tell you, it’s going to be crazy,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said. “It’s going to be crazy here (Thursday). It’s going to be crazy here on Sunday. It’s going to be crazy here for a few days because that’s the mentality of our fan base. We know it’s across the world. That’s something special about here. We can reach the world easy from here, from Canada, and we’re happy to be the global team that represents the NBA.”
Toronto is led by Kawhi Leonard, whom the Raptors acquired last summer from San Antonio. With his impending free agency, they knew they might only get him for one year. The gamble paid off, as he has led the Raptors to their best season.
The 2014 NBA Finals MVP when he was with the Spurs, Leonard has scored 561 points in the 2019 postseason, the sixth-highest all-time total for a player before the NBA Finals. Two of those points were on a buzzer-beater to knock off the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round — the only buzzer-beater ever to decide a Game 7.
And while Leonard may not be the most famous name on the floor, that sounds like it’s fine with him.
“No, I’m not playing the game for that reason,” Leonard said Wednesday. “I’m playing to have fun and try to be the best player I can be. I’m happy with myself and what I have done in my career, and I’m just going to keep on from there. It’s not about me being famous or want to have more fame than those guys. It’s about me playing basketball and having fun on the floor.”
Toronto swept the two-game regular-season series against the Warriors. But can that translate to NBA Finals success?
Kevin Durant is out for Game 1
The Warriors join the Boston Celtics as the only NBA teams to reach at least five consecutive finals (the Celtics went 10 times in a row from 1957-66). Should the Warriors win their third in a row, they’ll join the Lakers (2000-02) and Chicago Bulls (1991-93 and 1996-98) as the only teams to win three consecutive titles over the last 50 years.
Golden State has won six NBA championships, tied with the Bulls for third place all-time.
But the Warriors’ run to this year’s NBA Finals hasn’t come without some adversity. They’ve been winning games without superstar Kevin Durant, who has been out with a strained right calf. He suffered the injury May 8 in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets and hasn’t played since. He is out for Game 1, and it’s not clear when he’ll be back on the floor.
Durant, a two-time NBA Finals MVP with the Warriors, has a career NBA Finals scoring average of 31.7 points, which is the third-highest mark all-time.
“His next step is individual court work, so that will be the next priority over the next couple of days,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday. “Hopefully he can wrap that up, and then he’s going to have to practice. We have to see him in practice before he can play a game, and he hasn’t practiced yet.”
Additionally, Golden State is without DeMarcus Cousins, who has been out with a torn left quadriceps since Game 2 of the first round. But while he is pain-free and has scrimmaged with the team, it’s unclear what his role will be.
“If this were the regular season, I would throw him out there and he would play whatever minutes he could tolerate and we would build him up from there,” Kerr said. “This is not the regular season. This is the finals. So, we have to figure out what’s the best way to utilize him, how many minutes can he play, what the game feels like, what the matchups are like. Some of that will be determined by what’s happening in the game, and the other stuff is just internal with our staff.”
Still, even without those two, the Warriors have tons of star power, highlighted by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
“We’re going to have to play smart,” Curry said. “Myself, stay out of foul trouble. Draymond, continue to do what he’s doing in terms of dominating both sides of the floor. Just play with confidence and play fast, play loose and play disciplined. We know what we’re capable of. And when (Durant) does come back, we’ll be able to transition and hopefully elevate our game even more. So, great opportunity for us no matter who is playing.”