Playoffs

Game One of the 2019 NBA Finals - Warriors vs Raptors

Source: Fanatics

Source: Fanatics

Tomorrow, the Toronto Raptors will be playing the Golden State Warriors at Scotiabank Arena in a best-of-seven series to decide who wins the NBA Championship. 

After the past 24 years of ups and downs (with more downs than ups), Raptors’ fans waited year after year for the team’s first chance to become number one in the world. Countless new faces, rebuilding efforts, unforgettable sponsorship deals, and we’re finally here. This playoff run has no doubt been the most stressful we have ever had and therefore it’s been the most rewarding. But after all the excitement that unfolded in Game 6 vs Milwaukee, it’s time to straighten up and understand we still need four more wins.

Going up against a team that has won four of the last five NBA Championships is the reason you won’t see many people giving Toronto a chance. Then again, going up against Milwaukee also wasn’t in the Raptors’ favour. And then if you consider the Warriors adding Demarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant into their lineup this is one of the best teams ever constructed playing against a team that was created only a few months ago. I have to add that coming into this season, I was one of those people that questioned what the point of a regular season was if the Warriors were just going to win again. But after watching more basketball this season than I ever have, my mindset changed. 

Source: National Post

Source: National Post

After some time (the past two days) trying to debate with myself, my prediction is that the Raptors will become NBA Champions. You could say there’s a bias and there might be, but I’m still going with it. The energy around the city and understanding of the Raptors playing in the Finals is something unparalleled and I think not only will it resonate with the Raptors, but it will have an effect on the Warriors as well. They’ve normally had home-court advantage and although you can say they have all the Finals’ experience, I believe that coming into a country that just had one of its biggest sports moments will impact the game in more ways than one. 

I’m looking to see Kawhi take advantage on offence and although it’ll be tough with Klay guarding him, I’m thinking that we’ll see a similar offensive game-plan we saw for the past few games. That being, Kawhi facilitating in the first quarter and letting his teammates shoot the ball before taking over in the second half. However, you can say that this game-plan worked vs Milwaukee as he guarded Giannis and had to work much harder defensively than he will likely work against Draymond. If he’s able to rest on the defensive end and not be forced to switch onto Steph and Klay as often than this strategy will likely change moving forward. 

Now, onto the rest of the Raptors. First, Danny Green will be back. Something that was evident these playoffs is the law of averages, and with all of Danny’s experience you know he’s too good for the ball not to go in after all these shots. With Kyle, I’m expecting him to be more aggressive this series, especially if he’s guarded by Steph. He plays much better when he looks to attack and it will definitely open up shots for players like Green and Gasol. I’m expecting Fred, Norm and Ibaka to bring in similar stats they had in Milwaukee, but Fred’s 3-pt% will likely decrease. Someone I am really excited for is OG and although he’s been out of action, his length, defence and ability to stretch the floor is something that can only help the Raptors.

The Raptors will become NBA Champions
— Derek Gomes

Now, with the analysis behind us, there was something else I wanted to address. I was listening to Nick Nurse and he said that he doesn’t like motivating his team as the “underdogs” in this series and this really stuck with me. Whenever I played sports and we played a team higher than us in the standings, there was the extra motivation that came from being the underdogs and we thrived off that title. And then if you add every other typical sports movie the final part usually involves an “underdog” beating the first-place team in the finals.

But if you think about it from a professionals’ standpoint, their job is to beat whatever team is front of them. Does this mean the Raptors should be more motivated to beat Golden State in a 7-game series than Orlando? Does this mean if they were to lose against Golden State they wouldn’t be disappointed because they weren’t supposed to win in the first place? Now that I think about it, Toronto shouldn’t think of themselves as the underdogs. They need to think of themselves as an equal to Golden State, as another NBA team vying for the same title. They can’t disregard their own success this season when they took a nation to a place it’s never been before. The NBA Finals is a place where two of the best basketball teams in the world compete and the Toronto Raptors is one of them. This mindset might not work for every team, but with all the veterans we have, I think it will resonate better than our mentalities the past few years.

While Thursday night cannot come soon enough, I’m enjoying this five-day break because I know it’s exactly what the Raptors needed. The city hasn’t had this excitement since the Jays in the 90s and everyone on the team can feel it in the air. As soon as the ball is tossed up at 9pm, all of Canada will be watching and it’s incredible that we’re here to witness the Raptors’ greatest season. We thought the past few series were wild, but it will be nothing compared to what we see in these next seven games. 

I can’t imagine what emotions we’ll feel when the Raptors win their first championship and I can’t imagine how Toronto and Canada will react. But it’s time to stop imagining and start watching because the Toronto Raptors are four wins away from an NBA Championship.

You can follow Derek on Twitter @dgomes_11 and you can check out more of his content on Medium: https://medium.com/@derekgomes97

Why This Series Versus The Cavs Feels Different

Source: WagerTalk

Source: WagerTalk

It's no secret to anybody watching the game that LeBron James is the greatest player in the league. He single handidly willed his team past the Indiana Pacers after an intense Game 7. For the first time, the Raptors are the ones waiting for the Cavs, on their home court. For the first time, there's a sense of hope that the Raptors can finally dethrone the King. For the first time, the Raptors will show the world that they are the Kings of the North.

There are a lot of factors that make this series different than the previous two installments. Allow me to show you how.

Coaching and Play Style

Source: Adam Hunger / Reuters

Source: Adam Hunger / Reuters

When the Raptors were swept by the Cavs in last year's Eastern Conference Semi Finals, I wrote an article detailing what the Raptors should do going forward. You can read the full article here. In this article, the first topic I addressed was Dwane Casey. I had stated that due to Casey's love for iso ball and some questionable roster decisions (*cough* DeMarre Carroll *cough*) I believed it was time to move on from him, even though I really admired him as a coach and a man.

It was announced later that Casey would be returning as a coach, and what impressed me the most was the way Casey not only owned his mistakes of the overuse of iso ball, but vowed to adapt and become a team that could thrive offensively in this league. That was one of the best moments in Toronto coaching history, and I was fully back on board the Casey bandwagon...and he didn't disappoint.

The Raptors finished the season with a top 5 offense and defense. They were shooting three's at a historic clip. The ball movement has been incredible, not only with the starting unit, but with the bench too (more to come on that). This team is well coached, playing a style of basketball that thrives in the modern day NBA. The Raptors set a franchise record 59 wins this season, and Casey has serious momentum for NBA Coach of the Year. It's been an impressive turnaround for a coach that was on the hot seat coming into this season.

#BenchMob

Source: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star

Source: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star

The Raptors bench is hands down the best bench in the NBA. The Raptors consistently have 10-12 guys that they can throw at you every single night that all make impacts on the floor. Lead by "Mr. Fourth Quarter" Fred VanVleet, the #BenchMob provides an injection of high intensity, physicality, floor spacing and deep shooting threats. Having this consistent option has allowed Coach Casey to limit DeRozan and Lowry's minutes, and it's showing its positive impact these playoffs. 

The main defensive assignment on LeBron will belong to Raptors rookie OG Anunoby, who did a fantastic job guarding John Wall by the way. When OG is on the bench, the Raptors can throw so many different bodies at LeBron, because they have that depth and luxury. There's no other team in the NBA that can throw as many bodies at LeBron as the Raptors can. LeBron will get his points, but if you can limit him slightly with various different defensive bodies, it will only help the Raptors in defeating the Cavs.

The recent addition of Fred VanVleet back to the bench in the Raps vs Wizards series made an immediate impact. While Delon Wright did an incredible job quaterbacking that second unit, having Steddy Freddy back in the fold provided the stability it lacked throughout the first five games. He helps space the floor, adds an additional deep threat, and can make plays that nobody thought was possible. If not for Lou Williams, VanVleet is a lock for Six Man of the Year.

I can go on and on about this bench. Wright has the length and the range to make him a deadly guard. Siakam provides the intensity and defensive toughness, while possessing the ability to knock down a jumper or corner three when needed. Poeltl provides mobility and super soft hands around the glass. Finally, Miles always possesses that deep threat that brings defenders out toward the perimeter on him, creating even more space on the floor. It's a perfect dynamic, and one that Coach Casey trusts (and rightfully so).

LeBron's Supporting Cast

Source: CBS Sports

Source: CBS Sports

Again, it's no secret that LeBron is the best player in the league right now. He's averaging 34.4 points on 55.3% shooting in just over 41 minutes played per game. He's leading his team in points, rebounds and assists per game. These numbers are God-like for someone who is 33 years old, and showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Even though the King has had quite the playoffs thus far, his supporting cast have been almost invisible. The absense of Kyrie Irving from this squad really exposed a lot of issues, and isolated a need for a true secondary scorer, since Kevin Love has not been able to fill that role at all. Here's a stat that truly astonished me...during the Cavs vs Pacers playoff series, there was not a single Cavs player other than LeBron James to reach 20 points in a single game during the seven game series. That's the first time in LeBron's career that this has happened. LeBron leads his team with 34.4 points per game, as stated earlier. Kevin Love is a "close" second with 11.4 points per game. Outside of those two, there isn't one Cavs player averaging double digits in points per game. 

This Cavs team is one of the worst I've seen with LeBron on it. They are one of the worst teams in the NBA defensively. The time is now for the much better Raptors team to expose this weak Cavs team.

I’m burnt right now. I’m not thinking about Toronto right now until tomorrow.
— LeBron James

LeBron claims he's burnt, but I don't buy it. This is a guy who spends $1 million a year on his body. He's basically the human version of the Six Million Dollar Man (minus five million...). It doesn't seem like Dwane Casey and the Raptors are buying it either, echoing the same sentiments that I am. We will see come Game 1 how tired he really is.

Prediction

The Raptors spent all offseason preparing to face LeBron in the playoffs once again. They got the culture reset they were looking for. This is a different team, and one that is more than capable of beating a weakened Cavs squad. I predict that the Toronto Raptors will beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. Notice how in all the points I touched on, I didn't even talk about Lowry and DeRozan, and their improvements as players and buying into the system? That's how good this squad has been, and will continue to be, after they get past the Cavs.

Don't believe me? That's fine, but let me show you some other expert opinions on the Raptors, and hopefully you will change your mind. We. The. North.

Raptors Face Battles On And Off The Court Against Wizards

Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

The Raptors, lead by all star backcourt DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, carry a 3-2 series lead into Washington as they take on the Wizards tonight at 7pm EST. Closing out this series in six games will be no easy task however. The home team has won every single game in this series, and the Raptors haven't seemed themselves in the Capital One Arena this series. Just ask Kelly Oubre Jr. what he thinks about it, in particular the play of Delon Wright.

The next game is a different story. We’re back at home. Just like Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home. You can kind of chalk it up as the same story.
— Kelly Oubre Jr.

Delon seemed to chuckle at it and offer his take.

Yeah I saw it. That’s just his opinion. I didn’t play as good as I did at home there but he made it sound like I was just a total bust. We’ll see [in] Game 6
— Delon Wright

One would logically assume that the banter would end there and the two would dual it out on the court, but Oubre Jr. had to get the last word in. Here is what he responded with today.

Let me take a moment to address this. Kelly Oubre Jr., you should stick to doing what you do best...riding the pine. You're not in any position to talk smack like this. You're an inconsistent bench player on the eighth seed in the East. We will see what happens when Delon comes out and murders you on the court.

4th Quarter Blues?

Source: SLAM Online

Source: SLAM Online

DeRozan and Lowry are the key cogs to this team. Even with their newly revamped offense, those two need to be at the top of their games if they want to have continued success in the playoffs. In Game 5, the backcourt duo combined for just 4 points in the 4th quarter. Thankfully, Delon Wright stepped up with some key plays and 11 points in the quarter to propel the Raptors to victory. DeRozan and Lowry played well for most of Game 5, but they need to show up in the 4th quarter to pull away from opponents and close the door like they have done all season long. This is just one knock on an otherwise impressive playoff showing for the duo, considering recent history. I expect them to keep shattering expectations and carry the Raptors for a deep playoff run.

Other Notes

It appears as though the Raptors will have a key bench piece back in Fred VanVleet. News broke moments ago that FVV would be cleared to play for today's game.

This is a massive addition to a Raptors squad that has really missed their second unit floor general. Wright has put up impressive numbers in Fred's absence, but Fred's ability to space the floor and play fourth quarter minutes was a noticable absence in games one through five. VanVleet leads the Raptors in total 4th quarter minutes played this season, and is 20th in the NBA in this category. Hopefully the VanVleet that returns tonight is more of a version of what we are used to seeing as supposed to the Game 2 VanVleet that we saw in this series for a whopping two minutes.

While the Raptors gain a key player back into their rotation, the Wizards lose one. Otto Porter Jr. has been ruled out for the remainder of the series with what appears to be a left leg injury.

That's a big loss for this Wizards team. They now need to find a way to supplement his averages of 32 minutes played, 48.8% shooting and 41.7% rate from distance. My guess is the red hot Mike Smith will fill in for most of this role, as he is shooting an astronomical 67.6% from the field, 63.6% from 3 point land and averaging just under 12 points in 22 minutes per game. If he is able to fill in and continue to put up those numbers for the Wizards, the Raptors will be in trouble.

Game 6 is coming up soon! Let's see if the Raptors will be playing Game 1 of the second round or Game 7 of the first round on Sunday.

Stanley Cup Final Breakdown - Who's Going to Win?

Source: RealSport101

Source: RealSport101

With puck drop of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled 24 hours from now, hockey fans get the matchup that will not only provide the most entertainment, but the closest results as well.

Anaheim brought a solid veteran team, and Ottawa brought a feel-good Cinderella story, but the matchup that will be the most intense and electric belongs to Nashville versus Pittsburgh. I have to say that I would have never imagined the Guinness Book of World Records be in attendance of a Nashville Predators playoff game to record the sound decibels to measure if it's the loudest indoor sporting event of all time. The #Smashville fans are crazy, and I love how they embrace not only the sport, but the team. The Penguins bring speed and maturity against a relatively young and inexperienced Nashville team. The Pens fans have been through this last year, and you know they will be hungry for a repeat, something that hasn't been done since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings teams.

Each team carries it's own strengths, weaknesses and pressures, which we will dissect below. Categories that will be measured include offence, defence, goaltending, special teams, and "other" intangibles. 

Source: USA Today

Source: USA Today

Offence Breakdown

Pittsburgh - There's not enough that can be said about this team offensively. Four of the top six total point-getters these playoffs belong to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Malkin - 24, Crosby - 20, Kessel - 19, Guentzel - 16). It is important to keep in mind that the Penguins have played the most amount of games out of any team these playoffs with 19, so these numbers are a little inflated. Even with the amount of games, Malkin, Crosby and Kessel are all averaging a point-per-game or higher. Saying that, hockey fans have seen the potential of this offence, scoring four or more goals in a game six times. Having sustained injuries to key contributors such as Hornqvist, Rust and of course Sid the Kid, this team has received scoring from both likely and unlikely players alike, capped off by the Kunitz two-goal performance in game seven versus Ottawa, who hadn't scored a goal in a game since February 25th.

Nashville - This team definitely does not have the same offensive numbers that the Pens forwards possess, but they can kill you with their speed. The Predators only have four forwards with 10 or more points, with the dynamic Filip Forsberg leading the way (Forsberg - 15, Johansen - 13, Sissons - 10, Arvidsson - 10). Of course, with the season ending injury to Johansen, a big portion of Nashville's offence has been depleted. However, like Pittsburgh, they find clutch scoring from some unlikely names, such as Sissons, Watson and Aberg. The downside to this offence is that not a single forward is averaging a point-per-game or better, and their highest scorer (Forsberg) would rank fifth against Pittsburgh's forwards. Couple this with the fact that Nashville's captain Mike Fisher hasn't registered a single point in the playoffs, and their reliance on secondary scoring may come back to bite them in this final series.

Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins

It will be the toughest challenge of my life.
— Evgeni Malkin on facing Predators defence
Source: Pred Lines

Source: Pred Lines

Defence Breakdown

Pittsburgh - This team has faced adversity when it comes to its blue line. With Letang ruled out of the playoffs before playing a single game, the Pens have been facing an uphill battle with their defence since game one. Injuries sustained to Schultz and Daley throughout the playoffs forced young players such as Dumoulin and Ruhwedel into the spotlight. They clearly aren't the same impact players as Letang and Schultz for Pittsburgh, and when Dumoulin is leading the defence in ice time during games, you know the Pens are as depleted as can be on the back end. With Schultz and Daley back to adequate health, the Pens do get a boost for their defensive depth that hasn't really been seen for majority of their playoff run.

Nashville - It's no surprise that David Poile has constructed this team from the back end out, and the Predators defence corps are the reason why they are battling for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The top four defence of Josi, Ellis, Subban and Ekholm make up four out of top eight scorers for the Predators. It's extremely rare to have such massive contributions offensively from your defensemen, and to have three in double digit point totals already exemplifies how integral the Predators defence is to their game and overall success. Not to mention they are just as impressive defensively as they are offensively, blocking shots and creating important game-changing turnovers. You know they are impressive when Malkin is quoted as saying that it will be the toughest challenge of his life, also stating that they have four Erik Karlsson's on the blue line.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Goaltending Breakdown

Pittsburgh - The goaltending carousel of the Penguins has actually been a massive benefit for the team. When Murray went down during practice before game one of the playoffs, there were maybe a handful of people on the entire planet that had the confidence in Fleury to not only keep this team alive but become an integral component. Throughout the playoffs, Fleury posted a respectable 9-6 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average. Fleury was a massive contribution for Pittsburgh, literally stealing games for his squad. After his collapse against Ottawa, coach Mike Sullivan made the change to go with Matt Murray, and his gamble paid off. Murray is posting a stellar 4-1 record with a .946 save percentage and a 1.35 goals against average. It will be interesting to see how Murray will stack up against a fast Nashville team while only starting four games these playoffs. It's nice for Pittsburgh to know that if Murray falters, Fleury will be more than capable of handling the duties between the pipes.

Nashville - As impressive as Pittsburgh's goalie tandem has been, Nashville's leading netminder has been just as incredible. Known more for his inconsistencies than stellar play over the past few seasons, Pekka Rinne has put that label behind him. Over the course of 16 games, he's posted a 12-4 record with a .941 save percentage and a 1.70 goals against average. With goaltending being arguably the most important element in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rinne has been the foundation that has allowed other elements to thrive and play loosely over the last 16 games. Something else to consider would be that Rinne had to face arguably more potent offences than Pittsburgh overall these playoffs. This position matchup is as close as any I've seen in a long time, but I would have to give the edge to the netminder who's played the entire playoffs.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

Special Teams Breakdown

Power Play - The power play advantage is a perfect reflection of the balance between offenses. Pittsburgh ranks tied for second in the playoffs with a 25% power play percentage, while Nashville ranks 12th with a 14.9% power play percentage. There's no doubt that this category belongs to Pittsburgh.

Penalty Kill - Similar to the power play, the penalty kill reflects the defensive perceptions well. Nashville ranks fourth in the playoffs with an 88.1% penalty kill percentage, while Pittsburgh ranks eighth with a 85.5% penalty kill percentage. While this category is closer in proximity than the power play, the advantage will still have to go to Nashville.

Summary - While each team excels in one particular aspect of special teams compared to the other, it's hard to ignore the disparity of power play percentages between Pittsburgh and Nashville. Therefore, Pittsburgh has the advantage in the special teams department by a narrow margin.

Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins

Source: Tribune News Service

Source: Tribune News Service

"Other" Intangibles Breakdown

Home Ice Crowd - While both clubs are expecting their fans to be the loudest they have heard all year, there's one arena which has stood out above the rest for housing the loudest fans all playoffs long: the Nashville Predators. Like I said earlier, I'm still amazed and shocked at how loud fans in Nashville of all places can get. While Pittsburgh is no slouch for crowd loudness, nobody is topping the Predators and their fan base in this category.

Days Off & Games Played - Since both of these intangibles revolve around the element of fatigue, I decided to group them together. Nashville is definitely the more well rested team, as they have not only had more days off in general, but had been waiting for Pittsburgh for three days already. Another factor to consider is that Nashville has not had to play a game seven yet these playoffs, while Pittsburgh has gone through two of them and have played three more games than Nashville (19 for Pittsburgh, 16 for Nashville). This category favours the Predators.

Home & Road Splits - While it's expected that both teams play better at home than the road, one team does both better than the other. The Penguins have a home split of 7-3 (.700) and a road split of 5-4 (.556), however the Predators have been dominant at home with a split of 7-1 (.875) and a 5-3 split on the road (.625). These splits allow the argument that the Predators will have a easier time defending home ice and winning on the road than the Penguins. Advantage to the Predators for this category.

Summary - There's a lot of "other" intangible factors, but I picked these three in particular as I feel that they have the most underlying influence in the playoffs. In the categories that often go unnoticed, give the edge to Nashville.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

Source: NY Magazine

Source: NY Magazine

Prediction

This Stanley Cup Final is going to be incredible. The speed, offence, defence, goaltending, crowds and storylines will be on full display, and that's all fans of the game can ask for. When everything is broken down into specific categories, these teams are quite even and match up really well against one another.

Personally, I have always lived by the motto that defence wins championships (unless you are in the NBA...). Nashville has an incredible defensive corps that can not only lock down top line forwards, but can also contribute offensively at the rate of top forwards in the playoffs. When Pittsburgh is locked down offensively, it's difficult for them to fall back on their defence for support, and will lose those close one-goal games more often than a team like Nashville. With this important element combined with the home dominance of Nashville, I believe that Nashville will be lifting Lord Stanley for the first time in franchise history.

Prediction - Nashville in 6 games