The Golden State Warriors are prohibitive favorites against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals. They’ve been here before, many times, and have triumphed over any obstacle that’s stood in their path. The Raptors have not been here before, and it didn’t look like they would be here after falling behind 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the last round.
Yet something smells off to us about declaring the Warriors as the favorite. The more we think about this series, the more we really think Toronto is going to win. Picking against the Warriors makes us uncomfortable, but we’re both ready to go out on a limb.
Here are six reasons why we think the Toronto Raptors will win the 2019 NBA title.
1. Kawhi Leonard is a Warriors killer — or at least the closest thing to one
Leonard is the one superstar the Warriors haven’t fully solved. He was famously torching them in Game 1 of the 2017 Playoffs before Zaza Pachulia slid under his ankle, but he’s also had other standout moments over the years. You may recall him snatching Stephen Curry’s dignity in a 15-point win near the end of Golden State’s first title season, leading a 29-point beatdown in Kevin Durant’s regular-season debut, and lighting them up for 37 points on 24 shots in his first and only game against the Warriors as a member of the Raptors. It’s a stretch to say he has the Warriors’ number, but save for LeBron James at his absolute peak, Leonard comes closer than any other player.
All of the reasons why have been on full display this postseason. He’s an elite isolation scorer, capable of battering through even the toughest defenses to get off the shots he wants. He exudes calm with his demeanor and play style, so he’s perfectly equipped to kill any momentum swings. He makes terrific decisions, so the Warriors can’t break off his misses as easily as other stars. And by the way, he’s a devastating defensive player, equally capable of putting the clamps on a bigger wing (hello, KD) or a quicker guard (hello, Stephen Curry).
No matter his individual production, Kawhi Leonard will not allow the Warriors to impose their will on the game. —Mike Prada
2. Kevin Durant is still unavailable
Needless to say, the availability of one of the three best basketball players in the world looms large over this series. Kevin Durant hasn’t played since Game 5 against the Rockets back on May 8. Durant is definitely ruled out for Game 1, and may not make the trip to Toronto for the first two games at all. He hasn’t even yet been cleared for on-court activities with the team.
There’s a real chance Durant doesn’t play again the season. That would be a huge boon to the Raptors’ chance of pulling off an upset.
Why? Again, Durant is a top-3 player. Even if the Warriors play more like the Warriors of lore when Durant isn’t around, the team is obviously more powerful and resilient when he’s there. That resilience could matter if another Warrior (including Andre Iguodala, who has been banged up) is unavailable at some point. Durant also makes life much, much harder for Kawhi Leonard at both ends. Without Durant on the court, Nick Nurse has some options for how to use his best defensive weapon and how to attack Golden State’s defense.
Durant is also the only member of the Warriors to beat Kawhi in the playoffs. KD had success against Leonard’s Spurs with Oklahoma City. Not having him back will sting a Warriors team that might otherwise consider Kawhi a bit of a bogeyman. — Tom Ziller
3. Toronto’s defense is vicious — and versatile
The Warriors have never faced a defense like Toronto’s, at least not since Durant joined in 2017. The Raptors are stocked with two former Defensive Players of the Year (Leonard, Marc Gasol), two other all-defense stalwarts (Danny Green, Serge Ibaka), two bulldog point guards at the point of attack (Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet), and a new-age switch-everything speed demon (Pascal Siakam). This group will not fall for the Warriors’ dizzying passing movement the way Portland and Houston did.
They are long and athletic, but most importantly, they are smart and adaptable. They can switch across at least four positions, but they can also swarm effectively to the ball without having the rest of their defense compromised. They can adjust their style between games or even in the middle of a single game, as they did to stifle a Bucks attack that had been gashing them in the East Finals.
Without Durant, Golden State’s offense thrives by creating chaotic situations that confuse opponents used to playing by a series of rigid rules. That works against most teams and even some great defenses, but it won’t work as easily against a Raptors unit that is intelligent and talented enough to thrive when the game goes off script. —MP
4. Home court matters
The Warriors have been strong on the road this postseason, but the Raptors are 8-2 in Toronto in the playoffs and have had some huge road victories (Game 4 in Philadelphia, Game 5 in Milwaukee). Getting a potential Game 7 in Scotiabank Arena is certainly better than having to travel for it, and the Raptors are 3-0 in home closeout games this year. — TZ
5. Toronto should be hungrier
The Warriors’ historic brilliance cannot be questioned, win or lose. They have stars and role players with secure legacies, or at least more secure legacies than players who have not won before. Curry is still an all-time great, win or lose. Durant will still have his two Finals MVPs and the attention of the entire world when he reaches free agency this summer. Questions about the future viability of the Warriors’ dynasty will still be in place even if they emerge victorious.
The Raptors, on the other hand, can redefine themselves with a title. Leonard has a chance to show he doesn’t need the Spurs’ infrastructure to front a champion. Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka have fought so many postseason wars to give themselves this opportunity. The organization can completely erase failure from their brand and prove to their new star that they really belong as a glamour franchise.
It’d be wrong to say the Warriors have no motivation to win, but the conditions of this series remind me of 2014. The Spurs, fueled by a crushing Finals collapse the season before, waxed a Heat team that had already reached the summit and were facing questions about the long-term viability of their run. After the five-game defeat, Miami’s players seemed oddly serene, almost happy the long grind was over. They saw the era ending and had already moved on.
I’m just saying, a repeat scene wouldn’t surprise me. —MP
6. Is this destiny?
The Raptors won their second-round series against the Sixers with a corner fall-away at the buzzer that bounced on the rim four times. The Raptors reeled off four straight games on a 60-win team that hadn’t lost more than two in a row all year. Every lucky break has appeared to go Toronto’s way the entire postseason, right down to the critical moments in Games 5 and 6 against the Bucks. This feels like a team of destiny.
Sports are often good at making us think we see something of a cosmic pattern that’s really just random fortune. But you can’t help but wonder if this case might be something more. — TZ