With just one day remaining before the 2019 NBA Finals kick off, the Golden State Warriors are set to enter the final stage in their quest for a “three-peat,” as well as their fourth NBA championship in five seasons. In getting there, the Warriors defeated the James Harden-led Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, close to one year after both teams went to seven games in a tightly-contested conference finals series. However, Golden State will soon have to deal with the player whom they reportedly see as their biggest threat — recent All-NBA selection Kawhi Leonard — and the rest of the Toronto Raptors.
In the lead-up to the Warriors vs. Raptors series, The New York Times‘ Marc Stein recently published a feature article on Leonard that described him as a big reason behind Toronto’s success in the 2018-19 NBA season. But with the Raptors at least four games away from possibly becoming first-time NBA champions, Stein also noted that it’s Leonard, and not the high-scoring Harden, who appears to be the biggest concern for the Warriors in the current postseason.
“The Warriors, I’m told, unequivocally regard [Kawhi] Leonard as a bigger individual problem than Houston’s James Harden because of Leonard’s impact at both ends,” Stein wrote, as quoted by NBC Bay Area.
Despite his perceived weaknesses on the defensive end, Harden had a statistically productive 2018-19 regular season, averaging 36.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and two steals per game, per Basketball-Reference. Leonard, meanwhile, compiled averages of 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals in 60 regular-season games.
As pointed out by NBC Bay Area, Leonard has carried his regular-season success over to the playoffs, where he has averaged 31.2 points in 18 games thus far and helped the No. 2 Raptors defeat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. His defensive ability has also stood out as usual in the postseason, unlike in the case of Harden, whose issues on the other end of the floor were brought up by the outlet.
“Without [Warriors forward] Kevin Durant to occupy Leonard’s attention, Steph Curry will probably be hounded by the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Warriors never really had to worry about Harden’s defense,” wrote NBC Bay Area‘s Ali Thanawalla.
Due to a calf injury that forced him to miss the entire Western Conference Finals series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Durant will be sitting out Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals, which will take place on Friday at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. There is, however, a chance that he will be suiting up for Game 2 on Sunday, as noted by CBS Sports.