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Friday, February 23, 2024

NBA Playoffs Recap and Finals Preview

Toronto reaches first finals in franchise history, Warriors reach 5th straight

For the first time since the franchise was founded in 1995, the Toronto Raptors will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals after a 100-94 victory over the number one seed Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. The Raptors will host the Golden State Warriors, who reached their 5th straight NBA Finals, in the best of a seven game series that will begin on Thursday.

Only one of these teams was expected to make it this far while the other was expected to wallow under the postseason pressure once again — which begs the question: how did we get here?

The Champs are back, but this time without their best player

After winning 57 games in the regular season — their lowest since the 2013-2014 season — the Warriors entered the playoffs as the number one seed in the West. Despite being a team filled with plenty of all-NBA talent and all-stars, this year’s team was filled with questions. From two stars engaging in a heated exchange early in the season to the lackluster regular season that saw them getting blown out or dropping winnable games on more occasions than usual, this year’s Warriors seemed like the most vulnerable Golden State team in the past four years. On top of that, the looming free agencies of superstar Kevin Durant and sharpshooter Klay Thompson were a topic of conversation throughout the whole year. But regardless, the Warriors had made deep playoff runs for over the last several years and their lack of engagement during the regular season is to be expected at this point in the dynasty.

In the first round, they encountered a Los Angeles team — but not the one most experts expected to make the playoffs at the outset of the season. That team was the Clippers, and while many expected this to be a Warriors sweep, the Dubs slipped up in game two, giving up a 31 point third quarter lead en route to a loss, tying the series up 1-1 heading back to Los Angeles. To make matters worse, Warriors center Demarcus Cousins, a big free agent acquisition, injured his quad, missed the series and has been out ever since. After winning both games in LA, Golden State looked to close out the series in Oakland. But once again, the Warriors were shocked by the Clippers at Oracle Arena. Golden State eventually ended the series when they won in game six and awaiting them was a familiar postseason rival.

MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets came one game short of an NBA Finals birth just a year ago at the hands of the Warriors. Looking to exact revenge, Houston entered Oracle Arena but fell in the first two games of the series. Down but not out, the Rockets took back both games at home and traveled back to Oakland with momentum and the series tied at 2-2. In the third quarter of the pivotal game five, Durant attempted a mid-range jump shot on the baseline, came down and began to limp. The injury was later diagnosed as a right calf strain, which sidelined Durant for the remainder of the series and through the next round.

The Warriors would go on to win the game behind a clutch play by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who scored or assisted on 27 of Golden State’s 32 fourth-quarter points. In game six, it was a win-or-go-home scenario for the Rockets and after going scoreless in the first half, Curry caught fire, scoring 33 in the second half to lead the Warriors to a series-clinching win that eliminated the Rockets in six games.

In the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors encountered the Portland Trail Blazers, a franchise that had not made such a deep postseason run since 2000. After a 22 point blowout in game one, the Blazers looked to steal a game before they traveled back to Portland. Up 17 in the third quarter of game two, the Blazers could not prevent the Warriors from storming back and taking a 2-0 series lead. Games three and four had a nearly identical narrative, as Portland blew another 17 point lead and then a 15 point lead in games three and four, respectively, ending their season and giving the Warriors a chance at their fourth title in five years.

Kawhi carries “The Six” on his back

After years of being dominated in the playoffs by Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors made a splash last July by trading all-star guard Demar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The trade was a big risk, and one Toronto decided to take knowing well that Leonard could be spending just one year there. The Raptors needed to make a big change if they wanted to win a championship.

After being shocked at home in game one of the first round by the Orlando Magic, the Raptors would go on to win the next four games easily, advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals to play a talented Philadelphia 76ers team. After making in-season trades to acquire all-star guard Jimmy Butler and up-and-coming forward Tobias Harris, the Sixers were all in for a finals run. After exchanging blowouts in the series’ first six games, it all came down to a game seven in Toronto.

With 4.2 seconds left in a game tied at 90, the whole country of Canada was on its feet waiting tensely. The ball was inbounded to Leonard who drove baseline and put up a shot with seven-foot Joel Embiid and 6’10” Ben Simmons closing out over him. After an initial bounce off the front rim, the ball bounced on the rim three more times before it sunk, winning the game for the Raptors and turning Scotiabank Arena into a frenzy. With that wild buzzer beater, all that stood in front of the Raptors was the number one seeded Milwaukee Bucks.

The best record in the NBA this season belonged to the 60-22 Bucks, led by MVP-favorite forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks were the favorite heading into the Conference Finals and seemed to prove their worth by defeating Toronto in games one and two. In game three, however, Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse made an adjustment and put their superstar and ex-defensive player of the year winner Leonard on Antetokounmpo in. That gamble proved to pay off, as Giannis scored 27.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than his regular season average when being guarded by Leonard. After grinding out three straight wins, Toronto had a chance to clinch its first-ever NBA Finals appearance at home. In a close game down the stretch, Leonard continued his dominant postseason and led the Raptors to a victory, ending the series in six games.

Looking ahead

With game one set to tip-off Thursday, the Raptors have a daunting task set ahead of them as they look to defend their home court against the reigning champs. The Warriors, however, may have to play at least the first few games of the Finals without Durant, who, according to CBS Sports, is “unlikely” to play in game one of the series with the calf strain and has still not practiced. Some good news for the Warriors, however, is that Cousins is likely set to make a comeback in game one, as he has recovered from the quad injury he suffered in the first round. Cousins’ return will add some much-needed depth to the team that has somehow found a way to win with a thin bench.

The Warriors are heavy favorites according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, opening at -275 and, as of Sunday afternoon, -300. The bettors are believing in the Warriors to pull this off, with or without Durant, and rightfully so. A team that has had so much success in the past five years deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Raptors, however, look to pull off the shocker and win their first ever championship. The task will not be an easy one at all, but the brilliant play of Leonard is giving them and Raptor fans more than a reason to believe. Whether or not Leonard or Durant leave their respective teams this summer can very well be decided by the outcome of this series, which adds a new element to an already intriguing culmination to an exciting NBA season.

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org


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