Hello, casual basketball viewer! At long last, the NBA Finals are here, and you know what that means: It’s time once again for you to crib a pitiful smattering of hoops knowledge from this extremely half-assed blog and carry it forth to the sports bar like the torch that lights your path.
This year’s finalists are the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors, making this the first Finals since 2014 that has featured any combination of opponents other than the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s also the first time the Finals have not involved LeBron James since 2010. I can’t even remember 2010. For the sake of my emotional and psychological well-being, I have purged everything prior to Nov. 9, 2016 from my memory. It’s too painful to remember that old world!
Anyway, the good news is, the Raptors having made it out of the East—in combination with a lingering calf injury to a certain extremely lanky cheesebutt we will get to in a moment—gives these Finals something the NBA’s championship round hasn’t had in at least a couple of years: enough novelty to prop up what’s almost certainly just a sad illusion of uncertainty regarding the outcome! It’s nice. The bad news is, I couldn’t produce this blog by just taking a few quick find-and-replace jaunts through last year’s edition.
Onward, to the teams!
With all due respect to the spunky Los Angeles Clippers, the wretched, desperate Houston Rockets, and the, ah, physically existent (?) Portland Trail Blazers, all of whom did their level best, the Warriors breezed through the West playoffs without ever breaking a genuine sweat. The measly four losses they took along the way—two apiece to the Clippers and Rockets—were a mirage, which dissipated over the five games and change that made up the end of the second round and the entirety of the conference finals. When the Warriors were at their full strength, they needed to slouch and slob their way into a couple losses here and there to get their blood pumping, like the pathological risk-taking of a depressed person who needs a reminder that he values his own survival. When Kevin Durant went out with a calf injury in Game 5 of the Rockets series, they no longer needed to lose to feel mortal, and thus have not bothered losing since.
So yes, in one sense, the Warriors enter this series made weaker by Durant’s calf issue, which likely will keep him out for at least the first couple games against Toronto. It’s not possible for any plausible basketball team made up of earthlings to lose Kevin Durant and not be lessened by it. In this sense, they’re theoretically more vulnerable to some combination of matchups and tactics that causes them to straight-up lose the Finals, because—for the next few days, at least—they won’t have Durant acting as a doomsday device. In another sense, though, the Warriors enter this series playing their most motivated, focused, and forceful basketball since 2017, and are probably more likely to just straight up sweep the Raptors directly into hell than they would be with a healthy Durant, when they might’ve been induced to fart away a game or two just to feel alive. The Warriors without Kevin Durant can’t prove their invincibility just by showing up to the arena, which all in all might just make them slightly more dangerous on the court.
Does that make any sense? No? I don’t give a damn! I’m on to the next section of this blog!
Yeah, it’s pretty much the same guys. Here’s Steph Curry, either liberated or forced (or both, depending on how you want to look at it) by Durant’s absence to get back to the merciless, hyperactive, carpet-bombing maniac he used to be, just friggin’ vaporizing the poor Blazers in the conference finals:
Steph’s averaging a mighty healthy 35.8 points over the five full games since Durant’s injury. He’s playing some of the better basketball of a career largely spent playing some of the best basketball in history. And yet he still might not even be the individual Warrior who’s most vividly blossomed without Durant’s shadow looming over him: That honor goes to Draymond Green, who basically functioned as a “win” button for coach Steve Kerr during the conference finals. He’s never been better, not just as a supernaturally smart and disruptive defensive force, but as the creative playmaker on offense who makes the Warriors virtually unguardable. Without Durant acting as a gravity well for the ball, Green’s been freed to indulge his “Find Steph! Find Steph!” impulses. Nobody relishes anything more than Draymond relishes feeding Steph open three-pointers, and when he’s doing it all the time, the Warriors are at their most fun and most terrifying.
Then there’s Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, important Warriors who can blame their short-shrifting in this blog on Golden State’s appalling overabundance of good players. Oh, and hey!
That’ll be interesting! Though don’t expect too much of Boogie tonight; if he plays with Golden State’s second unit and anchors a few offensive possessions from the low post, that’ll be plenty.
Home-court advantage aside, the Raptors are the sentimental favorites, here. Not only is this not their fifth straight Finals appearance, it’s their first. Ever. And they’re taking on one of the great dynasties the NBA’s ever had. If you want to root for the feel-good outcome, don’t root for the Warriors.
On the other hand, if like me you are a brain-diseased troll and will derive the most enjoyment from whatever outcome sows the most chaos, there’s a plausible if unlikely scenario where the Warriors win the Finals without (or largely without) Kevin Durant, it becomes clear that they’re happier and no less dangerous without him, and the NBA’s thinnest-skinned cheesebutt spends the entire summer using burner Twitter and Instagram accounts to harass, insult, and threaten his former teammates, which comes to light, destroys his reputation, and makes him persona non grata among his fellow NBA stars only after he has signed a mega-contract with the Knicks at least partly on the hope that he can recruit fellow elite players to join him in forming a championship contender in New York. Then he spends the rest of his prime lonely, bitter, and balding on a team that peaks as a spring cookout appetizer for the Sixers and Bucks. That would be pretty funny.
On the other other hand, that wouldn’t be as funny as Durant returning for Game 3 of the series, the Warriors sullenly returning to static Durant-ball, and the Raptors shocking the world by winning the series. What would even happen in that case? Would Durant completely flip out and exercise his 2019-20 option to stay in Golden State, just to punish the Warriors for hating his guts? What I’m saying here is don’t root for the Warriors, and that I’m an awful, awful person.
If the Warriors can play the way they like to play—if the Raptors can’t come up with some comprehensive way of disrupting them and forcing them into an uncomfortable mode of basketball—they’ll win. It’s that simple.
Who can say? That’s why they play the games!
Holy smokes! If the Raptors making their way out of the East playoffs isn’t quite the upset of all upsets (they were the second seed, after all), it feels like it, just because of how they got here. There’s more to that than the absolutely fucking insane series-winning buzzer-beater in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers...
...and the 0-2 hole they dug out of against the Milwaukee Bucks, the league’s best team by far throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. There’s also the weird uncertainty of Kawhi Leonard’s situation, which has burbled in the background all season and continues to make this whole thing—a team making a Finals run on the shoulders of historic play by what very well might be a one-year rental player in town against his will—seem vaguely impossible. And then there’s the team’s years-long history of ignominious postseason failures; if the Raptors themselves did not experience that as baggage they brought with them to these playoffs, that in itself is a pretty amazing achievement.
In any case, here they are, in the Finals, for the first time in their history. They strangled Orlando, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee to death with tough, smart, flexible, disciplined defense, and have cobbled together enough offense from some occasionally gun-shy teammates to stand up Leonard’s blank-eyed hero-ball. It’s a time-tested formula for playoff success: defense, and a superstar who can go get buckets. If it’s enough to get them past the frickin’ Golden State Warriors, my brains will spray out of my nose like so much misdirected soda.
Shit, I think I gave this one away. Kawhi Leonard is their guy. No player has been as good in these playoffs. In fact, no player not named LeBron James has been as good in any playoffs in quite some time. Here, watch some video:
He’s averaging 31 points, nine rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game in these playoffs, and that’s with him having hobbled through much of that Bucks series on a clearly wobbly leg. He’s also been Toronto’s best individual defender. If the Raptors somehow pull this off, it seems like it’ll have to be because Kawhi ascends to some higher plane of basketball. I promise that is not only a way for me to dismiss his teammates and bring this very long blog closer to its conclusion! He’s been carrying their asses!
But, okay, sure: There’s Pascal Siakam, huge and versatile and extremely important for Toronto at both ends of the floor, particularly when/if Durant returns, in which case Siakam could do the Raptors a world of good by checking him and allowed Leonard to chase Klay Thompson around. There’s Kyle Lowry, who’s spent this spring gradually casting off years of neurotic, self-devouring playoff weirdness, and whose beaming joy at finally breaking through to the Finals was one of the highlights of the season so far. There’s either Danny Green or Fred VanVleet: One of these two will be the guy who has to chase around whichever Splash Brother (Steph or Klay) Lowry doesn’t take and then make enough shots at the other end to punish the Warriors for converging on Leonard. There’s Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and the probably futile hope that one or the other of them can survive switches on defense against Golden State’s deadly small lineups.
Here is the thing: The Warriors have a way of making everybody on the opposing team mortally important, because whichever of them can be exploited, that’s the one they’ll use to tease open every other vulnerability. The Raptors are tough and good, but so is Houston’s Clint Capela, and the Warriors made him utterly unusable in the second round. VanVleet and Danny Green have been shaky shooters in these playoffs. Gasol has been at times cripplingly passive and reticent. Beating the Warriors almost certainly requires all of these guys to be their best selves for like two straight weeks.
Only if you can stomach the thought of the championship of the NBA being stolen by a dirty foreign power, you traitorous sonofabitch!!!!!!!!!!!
This is uselessly vague, but they need to figure out the defensive approach that gunks up Golden State’s offense, creating stops and turnovers, so they can get out and score in transition. They need their complementary dudes to go off, so it’s not just Kawhi Leonard against one of the best teams in history. And they need Kawhi to emit beams of visible light from his eyes and fingertips and the ends of his cornrows, levitate, and lay mushroom clouds on the Warriors until they are in hell.
This blog is over!