Kawhi Leonard can leave Toronto in the next few weeks without feeling badly about it.
He has taken the Raptors where they’ve never been and has put together a postseason that has erased any doubt that he’s among the NBA’s top talents, arguably the best two-way player in the game.
His Raptors will take their shot at dethroning the Warriors, looking to succeed where LeBron James failed in three of the last four years.
Ironically, it took James’ departure from the Eastern Conference for Toronto to finally break through with its first NBA Finals appearance since entering the league in 1995. LeBron eliminated them in each of the last three seasons, which included ending their run in the East finals in 2016.
Until this season, that had been the furthest point the Raps had reached. But Leonard tamed Giannis Antentokounmpo and the top-seeded Bucks to deliver Canada its first conference championship in basketball. Considering how poorly all of its teams have done in hockey, he’s now a favorite son around those parts and forever will be.
Of course, win or lose, he’s likely heading back to his native Los Angeles to play out the remainder of his career, sharing a city with LeBron as either a teammate or a rival. What he chooses to do remains to be seen, as does what transpires in these NBA Finals, where Leonard will again enter a series as a significant underdog.
Milwaukee opened at -330 to win the Eastern Conference finals when Westgate sets its odds prior to Game 1, so if you had bet Toronto, you got a cool return of +260 on your investment. If you bet them to dethrone the Warriors, you’ll get a similar return and should shop around to if you can manage to and find the best line.
Most books on the strip had Toronto at +240 as of Tuesday morning, while Golden State is -300 despite Game 1 being a pick ’em with Kevin Durant ruled out of the series opener. Although he hasn’t joined the Warriors on the floor for practices, he’s recovering as expected from the calf injury that took him out in Game 5 of the Western Conference semis against Houston and is expected to be available when the series shifts back to Oakland next week.
The Raptors must take advantage of his absence and get off to a strong start in the series, so Golden State is realistically looking for a split of the first two games up in Canada. They’ll certainly have fresher legs since they swept Portland and haven’t taken the court for a taxing game since May 20, which will put the rest vs. rust debate on trial again.
Considering Andre Iguodala will play after healing up from his own calf issue and DeMarcus Cousins has been upgraded from questionable as he looks to return from a quad injury suffered early in the first round of Game 2, the Warriors made the most of the time off.
Leonard has been brilliant despite playing through a quad injury that has limited his explosiveness, but avoiding a Game 7 and a return trip to Milwaukee should help matters. Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka all stepped up significantly to help put away the Bucks and will be counted on to continue playing well at home in order to get off to a strong start and make this a competitive NBA Finals.
Without Durant available and Cousins being listed as questionable, Golden State will be reliant on Draymond Green staying out of foul trouble in Game 1 since he’ll be counted on to help defend Leonard while also rebounding and leading the break, serving as the point forward to help get Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson quality looks from the perimeter.
With Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Ibaka to also contend with in addition to Leonard, the Warriors are going to need the likes of Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell to continue helping Green out in the post, so they’ll be critical x-factors.
Green at +800 to win Finals MVP is my best bet since he’ll be so critical to Golden State’s success given all the variables in play. While Durant should be back, it will be Green who will have to alter his game most while still needing to remain aggressive.
Curry is the favorite to be named the MVP of the series (-145), but he’s never won one throughout his career and will be the focal point of Toronto’s defensive game plan until Durant’s return. Thompson (+1400) is the better bet, but I’m backing Green.
As for my series prediction, my expectation is that Leonard will have a fantastic series, but the Warriors will ultimately take down the Raptors in six games. Toronto has struggled with its shooting stroke on the road throughout these playoffs and can’t be counted on to be very successful at Oracle Arena. The Warriors will close out their tenure in Oakland by winning on their home floor.
Warriors at Raptors (Game 1), Total 214: In addition to my picks of Warriors in 6 and going Green for Finals MVP, I’m also a fan of backing the under in Game 1 since we’re likely to get a substantial feeling-out period and both teams defend well in the halfcourt and excel and getting back in transition. UNDER
Last week: 0-1
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