Most pundits predicted Golden State would cruise to another title this season. Even with Kevin Durant's health a major question mark, the Warriors were the heavy favorites in Vegas at the Finals series. Of those brave few who predicted the Raptors would upend the Warriors dynasty, nearly all had the Raptors closing out a tight series in seven games. However, here we are, on the eve of Game 5, and Toronto has a chance to end the 2018-19 season in stunningly quick fashion.
The primary reason we are in this position has been the incredibly impressive play of Kawhi Leonard. The Klaw poured in 36 points on 11-of-22 from the field and 9-of-9 from the charity stripe, to go along with 12 rebounds, two assists, four steals, one block, no turnovers and five 3-pointers in 41 minutes on Friday night. It was Leonard's 14th game with at least 30 points this postseason. Only three players in NBA history have had more 30-point games in a single postseason: Micheal Jordan (16 games), Hakeem Olajuwon (16), and Kobe Bryant (15). Although he's not nearly as flashy as Kobe or LeBron James or Kevin Durant, when factoring in offensive production and efficiency, in addition to his work on the defensive end, this postseason run into the Finals from Kawhi is as impressive as any in recent NBA history. It's reminiscent of Tim Duncan in that respect.
Leonard is the first player in league history to average at least 30 points, ten rebounds, four assists and three made 3-pointers through the first four games of an NBA Finals series. He is also the first player in NBA history to score at least 600 points, grab 200 rebounds and make 50 3-pointers in a single postseason. Toronto likely needs one more extraordinary effort to knock off the champs.
Kawhi has also received plenty of help this series. Serge Ibaka made a significant impact in Game 4 on Friday, tallying 20 points, four rebounds, one assist, two blocks and one 3-pointer in 22 minutes. Pascal Siakam continued his strong play, chipping in 19 points and six boards. Kyle Lowry had 10 points, seven dimes and three steals. Fred VanVleet made a couple of treys before he took a nasty elbow to the face that left him bloodied and dazed. FVV had a tooth knocked out and required seven stitches. However, quite surprisingly, he returned to the bench after the doctors cleared him of a concussion. We will get an update on his status by Sunday evening, but it appears he has a legit chance to play in Game 5 on Monday night.
Remarkably, the Warriors knocked down 17 three-pointers again on Friday night. There have been 231 games played in the NBA Finals over the last 40 years, dating back to 1980. As of Tuesday, only once in Finals history had a road team knocked down 17 or more trifectas in a Finals game. The Raptors did it twice this week.
The Warriors welcomed back both Klay Thompson (hamstring) and Kevon Looney (shoulder) to the lineup on Friday night, but it wasn't enough. Klay looked healthy and played better than Golden State could have hoped, finishing with 28 points, three rebounds, two assists and six 3-pointers in 42 minutes. Just as importantly, he did not suffer setbacks, and with two more days off, he should be ready to rock on Monday night. Looney gutted his way through 20 minutes and tallied 10 points, six rebounds, one assist and one turnover. Stephen Curry seemed worn down from his herculean effort in Game 3 and shot just 9-of-22 from the field on Friday, ending up with 27 points, four rebounds, six assists, one steal and two 3-pointers in 43 minutes.
Warriors fans are hoping that Kevin Durant, who has been sidelined for a month with a strained calf, will return to help save the season on Monday, but that's looking less and less likely according to recent reports. Speaking after Game 4, ESPN's Brian Windhorst said that "Durant just isn't ready. His body is not ready. The trainers don't believe it, he doesn't believe it. He tried to do some stuff at practice on Friday; it didn't work." Commentator Jalen Rose expressed similar sentiments, as he confirmed KD's workout on Friday did not go as planned. "It didn't go well on any level. It did not go well on any level. I'm just going to keep it at that," said Rose. Frustration abounds on the Golden State side, but this is not the type of injury a player can will his way through. If the doctors don't give clearance, they won't allow him to suit up, no matter how badly the player may want to. We can expect an official update on Sunday via the Warriors injury report, but it appears as though Durant is unlikely to be able to play in Game 5.
This leaves Golden State in a very precarious position. There had been plenty of chatter this season that the Warriors played better without KD in the lineup based on their regular season record without him. However, dating back to Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the Warriors are 1-6 in the Finals without Durant; and they and 8-1 in the Finals with KD.
Furthermore, the Raptors are headed back to Toronto, needing to win only one of the next three contests. The Raps haven't lost three straight games since November, and they've never lost three in a row with Kawhi in the lineup. Throughout NBA history, 34 teams have taken a 3-1 lead in the Finals. Thirty-three of those teams went on to capture the title. Eighteen won in five games. Thirteen won in six games. Two won in seven games. The sole outlier, of course, is the Cleveland Cavs, who rallied all the way back to knock off these same Warriors in 2016.
If the Raptors finish the job on Monday night, we plunge headfirst into what promises to be an incredibly fascinating, exciting and unpredictable offseason. The intriguing storylines surrounding pending free agents Kawhi, Durant and Klay Thompson have only been enhanced over the last month. Yet, before we get ahead of ourselves, this thing is far from over. These Warriors were down 3-1 in the 2016 Western Conference Finals against a stacked OKC Thunder squad featuring KD, Westbrook and Ibaka, and came back to win. They have shown great grit and heart. And with two of the greatest shooters of all-time in Curry and Klay, they always have a puncher's chance. If Golden State can win Game 5, they would head back home to play Game 6 in what would be the last game ever played inside Oracle Arena. That place would be deafening right from the opening tip.