By Ford Branan:
Sunday night in Scotiabank Arena will be wild and untamed. A dynasty known for total dominance is all the sudden in uncharted waters, without their best player, going up against an enemy who has everything to lose and a star who is playing the best basketball of his career.
For Toronto, the 2018-19 season was the ultimate gamble. After years of playoff disappointments and shortcomings, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri knew he had to shake up his roster in order to compete in a reemerging Eastern Conference. With a veteran roster not getting any younger and a conference without Lebron James, 2019 was the year for the taking. To make this gamble, Ujiri’s first move was trading away Raptors legend and fan favorite in DeMar DeRozan. While this was a very tough decision it was a necessary move to keep pace with the other emerging teams in the East.
The trade, almost a year after it took place, has played out like Ujiri had hoped. Kawhi Leonard has been an organization transforming star who flipped a second-round exit team into an elite Finals reaching ball club that’s playing its best ball of the season in late May. The gamble, though is far from paying off. Although this groundbreaking trade has been rewarding, its risk and consequences have yet to unfold. With Kawhi Leonard’s impending free agency on the horizon, almost no one in the league knows what jersey he’ll wear next season but an enormous amount of high speculation suggests his eyes have been set on Los Angeles since the get-go. That was the risk.
For the Raptors, each game gets bigger. Not only does a possible 2-0 start mark a step towards Toronto’s first championship, but it adds to the pitch for Kawhi to stay put this upcoming summer. If perhaps Golden State wins tonight and ties the series at 1 apiece, the anxiety of a championship pursuit and the possible loss of a superstar grows greater.
In the eyes of Las Vegas, Golden State will win its fourth championship this June. If that be the case and Kawhi decides to bolt for LA, Ujiri will be forced to blow up the team and start a long and agonizing rebuild where the chances of getting back to the Finals in the coming decade would be slim to none. Toronto has never been a hot free-agent market and is currently in its first finals appearance in 24 years which brings little hope of a quick turn around in the possible event of the loss of Leonard.
Tonight in Scotiabank Arena, if Toronto can capture a 2-0 lead, their chances of winning increase dramatically. Only 4 teams in NBA Finals history have ever come back from being down 0-2. Of course, even with the odds in the Raptors favor, a 2-0 is far from a title lock. Golden State is one of the best teams in history who have continuously defied the odds to come out on top and have no plans on surrendering the throne this year.
For Game 2 of the NBA finals, nothing short of a win is a must for Toronto. With Kevin Durant still injured and unavailable to play, the Raptors absolutely must take advantage of their luck and take care of business tonight. A championship is not only at stake for the Raptors, but the possible collapse of an organization that put everything on the line to get here looms large with a loss.
Since the start of the Golden State dynasty, after the opening tip of the 2015 NBA playoffs, Steph Curry and his band of basketball goons have terrorized the league, unlike anything we’ve seen since Jordan’s Bulls. Five straight Finals appearances attached with 3 championships in 4 years have earned this teams place in history along with throwing their name in the greatest team of all-time discussion.
Almost every basketball purist can agree that a Warriors roster with a healthy Kevin Durant makes them the best team in the league by a mile and virtually unbeatable.
Unfortunately for them, that won’t be the case tonight. Kevin Durant is out for Game 2 and will be on the bench watching his team try and avoid a situation that they have never been before by being down 0-2 in a playoff series. Throughout the entire Golden State championship runs, they’ve been in tough series and have faced elimination. The Warriors have been down 2-1 twice, 3-1, 3-2, and have played 3 game 7’s. Each and all of these series, minus the 2016 Cavs, they’ve managed to grind and claw their way to a victory. Needless to say, this team has heart and has faced adversity numerous times while displaying the heart of a champion in every single match. Being down 0-2 in the finals doesn’t have many perks but it isn’t a series-clinching lock. Golden State knows this more than anybody as they fell victim to the latest 0-2 Finals comeback (and 3-1) back in 2016 to the LeBron James led Cavaliers in a dramatic Game 7 in Oracle Arena.
Already plagued with Kevin Durant’s lagging calf injury along with his impending free agency drama, this team would be in uncharted territory if they lose tonight. In each Finals appearance, Golden State has been mostly dominant. The last two years have been a breeze with a gentlemans sweep 5 game victory in 2017 and a quick wash in 2018 that ended in a pathetically noncompetitive 4 game series. If Golden State was to lose tonight, hope of 4th championship in 5 years would start to fade. Confidence in the original Warriors core to pull out a title would start to vanish and only add more pressure to a season that had nothing short of it. Even with their resume of adversity filled victories and unthinkable comebacks, Golden State would be backed up against the wall with a loss, facing a foe that has the weapons to beat them and everything to lose. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Kawhi Leonard and Toronto will be out for blood tonight. With Kevin Durant sidelined, they know the opportunity to unthinkably go up 2-0 on the defending champs is before them. For Golden State, what seems to be one last title to end their run on top is still for the taking. One last championship. One last shot at glory and one last edit to their incredible resume to firmly place them on the Mount Rushmore of sports dynasties. Tonight will be a dynasty shifting game. A game with enormous magnitude for both parties. With their backs up against the wall, the champs have always responded.