The Toronto Raptors are set to host the Golden State Warriors tonight at Scotiabank Arena in what could be a historic night for Toronto. The Raptors have talked about four wins all series long — that it takes four wins to become champions, and that they haven’t done anything meaningful until they win four — and tonight presents the first opportunity for the Raptors to get that illustrious fourth win. It would give the Raptors their first championship in franchise history and the city of Toronto it’s first major championship since 1993. It might also spell the end of a dynasty for a Warriors team that has been to the last five straight finals and could lose Kevin Durant in free agency this summer.
A lot is at stake tonight for both franchises. Let’s look into the most interesting storylines ahead of game 5.
Durant practiced with the team for the first time on Sunday and, although he was apparently one the first to finish, might very likely make his return to the hardwood tonight. Durant hasn’t played since May 8th when he left game 5 of the Warriors-Rockets series with a calf injury but the optics would look bad if the Warriors listed him as questionable, allowed him to practice, and still held him out of game 5. Plus, there was frustration from some Warriors players that Durant didn’t play game 4.
A potential return for Durant could swing this series in the Warriors favor if he is even 80 percent healthy: He allows the Warriors to play their lineup of death with Draymond Green at the 5, he is their best option to guard Kawhi Leonard, and he unlocks the deadly Curry-Durant pick-and-roll. However, even if Durant does return relatively healthy, the Warriors might be too late with the Raptors needing just one win and having two home games remaining to do it. Leonard and the Raptors are focused and understand how big of an opportunity they have in front of themselves in game 5; don’t be surprised if they pull this off even with KD in the Warriors lineup.
The (other) dynasty destroyer
In 2014, Leonard won Finals MVP as he and the San Antonio Spurs put an end to the Miami Heat dynasty and stopped a three-peat in five games. He has an opportunity to put an end to another dynasty, the Warriors, and stop their own three-peat, once again in five games. If Leonard and the Raptors pull off the win in game 5 Leonard will no doubt win Finals MVP, becoming the only player besides Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win the award in both conferences and the only player to stop a three-peat every time he wins it.
Leonard will also put himself on a short list of players who have won Finals MVP twice. He is already breaking all sorts of records including becoming the first player since Larry Bird in 1984 to lead the playoffs in points, rebounds, and steals. Plus, with 14 30-point games already during this playoff run, he has put himself in elite scoring company and one more 30-point game would rank him third all-time in most 30-point games in a playoff behind only Michael Jordan (16) and Hakeem Olajuwon (16) (tied with Kobe Bryant at 15).
As Michael Lee wrote for The Athletic:
Dynasty destruction requires a certain kind of cold-blooded, calculated concentration that won’t be distracted by any ancillary concerns. The attitude has to be that the past is irrelevant. What an opponent once prone to dominance might do doesn’t influence anything that has to be done. How history judges what happened isn’t worth investing much energy. End this. Don’t overthink it, or worry about the aesthetics.
Leonard is the perfect man for the job. He has an opportunity to put an end to a second dynasty before turning 28. And yes, he’s a Toronto Raptor.
Nick Nurse vs. Steve Kerr
I prefer not to give too much credit to a coach when it’s the players making the tough plays and executing whatever decision the coach makes, but there is no doubt Nurse is having one hell of a playoff run. He is hitting all the right buttons, and game 4 was his best so far: He drew up excellent out-of-timeout plays; started Fred VanVleet in the second half for the second consecutive game, who helped limit Curry offensively; trusted Serge Ibaka, who provided an unlikely 20 points; and played Gasol and Ibaka together for a stretch, giving the Raptors a big look that ate up rebounds. Everything exists in a context, though, and what Nurse is doing looks even better when compared to Warriors coach Kerr.
Kerr shortened his rotation in game 4 but it wasn’t enough. He still hasn’t given extended minutes to Draymond at the 5, and when he has he uses Shaun Livingston rather than someone with more size and shooting like Alfonzo McKinnie. If KD returns in game 5, Kerr will go back to his lineup of death for extended stretches, but it might already be too late. Kerr’s most fatal flaw, in my opinion, was game 3. The Warriors let Curry run the offense for the entire game with the expectation that he could single-handily beat the Raptors with Klay Thompson sidelined. It backfired, as the Raptors won despite 47 points (and 43 minutes) from Curry. Curry was noticeably fatigued in game 4 (just two days later) as ee was unable to create separation like normal and shot just 2-9 from three.
Kerr hasn’t been bad against the Raptors, he just hasn’t been as good as Nurse, who, by the way, is yet to use the highly anticipated Siakam at 5 lineup with Lowry-VanVleet-Green-Leonard-Siakam. Maybe we see it tonight.
No more games at Oracle?
I don’t mean to get ahead of myself and inevitably be called a homer, but if the Raptors win game 5 there will be no more games at Oracle Arena in Oakland. The franchise is moving to the Chase Center in San Fransisco at the start of the 2019-20 season, and, if the Warriors lose in Toronto, the last memory of Oracle will be Leonard taking over in the second half and the Raptors running away with game 4.
However, tonight we will see how desperate the Warriors really are. They looked defeated by the end of game 4, and no play shows the defeated body language more than this:
But these are the Warriors: a dynasty with four of the best players in the NBA. Will their pride outway their fatigue and injuries en route to a comeback? Or will Toronto play another near-perfect game and prove once and for all who the best team in the NBA really is?
Game 5 is tonight. Enjoy it, Toronto.
Tipoff: 9:10 EST | TV: Sportsnet/ABC | Radio: TSN 1050
Raptors are favored by 3 points. O/U: 212.5
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Loyd
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Patrick McCaw, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, Eric Moreland
Kevin Durant (strained calf) is questionable.
PG: Steph Curry, Shaun Livingston, Quinn Cook
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Andre Iguodala, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Draymond Green, Jonas Jerebko
C: DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut