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Go ahead and call it: The NBA needs to see the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors meet in the Finals.
Blame Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard for making it official before Christmas. Both megastars turned in masterpieces during Toronto’s 131-128 overtime victory at Golden State’s expense on Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena. They dominated and disarmed and went at each other on both ends of the floor, giving a damn in a game that just as easily could have invited zero damns given:
Michael Pina @MichaelVPina
It’s so rare that we get to see two players as great as Kawhi and KD go directly at one another for an entire game. Ridiculously entertaining.
Never mind that roughly three-quarters of the regular season is left, or that Milwaukee Bucks fans are now profusely bleeding from the eyes. Golden State vs. Toronto is the Finals matchup we deserve, and so it must happen.
This isn’t to guarantee it will happen. It could. It should. It might. The Warriors are once again comfortable favorites to come out of the Western Conference. Most of the chaos is beneath them. But the Eastern Conference is more complicated.
The Raptors are an NBA-best 19-4, with two leading MVP candidates in Leonard and Kyle Lowry, an obnoxiously deep supporting cast and one of the league’s most versatile defenses. They’re not going anywhere. Their transition from LeBron James steppingstone to genuine contender is for real, and more importantly, without condition.
Protecting leads has been a well-documented problem for the Raptors all season. They’re inside the bottom 10 of fourth-quarter point differential per 100 possessions despite their 7-2 record in games that enter crunch time. Their propensity to let teams hang around continued Thursday. They led by as many as 18 points but needed overtime to dispatch the Warriors.
Still, the good trounces the bad. The Raptors are built to shape-shift their rotation for any matchup, and they have the Association’s best net rating on the road by a monster margin. Milwaukee is the only other team to place in the top seven of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
And yet, we’d be remiss to suggest the gap that separates them from the rest of the East matches the chasm between a healthy Warriors squad and the West Coast melee unfurling behind them. The Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers loom, and the Boston Celtics are a Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward resurgence away from joining them. Don’t sleep on the Indiana Pacers, either.
This Raptors victory, riveting though it was, isn’t telltale of anything groundbreaking. Overcoming a 51-point eruption from Durant is impressive, but Golden State didn’t have Stephen Curry (groin). Or Draymond Green (toe):
Hardwood Paroxysm @HPbasketball
What an awesome game. Can’t wait to possibly see this rematch in June… when the Warriors have… the most impactful player in the league… and one of the best defensive players and passers in the league…
Or a fresh-off-the-February-buyout-market Trevor Ariza DeMarcus Cousins:
Hardwood Paroxysm @HPbasketball
And as several have already pointed out, DeMarcus f***ing Cousins. https://t.co/f8qZqOils9
Toronto cannot expect the going to get any easier when these teams meet again Dec. 12, let alone during a theoretical best-of-seven series. November’s epic showdown could, under more normal circumstances, be June’s Warriors-in-five.
Let’s agree not to care, because we shouldn’t.
This isn’t about the Raptors’ viability against the Warriors over a longer term. It can’t be. Twenty-nine teams are playing catch-up with Golden State and losing. Toronto is closer to a certifiable threat than most, if not everyone.
In lieu of a Warriors equal—again: The Raptors could be one, or something close to one—we must root for the most entertaining opponent possible. Toronto is it. After Thursday’s back-and-forth, how could it not be?
Pitting Leonard against Durant in the league’s highest-stakes environment is everything we’ve ever needed and have been unable to enjoy. The 2014 Western Conference Finals don’t count. A championship wasn’t (technically) on the line.
Also: Kawhi wasn’t Kawhi back then. He’d go on to win Finals MVP, but that series against the Miami Heat was, in many ways, his coming-out party. He needs no introduction to superstardom now. He’s an established MVP candidate.
Really, in the years since Leonard’s Finals MVP, he’s forged an unofficial rivalry with Durant. Calling both top-five players never seems to cut it. One has to be better than the other.
Most would pick Durant. But more people than ever would roll with Leonard. The debate is legitimate. And if Thursday’s detonations were any indication, Durant and Leonard not only know it, but they also embrace it.
Actual tension existed in this game. Leonard (37 points, eight rebounds) and Durant (51 points, 11 rebounds, six assists) went at each other:
At one point, Durant ripped out Drake’s soul:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
KD had Drake mesmerized after pulling up from the logo 😭 https://t.co/NH6JlicshN
It was Kawhi:
NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT
Kawhi gets the jumper over KD!
Get to TNT for the finish! https://t.co/O6PL6M8ZZf
Then it was KD:
Ryan Wolstat @WolstatSun
Raptors win. Kawhi sets his Raptors scoring high, Durant sets his Warriors scoring high and Pascal Siakam sets his anywhere scoring high.
It felt like this game meant something to both teams—to both players. The short-handed Warriors could have rolled over when they went down big. They didn’t. They tried to win. Leonard showed something that almost looked like emotion after a crucial fourth-quarter possession in which he tried to steal Durant’s lunch money while guarding him one-on-one.
And this is November. No. Freaking. Vember. These games aren’t supposed to matter, at least not to the Warriors. This one did.
Sign us up for more of this in June, when the games mean something. It doesn’t matter if the series goes five, six or seven. Let’s debate Durant vs. Leonard. Let’s talk about what NBA Finals appearances—and a potential championship—do to their free-agency process. Let’s give the Raptors a crack at the full-strength Warriors.
So yeah, go ahead and call it. No other prospective matchup beckons or intrigues nearly as much. For now, and probably for good, Warriors-Raptors is the Finals this season needs.