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#pounditThursday, June 1, 2023

10 most important players of the NBA Finals

Kawhi Leonard

The NBA Finals matchup is finally set, and it provides an intriguing matchup between the ultra-experienced Golden State Warriors and a Toronto Raptors team that has finally broken through after running into multiple LeBron James-shaped walls in previous attempts. There’s certainly an experience gap and, at least at the top levels, a talent gap between these two teams. But this is not a slam dunk for Golden State by any measure.

Which players will step up for each team? Here are the ten players who will likely decide which team can claim the NBA title this season.

10. Andre Iguodala, Warriors

Iguodala is expected to play in Game 1 despite a calf injury. While he’s certainly not Golden State’s biggest star, he probably profiles as the team’s most important role player. His defensive play in Game 2 against Portland was one of the biggest moments of the Western Conference Finals. Iguodala isn’t a huge scorer, but he’s a quality defender and one of the prototypical glue guys that teams like Golden State need. Expect him to get some key defensive assignments against Toronto.

9. Pascal Siakam, Raptors

One of the year’s breakout players, Siakam was a tiny bit muted in the Eastern Conference Finals compared to his season averages. Teams have begun to defend him well and force him into taking jump shots, which is not his game. A matchup with the Warriors will provide the quick, explosive Siakam with a chance to shine on a national stage. If he can play the style he’s comfortable playing — with a lot of driving and fast-break opportunities — he could be something special to watch.

8. Danny Green, Raptors

Normally a reliable three-point shooter, Green was a miserable 4-of-23 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. He can’t afford to do that again facing the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who are going to make enough shots to ensure that the Raptors have to get some production from outside to keep up. Green plans to shoot his way through it, and he may as well — it’s hard to imagine him continuing to struggle that much for too much longer.

7. DeMarcus Cousins, Warriors

Golden State has demonstrated that they can win without Cousins, having gone through virtually the entire postseason with him sidelined. A return during the NBA Finals looks likely, but the questions will linger. How will the Warriors use him? How effective will he be? If he’s even close to his best, he’ll provide a huge threat to the Toronto defense that will stretch them to their limits. His impact certainly bears watching.

6. Fred VanVleet, Raptors

When Toronto was wavering, VanVleet stepped up and repeatedly made huge shots — usually from deep — to help kickstart the Raptors. VanVleet made over half of his threes in the Eastern Conference Finals, going a remarkable 16-of-28 and picking up the slack for some misfiring teammates. His hot shooting is a big reason why they won Games 4-6. It’s not realistic to expect that rate to continue, but Toronto will have to dig deep to keep up with Golden State’s firepower. That means VanVleet is going to have to knock down some big shots again.

5. Draymond Green, Warriors

With DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant both sidelined against Portland, Green stepped up and played some of his best games as a Warrior, including consecutive triple-doubles in the final two games of the series. Part of the reason is that he toned down his histrionics and focused on basketball, with amazing results. He remains the team’s defensive anchor and may see some time up against Kawhi Leonard during the series. If he plays as well as he did against Portland, it’s tough to see Golden State losing.

4. Stephen Curry, Warriors

The Western Conference Finals offered up a solid little reminder of just how good Curry is for anyone who may have forgotten. With his team in need of a leader, he stepped up and became the dominant shooting force he’s always capable of being. His role may slightly shift in the NBA Finals depending on when — and if — Kevin Durant returns to action, but he remains a good defender and the best shooter in the league, a player that Toronto simply has to find a way to somewhat contain.

3. Kyle Lowry, Raptors

Lowry has been off and on during the playoffs, finally settling in more toward the end of the Eastern Conference Finals as he helped pull Toronto over the line. He’s battling an injury and that has had an impact, but there won’t be any excuses in the Finals and the Raptors need him to be the consistent leader that he’s capable of being. In the end, Lowry shot roughly 46 percent from deep while averaging just shy of 20 points per game in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors will need at least those numbers against Golden State.

2. Kevin Durant, Warriors

There will certainly be no player with a bigger spotlight in the Finals than Durant, who is a treasure trove of storylines. There are questions about his health. There are questions about his future. There are, remarkably, questions about his fit with his teammates, despite him being at the end of his third season with the organization. It distracts from the fact that Durant is a fantastic player and two-time Finals MVP. His health and effectiveness will be huge if and when he plays. If he’s himself or close to it, it’s hard to envision Toronto having much of an answer.

1. Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

The Leonard trade has paid off for Toronto. It helped them break through to the NBA Finals and gives them at least a fighting chance, even against a juggernaut like Golden State. That’s why he becomes the most important player in the Finals. It’s hard to envision a Toronto victory without Leonard raising his play to the highest level he can and dominating games on both ends. He nearly averaged a double-double against Milwaukee, and it’s fair to say that the Raptors will need him to flirt with 30 and 10 on a regular basis in this series, despite carrying an injury. Leonard can take over any game he plays, and this will be his stiffest test yet.


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