That means higher stakes for the best players when they reach the game's biggest stage. The NBA Finals is where the course of a career, a franchise — even the entire league — can change based on one performance. And the subplots this year are as fascinating as ever.
So let's look at who has the most to win — and lose — as the Toronto Raptors take on the Golden State Warriors.
He's playing with house money now. Even if he flops in the Finals (unlikely), Kawhi has already carried the Raptors further than they've ever gone. He's given their fans memories that will last a lifetime: the four-bounce buzzer-beater to win Game 7 vs. Philly, the second-half comeback vs. Milwaukee that won Toronto its first conference title… and maybe more to come. If he falls now to a heavily favoured Warriors team and then leaves in free agency a month from now, there will be no hard feelings. Kawhi will be remembered as the best player to wear a Raptors uniform to date.
But say Toronto pulls off the upset and he wins Finals MVP (if the first happens, you can bet on the second). Now we're talking a whole different level. Kawhi would take over the unofficial "best player in the world" championship belt. It would be his second ring and second Finals MVP (San Antonio, 2014). Only 11 men have won that award multiple times. Only LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have done it with two different teams. If Leonard joins them, he'll be talked about as an all-time great.
They're playing with house money too. Who could've imagined a Finals run one year ago? The Raptors had just been eliminated (and humiliated) by LeBron's Cavs for the third year in a row. The team was stuck in neutral with DeMar DeRozan as its go-to scorer. But president Masai Ujiri's calculated gamble to swap DeRozan for the disgruntled Leonard turned things around.
Problem is, this could be a one-time shot. The odds are still on Kawhi skipping town after the Finals (most likely for the Clippers in his native L.A.). He'll be very hard to replace: historically, Toronto has not been a preferred destination for top NBA free agents. If that remains the case, this could be Raps fans' only chance to see a title for a long time.
Whereas Kawhi is likely to leave his team this summer, Durant is a near lock to do so. His time with the Warriors has just run its course. He ditched Oklahoma City three summers ago to join a Golden State team that had already won a title without him. The goal was to add the one thing missing from his Hall of Fame resumé: championship rings. He's won two in two seasons, plus two Finals MVPs. But those didn't earn him the unmitigated respect he craves. Many basketball fans see Durant as an opportunist, a ring chaser who joined an already-great team — and, in doing so, turned the last two NBA seasons into boring cakewalks for an unbeatable team. It's best for everyone if he goes somewhere else.
That's become even more obvious since Durant injured his calf in Game 5 of the second round against Houston. The Warriors went on to win that night without him, then won their next five games to reach the Finals. Worse for Durant, they look like they're relishing the chance to prove they're fine on their own. No one knows whether he'll play in the Finals, but he's definitely out for Game 1 and coach Steve Kerr said "it's a long shot" he plays in Game 2.
Here's where it gets really awkward. If he doesn't return, and the Warriors win, it'll take more shine off Durant's two rings. If he does, and the Warriors win, well, everyone expects that anyway. He won't get much credit. The nightmare scenario is that he comes back and the Warriors lose the series. His reputation might never recover from that. If they lose without him, that might actually be better for his legacy. Talk about a bizarre situation: the guy with possibly the most at stake may not even set foot on the court.
He stands to gain the most from Durant's injury. Before the Slim Reaper arrived, Curry was the heart and soul of the Warriors. He won two regular-season MVP awards and was the unquestioned star of the 2015 championship team. His dazzling ball handling and long-range shooting powered one of the greatest (and most entertaining) teams of all time. He literally changed the game too — every NBA team is trying to bomb threes like Steph now. But he took a back seat to the bigger, more unguardable Durant over the last couple of years.
Until now. Curry averaged just over 23 points in 11 playoff games with Durant this year. In the five without him? Almost 36. The Warriors are Steph's team again — and more fun to watch with him back at the helm.
With a healthy Durant alongside him, Curry could be extremely confident he'd win his third consecutive ring and fourth in five years. That version of the Warriors is just too stacked to lose to the Raptors. They have too many outs, as they say in poker. No one would turn that down. But the Steph-led Warriors are capable of being nearly as good (31-1 without Durant since March 2017) and the upside is a lot greater for Curry. Right now, he's won more championships with Durant's help (two) than without (one). If he can even that up, and win his first Finals MVP, Steph will cement his status as the true force behind the Warriors dynasty.
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Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, left, hands teammate Norm Powell the trophy after the Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in Game 6 of the NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference finals Saturday, May 25, 2019, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
TORONTO — Last time Kawhi Leonard played Golden State in the playoffs, he was running the Warriors off the floor.
“He was having a great game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr recalled. “The Spurs were kicking our butts.”