On the Precipice of History (NBA Finals Preview), by Rudy Ralph Martinez
The 73rd installment of the NBA Finals features the dynastic Golden State Warriors and the incredibly resilient Toronto Raptors. The Warriors, defending champions and arguably one of the greatest teams ever assembled, are not only seeking their fourth title in five years but are also trying to become the first team to three-peat since Shaq and Kobe’s early-aughts Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors, on the other hand, are enjoying their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, with the city of Toronto collectively and excitedly breathing a sigh of relief after having their hearts consistently broken by LeBron James, who is now reluctantly starring in a Comedy of Errors in Los Angeles. Before the series tips off Thursday (9 PM ET) in front of Toronto’s sold out Scotiabank Arena, I wanted to highlight several storylines that will unfold in the following weeks:
· Has Kevin Durant played his last game in a Warriors uniform?
· Will Kawhi Leonard continue his ungodly Jordanesque performance and carry the city of Toronto to the promised land?
· Will Stephen Curry, whose been on a blinding streak since Durant went down in the Western Conference Semifinals, finally secure an ever-elusive NBA Finals MVP Award?
Having been a fan of the Warriors poetic brand of basketball since Steph Curry’s 44-point explosion in Game One of the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs (and honestly, a fan of Curry’s since his days at Davidson), it’s always been in my best interest to expect the worst—especially when taking into consideration how their storied 2015-16 season ended. I expect the worst so as to ease myself into potential heartbreak. So, I’ll echo most of the basketball world and say Durant becomes a New York Knick in July.
When Durant limped into the locker room during a crucial Game Five against the Houston Rockets in this year’s Western Conference Semifinals, I began telling myself that the Warriors’ dynasty had come to an abrupt end. A majestic run with an absurd ending, an apropos spectacle for a hoophead-cum-philosopher to witness. Seeing Durant exit Game Five was parallel to the Rockets losing Chris Paul during last year’s Western Conference Finals, a series the Warriors wound up winning in seven games, and I figured the Rockets “deserved” a chance at redemption. It was the closest I’ll ever get to describing a situation as “Karmic.”
Enter: Stephen Curry.
The Rockets fizzled out, per usual, and Curry found his stroke. He’s been on an absolute tear since Durant went down with a strained calf, reminding everyone why he’s the greatest shooter of all-time, and I don’t expect him to slow down during the Finals. However, the Raptors count some of the NBA’s best defenders as their own, and we’re going to see a litany of different defensive looks come Curry’s way, namely the long arms of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.
Durant’s absence means that this is going to be Curry’s best shot at a Finals MVP, an award he needs to further validate his case as one of the, if not the, greatest point guard(s) to ever play the game. Had it not been for his horrid performance in Game Three of last year’s Finals, the Bill Russell Award would’ve surely been his. If he shoots lights out during the Finals and leads the Warriors to the sparsely populated pantheon of sports dynasties, he gets his trophy and Durant is out. Initially, it’ll be rough, but I can live with this scenario. The Warriors would’ve proven to the world, and the ever-sensitive Durant, that he was a sufficient but certainly not a necessary condition to their winning a championship. Hence, Durant decides to live out a quiet basketball existence on the east coast while playing for a team with a caring owner that isn’t constantly scrutinized by fans and the media alike.
No matter who wins this series, history will be made.
Kawhi Leonard, with his silky-smooth mid-range jumper and impeccable post-game, can catapult himself into the conversation of the all-time greats by capping off an incredible playoff run with a championship against the Mighty Warriors. It’d be difficult not to crown him the NBA’s best player after such an accomplishment.
A Raptors victory wouldn’t surprise me, as ESPN ranked eight of the best fifteen players in this series as teammates of Kawhi. The Warriors, post-Durant and Demarcus Cousins, are top-heavier than before, and will need to rely on heavy minutes from Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson to eek out a win on the road before returning to the Bay Area for Games Three and Four. But it worked against the Rockets and Trailblazers, and it may work in the favor of this historic core that they’ve had the last nine days off. Thompson will probably expend most of his energy covering Leonard, with the eternally youthful Andre Igoudala assisting him on the assignment. The Raptors are deep, but all of their role players are going to need to have big series for them to overcome the Warriors’ high-octane offense. I don’t expect Leonard’s supporting cast, led by Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, to keep up with the Warriors for the extent of a six or seven game series. Where the Milwaukee Bucks couldn’t capitalize on outside shooting opportunities in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Warriors will excel.
We have a Future Classic on our hands. Steph, Dray, Klay, and the Crew know what they’re on the verge on: A spot alongside MJ and Scottie’s Bulls, Bill Russell’s Celtics, and Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers on the Mount Rushmore of dynasties. If you don’t think their uncertain future won’t light a fire within them, you’re fooling yourself. Team-wise, the Toronto Raptors are the worthiest opponents the Warriors have faced during their five-year run, and they’re on the road. May these giants of the basketball world stand tall and pluck history from the heavens.
Prediction: Warriors in Six.