The 2019 NBA Finals are here. It’s been an eventful postseason in both conferences, with controversy, injuries and dramatic games aplenty.
The end result is the Golden State Warriors in their fifth-straight Finals facing the Toronto Raptors, appearing in their first ever NBA Finals.
888’s sports betting has made the Warriors the title favourites all season long. There’s no change from that here, with Steve Kerr’s team 7/20 to complete a threepeat.
Golden State have not had it all their own way in the playoffs but losing a seven-game series is a case of needing to see it to believe it.
There was a brief first-round scare against the Clippers, including a second half collapse. Kevin Durant went to superhero mode, though, as Golden State avoided a Game Seven.
The challenge of the Houston Rockets was billed as their greatest. James Harden and co. were not as effective as last season. Despite leading in Game Five with the series at 2-2 when Durant injured his calf, Houston crumbled.
Steph Curry lit it up in the second half of Game Five and teamed with Klay Thompson to win the series in Houston in Game Six.
A sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers followed as Curry continued a streak of 30-point games. The Warriors hit their stride, returning to the pre-Durant basketball that started this dynasty.
The so-so defence vanished and was replaced by great team play and incredible hustle.
Toronto, despite losing Game One, eased past the Orlando Magic in the first round. A slugfest with the Philadelphia 76ers followed.
Philly matched Toronto’s physicality, creating mismatches all over the court with their size. After losing games two and three, the Raptors were facing the same old questions. Kawhi Leonard put Toronto on his back after that.
Leonard was a demon defensively and Jordanesque on the other end. His quadruple-bounce, buzzer-beating game-winner in Game Seven is already an iconic shot and will be the poster of Leonard’s legacy north of the border regardless of what he does in these Finals.
More vintage Leonard followed in the Conference Finals. Toronto were incredible defensively, both man-to-man and as a unit.
Led by Leonard, who was switched onto Giannis Antetokounmpo by Nick Nurse, the Raptors made life as difficult for Milwaukee as any team have. The Bucks’ supporting cast struggled as the Raptors won the series in six.
After two long series, against two very good teams, Toronto have had less time to recuperate for the Finals. Golden State, still waiting for the return of Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, have had their feet up.
The Raptors are 9/4 to win their first NBA title. While beating the Warriors, with Durant looming, is a tall order, this Toronto team have shown resilience. They have the much talked about playoff experience.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, they have Leonard, giving them this postseason’s best player, a lockdown defender and clutch scorer.
Leonard has been frequently mentioned on 888Sport’s blog throughout this season. The ‘load management’ seems to have paid dividends for Toronto.
For those backing the Raptors to upset the odds, he’s one of the best NBA betting tips at 5/2 to win Finals MVP.
What will be interesting, is how Golden State defend the former San Antonio Spur. Leonard’s assist numbers are up this postseason but passing is the one ‘weakness’ in his game, if you can even call it that.
The Warriors had great success trapping Damian Lillard out of the pick and roll in the Conference Finals, and they’ll likely try the same against Leonard.
Philadelphia did all they could to take the ball out of Leonard’s hands, trying to force someone else to beat them. Golden State may follow that lead.
With Durant missing at least Game One, Toronto coach Nurse has options with Leonard defensively. We will likely see Leonard move around, matching up with each of Draymond Green, Curry and Thompson at different points.
The Durant assignment will be a matchup for the ages; the league’s best one-on-one defender against one of the all-time great scorers.
Pascal Siakam will be crucial for the Raptors. He needs to knock down his shots to make Green respect him from the perimeter, otherwise Green will make life very difficult for Kyle Lowry and Leonard as he did for CJ McCollum and Lillard in the last round.
Siakam is a frontrunner for Most Improved Player, but a niggling injury and flaky three-point shooting has seen him have a mixed postseason.
As the Robin to Kawhi’s Superman in the regular season, Toronto need the very best of Siakam if they are to deny the Warriors a threepeat.
He’s long, and a smart defender, but it’s offensively where the Raptors need him at his best, spacing will become an issue unless he hits shots.
The performances of Fred VanVleet were a huge bonus for the Raptors against Milwaukee after he struggled in the first two rounds. He took minutes off the struggling Danny Green.
There’s an element of uncertainty with both of them, which is a concern for Toronto.
Danny Green has done it all before, and we’ve seen him catch fire in the NBA Playoffs with the Spurs, but he was almost unplayable against the Bucks, playing just 14 minutes in the clinching Game Six.
To stand a chance, Toronto need Leonard to continue to perform as he has, and there’s little to suggest he will drop off. His leg injury didn’t cause too many issues against Milwaukee.
Lowry, playing with an injured thumb, must remain aggressive offensively as he was in the Conference Finals. Marc Gasol cannot turn down open threes.
All of this, though, might not be relevant if Durant returns for Game Two. Golden State might have thrived without him, and it has brought the best from Curry, Green and Thompson, but adding Durant changes the equation.
A cold night from Curry or Thompson without Durant and the Warriors are most certainly beatable – with Durant, it’s different.
The play isn’t as smooth, and there’s the ever-discussed ‘sacrifice’, but the Hampton’s Five is too good: It has the highest floor of any team in NBA history.
Durant’s calf might be the decisive factor in this series. If it turns out he cannot return, this could go to six or seven, and Toronto have a chance. Or maybe Toronto take Game One, which they are 17/20 to do, and Durant returns not at 100%, upsetting the balance of the team.
The Raptors are 11/2 to win the series 4-3. Doing so will require them to play their very best, and for Nurse to get the better of Kerr. That price, even with the uncertainty over Durant and Cousins, is on the short side.
Curry is 7/10 to add a Finals MVP to his enormous trophy cabinet.
He’s playing the level of basketball that saw him win back-to-back regular season MVPs before Durant arrived, and that’s what makes it so hard to see Toronto celebrating a championship in a few games time.
The Raptors have enough to trouble the Warriors far more than Cleveland did in 2017 and 2018, but a threepeat is still by far the most likely outcome.
The series outcome betting has a 4-2 Warriors win at 5/2, though the 4-1 at 7/2 is a better price.
There are only a few games of the NBA season remaining before attention turns to the NBA Draft 2019. Let’s hope for a competitive series, even if it ends with the champion we’ve expected since the season tipped off.
TIP: Golden State Warriors to win 4-1 at 7/2, Steph Curry to win Finals MVP at 7/10
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*