The Golden State Warriors are the clear favorites by analysts and NBA fans alike to three-peat in the 2019 Finals, and overall, win their fourth title in five seasons. But with a calf injury hampering reigning back-to-back Finals MVP Kevin Durant—which will keep him out for at least half of the series—the Toronto Raptors have a greater chance of dethroning the champs than most analysts are giving them with their superstar in Kawhi “The Klaw” Leonard, depth, defensive versatility and hunger.
This 2019 Raptors squad is undoubtedly leaps-and-bounds better than the LeBron James-led Cavaliers that faced off against the Warriors these past four Finals—and it starts with Leonard.
When Toronto traded franchise star Demar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Leonard and Danny Green, whatever potential the team had before was suddenly catapulted into championship contention. No disrespect to DeRozan, but Leonard is, and always will be on another level. A three-time all-star, Finals MVP in 2014, two-time defensive player of the year and most importantly, a champion, Leonard developed from defensive juggernaut to arguably one of the most complete two-way players in the league today.
Leonard is one superstar talent the Warriors can’t seem to figure out. In the 2017 playoffs as a member of the Spurs, he torched Golden State before getting slid under his ankle by Zaza Pachulia, ultimately ending his season. His other highlights include a 29-point beat down of the Warriors in Kevin Durant’s debut and a 37-point night in his only game against them this season as a Raptor—which they won, too.
As shown in the playoffs thus far, Leonard is an elite isolation scorer, able to fool defenses with his simplistic fundamentals to the tune of 30.7 points per game on a ridiculous 50.1 percent shooting clip. Defensively, Leonard can defend every position against the Warriors since Golden State uses a small-ball lineup.
The 2019 Raptors are by far the most talented team the franchise has ever assembled. In terms of team defense, Toronto not only bolsters two all-defensive players in Serge Ibaka and Danny Green, they also have two former Defensive Player of the Year freaks in Leonard and Marc Gasol. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam round out an already stellar defensive squad. The Warriors live and die by the three-ball and like to run a flow-motion offense, but with the disciplined defensive lineup the Raptors have, Golden State will have to earn every shot they can get.
The Warriors’ success these past five seasons cannot be written off. What the team has done developing draft picks and making key off-season signings is nothing short of spectacular. They’ve essentially created a historic dynasty, but at the end of the day, all good things must come to an end.
With five consecutive Finals appearances, the Warriors have nothing to prove, with three titles to show for. Becoming lethargic when making it to the biggest stage year after year is a natural process. The Raptors on the other hand, have never made it to the Finals during the franchises entire existence until this year—and Raptors fans are going absolutely insane.
Raptors’ players like Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka have been through countless postseason runs only to fall short time and time again. The organization, which had been a laughingstock in the league for years—most recently with “LeBronto”—finally have a chance to redeem themselves and prove the doubters wrong.
The city of Toronto and the entire Raptors organization are hungry for their first championship, and the only thing standing in their way is an already stomach-filled Warriors team whose future seems to be in doubt.
While Toronto has home court advantage, Durant’s injury plays a crucial role in determining the outcome of the series. As one of the best players in the world, his presence will be missed, even if it doesn’t look so. His inability to contribute in the Finals levels out the playing field significantly.
Toronto has to capitalize on Durant’s absence, and play every game like it’s their last, because it just might be for Leonard (in a Raptors uniform at least), who is set to become a free agent come seasons end.
What Leonard has achieved in his lone season in the Great North solidifies his stance as the greatest Raptor of all time. Sounds far-fetched, but when looking at the Raptors track record of unsuccessful endeavors year after year, who was the only player in franchise history talented enough to bring the team to their first NBA Finals appearance? Although basketball is a team sport, every team needs that one player who can get them over the hump — to achieve the ultimate goal — winning a championship. With Leonard, the Raptors are four games away from turning that dream into reality.
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