The Toronto Raptors have never lost an away game in the NBA Finals.
Of course, they’ve only ever played in two away games in the Finals ever, but that’s immaterial. The Raptors are 2.5-point underdogs—for the betting public, the Warriors are favoured to win tonight’s Game 6 by two-and-a-half points. Usually, the public is good at predicting general things: which players the teams will be fielding, which team is better, and so on. But oftentimes they fail to fully account for the precise effects of certain things. For example, The Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant is out tonight; he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in Game 5. Obviously, an injury to a top-tier player (many analysts have Durant as a top-3 player in the world) will drastically affect the outcome of a game: usually these games are close, and the production (and efficiency!) of these top scorers would be sorely missed.
And yet the Warriors are still favoured—and heavily at that. The odds makers have them to win at -145: which means an implied win probability of nearly 59%. The betting public has the Warriors winning with a 59%!
That’s weird—Toronto’s outplayed the Warriors in 16 out of 20 quarters these Finals; they’ve won both away games by a combined 27 points so far! Checking more reliable sports prediction systems also favour the Warriors to win: fivethirtyeight’s CARM-ELO projection has them winning with a probability of 57%.
Perhaps taking a deeper look at the players each team might play will reveal why the Warriors are projected to win Game 6.
We’ll start with Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ de-facto leader and two-time league MVP. Curry is an electrifying player on offense, juking defenders around off-ball screens to get easy shots. His handle is top-notch, allowing him to crossover less agile players and get to the basket for lay-ups and floaters. Curry is widely regarded as the best three-point shooter in the history of basketball: his closest competition, Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, have all conceded that Curry’s shooting is historically great, and rank him as the best shooter of all time.
Curry’s three-point shot has not just been great; his shooting has completely changed the way the offense of the modern NBA. He’s able to get off scarily accurate shots (over 50%!) from way beyond the three-point line, and defenders must respect that shot and guard him from as far mid-court. This allows Steph to drive all the way to basket with little to no pressure if he’s able to break free from an over-zealous defender.
Curry’s partner in crime is almost just as overwhelming. Klay Thompson, the other half of the “Splash Brothers”, is shooting with an effective-field-goal percentage of 65.8—offense that efficient hasn’t been seen from perimeter shooter, period. And Thompson is a pure shooter. He once dropped 60 points in a game in just 27 minutes and off 11 dribbles. To put that into perspective, commonly has that many dribbles in a single possession. Klay’s height and off-ball movement allows him to get open for passes, and the Warriors reward that—kicking the ball out to Klay for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
With a 6’7” frame, not many guards can challenge Thompson’s shot, and switching a forward to defend Klay means that a guard will be opposing one of the Warriors’ big men. And putting a 6’2” or 6’3” guard on someone like the Warriors’ 7-foot DeMarcus Cousins is recipe for disaster; he’ll absolutely just walk through smaller players. Even larger players can’t always stop him: in Game 5, Cousins scored 7 quick points and grabbed 4 rebounds in a span of 3 minutes—and that was against Raptors’ center Marc Gasol.
Speaking of Raptors, it’d be amiss not to mention Kawhi Leonard when we discuss players integral to their team’s success. Kawhi is on an absolute tear, averaging 31 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. This well-rounded stat-line isn’t a reflection of a player who cares solely about how he appear, but rather a player who is a defensive force as well as an offensive one. He can score effectively from any spot on the floor: he’s strong enough that defenders can’t bother him without fouling as he attacks the basket. On the defensive side of the floor, Kawhi is indisputably one of the best players ever. He is the only player (ever) to register more total steals than total games, and he can also challenge opposing players’ shots with his 6’7″ frame and 7’3″ wingspan.
Other notable Raptors playing tonight include Kyle Lowry, a five-time All-Star, Marc Gasol, a three-time All star and former Defensive Player Of the Year, Pascal Siakam, a budding star (and a top candidate for the Most Improved Player award).
Perhaps it seems like the Raptors should win tonight: all our players are in perfect health while the Warriors are missing Kevin Durant. But then again, you never know what will happen.