The NBA world has descended on Toronto, with the Warriors and Raptors geared up for Game 1. Before the clock officially starts on their seven-game series, The Crossover brought together a collection of writers to consider one storyline that will define the NBA Finals.
Rob Mahoney: Can the Raptors’ Defense Pull This Off?
Toronto is a sharp and resourceful defensive team—the best of any in these playoffs. But slowing down Golden State is as tall as orders come, not to mention that it requires a very different skill set than anything the Raptors have done to date. You can build a wall of defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo. To the extent that you can do anything similar against Stephen Curry, you build it from the outside-in, denying him the ball whenever possible. Keeping up with the Warriors means giving constant chase. This defense could pull it off, though will they for long enough to win? Will the guards in pursuit of Curry and Klay Thompson be able to lock in completely? Can Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka navigate their defensive exchanges well enough to keep the most dangerous threats contained? It’s a lot to ask, and once Durant is healthy and accounted for, it might not even be possible. But damn if it won’t be fun to watch the Raptors try.
Matt Dollinger: Steph Curry Gunning for Finals MVP
It almost doesn’t sound real. How have the Warriors played in four straight Finals and Stephen Curry, the team’s centerpiece and the league’s two-time MVP, has yet to win the Finals MVP? Well, playing alongside Kevin Durant is the main reason, but Curry’s unselfishness and opponents’ tendency to try and shut him down are the others. But I’ve got a feeling nothing holds Steph back in these Finals. Not the Raptors, not KD, not Drake—nada. Curry is ready to carry the Warriors and hoist both trophies in the end. Even when KD returns, he’ll be slightly hobbled, which will make Golden State’s pecking order simple. It’s Curry’s time.
Jeremy Woo: Can Toronto Dictate Pace?
If the Warriors can be stopped, they first must be slowed, and in that regard, the Raptors have several key elements in hand. They have a frontline that can control the defensive glass, and win extra possessions on offense without sending everyone at the rim. They’ll have to be disciplined and effective within those margins to try and limit Golden State in transition. The Warriors will inevitably try and play Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka off the floor and cut that advantage; the Raptors have to try at all costs not to let them. In Kawhi Leonard, Toronto has arguably the best late-clock shot creator in basketball, capable of getting tough, contested jumpers on a consistent basis and hitting whatever defenders give him at a high clip (the Warriors, of course, have a guy like that in Kevin Durant, but hey). If they can put him in enough spots to win games, Leonard is one of the few players in the world who you kind of believe can do it himself. Bottom line, it’s imperative the Raptors find ways to keep games close and hold tight to their homecourt advantage. And if they can consistently impose their style on the Warriors, we’ll have a series. The rub is that it’s basically been the hardest task in basketball for the last five years. Gotta roll the balls out, right?
DeAntae Prince: When Will Kevin Durant Return?
Kevin Durant was obviously a huge presence in the Warriors' latest title run when healthy and dominating to the tune of 34.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists. He was heaped with praise after responding to the Clippers' first-round challenge with fire and blood, going supernova and extinguishing any talk of a rivalry with Patrick Beverley. The same glowing words came against the Rockets in the second round, as Durant caused problems all over the floor before coming up lame and looking back at his right leg. In the moment it was thought to be a potential Achilles injury. It has since become the most famous strained calf injury in sports history, with Durant becoming even more of a topic of discussion.
Now, the conversation centers on when he will come back to the Warriors and whether he has played his final game in Golden State. The first is the most pressing. Durant missed the entire series against the Trail Blazers and hasn't practiced yet, but his presence still looms large. At the moment the series is being considered with and without Durant, who the Warriors currently have listed as out for Game 1. His return will have implications for everyone from Stephen Curry to Kawhi Leonard, and will continue to create headlines until he steps foot on the floor.