The Toronto Raptors might want to take a page from the Golden State Warriors. The West Coast cagers belong to two cities — Oakland and San Francisco — and they’ve done a great job in recent years of ensuring that both sides of the Bay Bridge feel included. On many nights, their precise geography seems intentionally shrouded in mystery, with a California state nickname for a home base and purposefully vague jerseys repping The Town . Which town is that, exactly? Never mind. It’s whichever one you’re from.
Similarly, the Raptors have gone from being Toronto’s team to Canada’s team on their recent playoff run. Is it too late to rebrand as the Canada Raptors? Or perhaps, with their We The North slogan, they already have. If Toronto opts to dust off their Nike NBA Earned Edition uniforms, we could see a battle between “ The Town” and “The North.” Town and country — it’s not just a magazine anymore.
Here are five questions, asked and answered, about this year’s historic showdown between the Raptors and the Warriors.
How did these teams get here?
To reach their first NBA Finals in franchise history, the Raptors had to knock off some of the game’s biggest stars. After a big loss in their first game of the postseason, they cruised to a 4-1 series win over the Orlando Magic, setting up a date with Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. It was a spirited, back-and-forth seven-game series that came down to one final shot — a Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater for the ages. But that was only the halfway point of the Raptors’ postseason. Their reward for eliminating the Sixers in seven? A showdown with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Led by Antetokounmpo, believed by many to be the heir apparent to Lebron James, the Bucks were the NBA’s only 60-win team, and came into the playoffs as the heavy favourite to win the East. But after winning the first two, Leonard took over the series, shutting down Antetokounmpo on defence and making all the right plays on offence to lead the Raptors to four straight wins and a chance to play for the title.
But that’s the recent history. Toronto’s journey to the NBA Finals really began last summer, when the Raptors traded fan favourite Demar Derozan for Leonard, a former NBA Finals MVP looking for a new home after a falling-out with the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors banked their title hopes on Leonard pushing them over the top, and considering where they are now, it was a pretty shrewd bet. Leonard has been the game-changing superstar the team desperately needed, scoring timely buckets, out-muscling big men for rebounds, and silencing the game’s best players with his elite defence.
As for the Warriors, they’re a little like The Shining’s Jack Torrence at the Overlook Hotel: they’ve always been here. This is Golden State’s fifth consecutive NBA finals appearance, a feat surpassed only by the Boston Celtics, who appeared in 10 straight between 1957 and 1966. They’d be chasing their fifth straight win too, were it not for an otherworldly performance by Lebron James in 2016 to prevent the West Coast juggernaut from their second NBA title. But there was nothing he could do in the next two years, and no one has had any luck slowing down the Warriors this time around, even with superstar forward Kevin Durant out with an injury. He helped the Warriors knock off the Clippers in the first round, but was hobbled in the second round versus the Houston Rockets, Golden State’s biggest Western Conference foe the last few years. It didn’t matter. The Warriors dispatched the rockets in six games, then swept the Portland Trail Blazers to win the West, setting up the first Warriors-Raptors Finals in NBA history.
How do the Warriors play?
Fast. The Warriors are a run-and-gun team, famed for playing at a breakneck pace with the ball. Toronto’s top priority in this series will be slowing down a team known for scoring in sudden bunches, knocking down three-pointer after three-pointer to turn close games into laughers before you can even blink. It’s not uncommon to go for a bathroom break during a tie game and return to find Golden State leading by double digits. Sharp-shooting guards Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are the engines of the offence — both can launch a shot from seemingly anywhere on the court and be back on defence before the ball is even through the hoop. It’s a nigh unstoppable attack, as the pair break away from defenders by sprinting through screens, and need only a sliver of space to get their looks.
And if a team succeeds in limiting the dynamic duo, the Warriors have other options. Draymond Green can score from anywhere, and is arguably the best passing big man in the game. Andre Iguodala may be getting on in years, but he’s a threat any time he has the ball. Centre Demarcus Cousins is a one-man wrecking crew when healthy, and thanks to the Warriors’ pass-happy offence — watch how often the ball changes hands on any possession — just about anyone else on the floor is a threat to score if you lose track of him. No team averaged more than Golden State’s 28.5 assists per game and 117.3 points per game in these playoffs. They are the NBA’s best offence, bar none.
How do the Raptors play?
Not so fast. The Raptors are a smart, versatile team that can beat teams a number of ways, including with a hurry-up offence. But through these playoffs, they’ve preferred more of a lockdown style, shutting down big, splashy offences with tight, bruising defence and forcing run-and-gun teams like the Bucks into half-court sets. Toronto’s 102.4 defensive rating is the second-best among all 16 playoff teams, and leaps and bounds ahead of Golden State, who, to their credit, doesn’t need to lock it down when they’re the ones scoring all the points. (If they have to, they can, though. The Warriors are hardly slouches on the defensive end.)
With a focus on getting stops, aided by rangy defenders like Pascal Siakam and Leonard, not to mention versatile bigs like Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, it’s possible that Toronto can force Golden State into a slower kind of game. That plays to their strengths on offence as well, as Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry are all excellent slashers, capable of creating offence in crowded, half-court sets. Expect the ball to go mostly through Lowry and Leonard, two players who can hit from anywhere.
Like the Warriors, Toronto also shoots plenty of threes, and are blessed with a deep roster capable of hitting even deeper shots. The deep bench also allows them to play aggressively on defence without worrying about a diminished lineup if they get into foul trouble.
What’s the matchup to watch?
Kawhi Leonard vs. Steph Curry. Don’t expect Leonard to spend the entire series chasing Curry around — the Raptors need him to conserve some energy for the offensive end, and he won’t have any left if he’s stapled to Curry’s hip night after night. But the Warriors run a ton of screens and switches, and the moment Curry loses his first defender, he’s likely to find Leonard switching onto him. If Leonard can do to Curry what he did to guys like Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, the Warriors will be a diminished force. Golden State’s offence runs through Steph, and if Steph finds himself trying to run through Kawhi, he may find it’s like running into a brick wall.
Who will win?
The smart money is certainly on the Warriors, seeing as they almost never lose, and after the last half-decade, it’s hard to bet against a team that demonstrates time and time again that they just know how to win. But the Raptors won both meetings between the clubs in the regular season, so it would be foolish to count them out. With Durant still on the mend, the Warriors aren’t as strong as they could be. And if Leonard continues his MVP-calibre play, while stifling one of Golden State’s hot shots on the defensive end, a Raptors’ upset and Canada’s first NBA title isn’t a completely unrealistic outcome here.
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