The Toronto Raptors have busted down the door and fought their way to the top. Toronto’s basketball franchise has existed since 1995-96, but has never hosted a Finals game. With Drake on the sideline giving massages and screaming at Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, that will change on Thursday.
Golden State is on the path to a three-peat, attempting to bring home their fourth championship since Steve Kerr became the head coach in 2014. A series win in this epic matchup would give the Warriors 401 total victories — including playoffs — over that span.
The NBA’s latest dynasty enters the 2019 NBA Finals with a +6.6 net rating in 16 playoff games (non-garbage time), while the Eastern Conference champion is right on their tail at +6.3. Their paths up to this point have been extremely different, but we’re about to find out if that gives Toronto an edge or not.
*Ratings exclude garbage time*
The tale of the tape makes this a closer war than we’ve seen in recent memory. Let’s dive into the key components of what we’re about to see.
The elephant in the room is the status of Durant, who strained his calf on May 8 and has yet to resume on-court activities nearly three weeks later. He is no stranger to calf injuries, but he publicly admitted this is the worst one he’s dealt with.
That’s significant. For a team as top-heavy and barren on the perimeter when Curry or Klay Thompson need a rest, scraping by Houston and clawing back against Portland (a lackluster defense) in three games shouldn’t be a positive sign moving forward. They might be 5-0 without Durant during this stretch, but the margin for error has been slim-to-none. Toronto’s defense is comprised of longer, more aggressive, and smarter veterans than Portland and Houston employed. To act as if they’re in a comfort zone just because it’s reminiscent of 2015-16 is a shortsighted view — they have never battled this Raptors’ core in a series, and not having a (tall) isolation producer in the halfcourt leaves them without a necessary weapon.
It’s safe to project Durant misses Game 1 on Thursday, unless he magically heals to a certain degree. Even then, starting on-court practice a day or two before the Finals isn’t a great sign. With Game 2 coming Sunday, three days after the opener, that might be ruled out as well. I’d estimate Durant returning to the lineup in Game 3, which will be June 5 when the series shifts to Oracle Arena. That would be exactly four weeks after he suffered the injury.
DeMarcus Cousins seems to be a completely different story. He’s already scrimmaging and practicing with the team, eager to make a return to highlight his effectiveness before free agency. Steve Kerr mentioned that Cousins has progressed well, but they aren’t trying to rush him back. However, given Cousins’ attitude toward playing immediately, it would be shocking if he isn’t on the floor during one of the first two games in Toronto (Thursday or Sunday). My money would be on both.
Now, does that mean Cousins is getting his starting gig back? Not so fast. Golden State was performing markedly better without Cousins in the starting lineup prior to him injuring his quad in Game 2 of the first round. They were more capable defensively with Kevon Looney or Andrew Bogut on the floor, and more fluid offensively with the “no-center” lineups where Andre Iguodala replaced him.
It’s not a slight on Cousins as a player. If this was a team lacking scoring or one that wanted to slow down the pace, he would fit right in. It’s more about the nature of the team and what exactly they need out of their starting center. Cousins was averaging 17.3 shot attempts per 36 minutes this year. You hate to call it “wasting” possessions with him understandably craving low-post opportunities, but that’s what it often feels like when the ball is taken out of Curry’s hands for a Cousins post-up.
This will be a series for Cousins to produce — just off the bench. Nobody is aware of how much flow and misdirection the Warriors will need to generate than Kerr, the architect of the offense. Until Durant gets back, you can expect Kerr to start Andrew Bogut at center to fill the early minutes. He’ll battle with Marc Gasol and attempt to cover all bases with Toronto running its offense through Gasol at the elbows. Bogut will just be a body to get the shooters clicking early, then probably used sparingly because of the front-court depth.
Looney will get more minutes than any other Warriors’ center, including Cousins. But where Cousins can thrive is during a 12-15 minute per game role when Looney is getting a breather.
One particular area that Cousins had success was drawing fouls on opposing bigs. With only Gasol and Serge Ibaka as the Raptors’ options, this could benefit Golden State. Ibaka has been known to commit silly, avoidable fouls during his career. The determination of Cousins to make everyone eat their words about his post-injury abilities might be a dangerous situation for Kerr, but also something that yields a favorable outcome.
For Toronto, OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is still without a timetable. He’s been out since April 9, but the team is looking forward to reintegrating him during this series. Will it be at the start? It doesn’t appear so. I’d consider his return status as later than Durant’s (so, middle of the series). That is, if he even gets cleared.
The Raptors’ defense regaining another 6-foot-8 wing to provide extra coverage on Durant, Curry, or Thompson would only make it harder for Golden State to create separation.
If Durant was available for Game 1, the Raptors would have their hands full from the start. The lack of his destructive one-on-one creation and mid-range arsenal gives Toronto a positive edge: They can put Kawhi Leonard on a multitude of guys. If Durant is there, Leonard has to stay on him for majority of the game and trust his teammates to handle the Warriors’ hyperactive guards.
Think back to the 2016-17 season. When Leonard’s defensive metrics starting slipping for a very strange reason, it eventually became clear that teams found ways to mitigate his on-ball defense. The main perimeter force he was guarding would stand in the corner and completely take him out of the action. Thus, it would lead to straight four-on-four offense. With Durant being the ultimate floor spacer, there could be possessions where he’s just used as a decoy to bring Leonard’s incredible skills out of the equation. Leonard is also one of the greatest help-side defenders of this generation due to his length and anticipation in the passing lanes. So, not having a threat such as Durant to occupy him definitely hurts the Warriors’ offensive array and presentation in this series.
This is how I would suggest the primary matchups line out before Durant returns:
- Danny Green on Stephen Curry
- Pascal Siakam on Klay Thompson
- Kyle Lowry on Andre Iguodala
- Kawhi Leonard on Draymond Green
- Marc Gasol on any big (Bogut, Looney, Cousins, Bell)
There are numerous options Nurse can turn to, but this would be the most optimal chance for the Raptors to succeed in the first two games.
The most important key is to put someone on Curry that’s large and aggressive both on and off the ball. It has to be someone that’s comfortable with chasing him around when he gives up the ball, preventing any relocation opportunities that he annihilated the Cavs with over the last two Finals. It has to be someone that can withstand the energy it requires to stay glued to him, but also someone that doesn’t require a hefty offensive workload to carry Toronto in the fourth. The best option is Danny Green, at least to start.
Siakam, at 6-foot-9 and usually guarding the opposing forwards, might be better suited on Thompson with Durant out. Why? This gives Toronto a long and agile defender to bother most of those mid-range pull-ups Thompson likes to settle with. It definitely gives Siakam a lot of responsibility, though, if he wants to serve as a help defender on rotations from the corner and wing (where Thompson will often spot-up). Being able to provide help before quickly getting out to the shooters is something Toronto did beautifully versus Milwaukee, but this is a stronger test.
Those first two matchups may sound funky, but it’s mainly because I’m of the mindset that Leonard needs to be on Draymond Green to begin the series. In order to give Toronto the highest chance of disrupting Golden State’s favorite offensive attack, Leonard needs to be utilized in the “LeBron James defensive role.”
What does this include? On possessions where Golden State doesn’t go to the screen-and-roll, Leonard starts on Draymond with the opportunity to sag off and make the Warriors’ offensive motion difficult to execute. Leonard can roam around when Curry or Thompson have the ball, as long as he’s aware of Draymond’s intentions. It’ll muck up the half-court for Golden State and create a higher turnover variance.
When Curry and Draymond initiate their patent 1-4 screen-and-roll set, that’s where Leonard’s qualities can really be on display. Instead of trapping or flashing two guys at Curry (leading to Draymond’s playmaking), the Raptors will just be able to switch it. Then, you have Leonard on Curry. We’ve seen mixed results from that matchup in the past, but the general sentiment is that Curry would rather not operate against Leonard at the top of the key.
Of course, the result of switching would place Danny Green on Draymond, which is totally fine for Toronto. Nobody is going to shut down Curry for an entire game, switching or not, because he’s very tiring to keep up with over the course of 40 minutes. But, having Leonard start possessions on Draymond is what minimizes most of the damage. It gives them the best switching counter, and lets Leonard use his robot brain off the ball while Green is on the weak side.
The reason Lowry should be on Iguodala is simple. You have to hide him somewhere. He’s only 6-foot and Curry has routinely had a field day when Lowry is the primary defender. It isn’t to say Lowry is a bad defender — he’s actually one of the most excellent defensive point guards in the league. The problem is that Curry never cares how physical you are. If he has anyone shorter than him chasing him through screens or fighting over the top, he’ll pull up with ease. Placing Lowry on Curry at the very start is just inviting Curry to get a rhythm going, which isn’t what Toronto should want.
When Durant enters the series, the Warriors should look to roll out their Death Lineup with Draymond at center. Whether or not Kerr wants to use it for extended minutes because of Gasol and Ibaka’s presence on the glass is unclear, but it creates the most problems for Toronto’s defensive matchups.
If they do trot out the Death Lineup when Durant is back, the Raptors would be facing this:
- Leonard on Durant
- Lowry on Curry
- Green on Thompson
- Siakam on Draymond
- Ibaka/Gasol on Iguodala (should be left alone)
That would probably be the best course of action. Although Nurse could counter with taking Ibaka and Gasol off the court, he doesn’t have many options. Fred VanVleet is way too small and would be attacked through pick-and-roll. Will Norman Powell be relied upon in those critical moments?
Toronto’s defense against the Death Lineup would require Lowry to hold his own against Curry, because Thompson is even more likely to shoot right over him. One benefit that Lowry has is obviously his sturdiness if someone tries to post him up, plus his intelligent charge-drawing techniques.
It would also require Siakam being ready to either blitz Curry once a screen comes, or switching on to the greatest shooter ever. The sheer length of these defenders has a chance to rattle Curry off his game, similar to what we saw at the beginning of the 2016 West Finals against Oklahoma City.
But when Durant is on the floor, Leonard will have his hands tied. For as dominant as Toronto’s defense has been for seven months now, the Warriors’ best lineup puts a lot of pressure on everyone else.
What should be the Warriors’ gameplan?
On the offensive end, Golden State should have three objectives.
First, they have to make Leonard exert more effort and make tougher decisions than Milwaukee forced upon him last series. Although the Bucks finished third in offensive rating during the season and were difficult for anyone to stop, Leonard thrived defensively in the East Finals for a reason. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s style was so focused on the interior, Leonard didn’t have to cover as much ground. It was still a challenge because all great players are, but it’s just not comparable to paying attention to everything the Warriors throw your way.
In the West Finals, I didn’t think Golden State was doing a good enough job making James Harden work overtime defensively. For the first portion of that series, they didn’t put him through the wringer enough. Knowing they’re about to go against a more versatile (and physically powerful) isolation threat, it’s up to the Warriors’ offense to wear him down as much as possible. It sounds odd, since the one thing you typically don’t want is Leonard being active defensively. But if you’re playing the long game, it’s clear that Toronto’s late-game offense suffers if he’s fatigued.
Second, it only helps the Warriors if Gasol is on the floor trying to defend their extremely high pick-and-roll. Whether it’s Bogut, Cousins, or Bell starting, the goal should be to make Gasol extend 25-plus feet. If the Raptors switch, Curry will happily take that possession. If they trap Curry after the screen, it’ll be up to the center to make enough plays off-the-dribble. But the Warriors have to at least try exploiting Gasol’s perimeter movement.
Lastly, on the offensive end, it’s just doing whatever possible to maximize Curry’s shot attempts. Toronto is certainly going to test out the “terrorize Curry until others start hitting shots” defense, but the Warriors are at their best when Curry isn’t holding back. In the West Finals versus Portland, he unleashed 15.3 3-point attempts per game and drilled 42.7 percent of them. At least until Durant makes an appearance to take some pressure away, he has to be that aggressive from the jump.
As for the Warriors’ defensive strategy, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out: Pascal Siakam is 17-of-56 (30.4 percent) on corner 3-pointers during the playoffs. With Draymond Green (mostly) drawing the assignment there, he should do exactly what he did against the Blazers. If Siakam is on the perimeter, focus the attention elsewhere and serve as a help defender and rotator. There might come a time in this series where Siakam is making you pay and burning the nets with his spacing. Until that happens, they should utilize Green’s defensive skills all over the floor.
Will Kerr get too cute with the bench?
Kerr has already confirmed that Jordan Bell will see minutes in this series. Perhaps that’s just because of Durant’s injury delaying the Warriors’ normal rotations. Or maybe Kerr will still be feeling on top of the world and vindicated for his “strength in numbers” approach.
These were the minute-per-game amounts for the main bench pieces versus Portland:
- Kevon Looney: 27.3
- Alfonzo McKinnie: 17.5
- Shaun Livingston: 16.8
- Jordan Bell: 13.5
- Jonas Jerebko: 12.3
- Quinn Cook: 12.0
That doesn’t even include Cousins, who will be available for Kerr.
During the East Finals, Toronto only went eight deep with the three bench contributors being VanVleet, Ibaka, and Powell.
With a championship on the line, this series doesn’t appear to be depth-focused. When Durant is able to go, the window could be open for Kerr to play more bodies than he needs to. And more than he should.
In a series where the defensive acumen of the opponent is much higher than anyone you’ve played, a cautious approach might be necessary. The first couple games will serve as an experiment for Kerr, who definitely trusts McKinnie because of his athleticism.
Livingston pretty much has to play. Looney should be right around the 27-30 minute mark because he’s their best center. But when the starters are healthy, all of a sudden the rotation feels too wide for a matchup like this. Cousins’ presence makes this a very different situation for Kerr to handle.
Offensive Star Power
This is what’s remarkable about the matchup. Despite LeBron James moving West and opening the door for a contender to break through, the Finals will still feature the same amount of absurdity. James won the East eight straight years, but the player succeeding him is actually better at this juncture.
Leonard heads into his third Finals appearance as the Playoff MVP after three rounds. His 31.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game on 33 percent usage has lifted Toronto’s dreams into a reality. He’s shooting 69.2 percent at the rim and getting to the line 8.4 times per night.
The Raptors have never had a player of this caliber. When you factor in his attention to detail on defense and carrying such a burden, his case for the “best player in the league” title is warranted.
At the same time, he’s about to face one player that deserves the recognition as well. Then, after a couple games, he’ll face another one returning from injury. On the same team:
Before injury, Durant was 32-of-38 (84.2 percent) at the rim while also shooting 53.3 percent in his favorite pull-up range. Averaging at least 34 points on 56-41-90 shooting splits had never been done with 11 playoff games under someone’s belt. He was on track to have the greatest individual playoff run … maybe ever. Prime Jordan and LeBron capped a couple off with championships, so it’s tough to say for sure.
Then, there’s Curry, who just lit up the Blazers for 146 points in four games (36.5 average). Both Curry and Durant’s points-per-shot marks are higher than Leonard’s, which feels unbelievable considering how much attention Toronto’s savior has received for this current run.
In the 696 minutes with Leonard on the floor, the Raptors are 24.3 points per 100 possessions better than during his minutes on the bench. It’s the highest discrepancy on the team by a landslide:
For the Warriors, their biggest on-off court difference is Green. But, Curry is essentially tied and we know he’s the primary reason their offense booms with that duo on the floor:
This year’s Finals not only gives us a far more competitive atmosphere than before, but it also features three individual talents who believe they’re the “baddest man on the planet.”
For the start, we’ll see the craftiness of Curry against the strength and physicality of Leonard — a matchup the world always needed for more than one game (ugh, Zaza).
This was pretty agonizing.
Never since Kerr’s arrival has a Finals scenario been difficult to project for Golden State. Even in 2016, when they eventually lost, the narrative going into the series was that a blowout was on the horizon. It was almost true, too.
This much can’t be overlooked or denied, though: Toronto is the most complete and formidable defense the Warriors have ever faced. Pairing it with an emotionless animal that’s more accurate from long-range than LeBron or Harden, and the right formula is there to upset the champs.
While Leonard is on a different level than his Spurs days, the most intriguing story to me is how Lowry and Gasol perform in their first Finals. For once, the public should be doing a 180-degree turn on Lowry in the playoffs. He doesn’t always score like you want a franchise point guard to score, but the hundred little things he’s given that franchise since 2013 have finally culminated into a trip to June.
Will the Raptors have enough to complete the quest?
In a normal decade without an opponent this stacked, looking to write their own closing chapter before free agency interferes, the answer would be yes.
This Raptors squad embodies what a championship locker room is supposed to look and feel like. They have the Hall-of-Fame star, the veterans, and the shooting.
But they just don’t have the luxury of avoiding Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant on their quest for a three-peat. Leonard prevented The Heatles from capturing theirs in 2014, but this is much different. Golden State has taken their NBA record-setting offensive rating in the regular season and increased it during the playoffs.
When the Warriors also want to lock down and defend like champions for 15 or 20-minute stretches, there is nobody better than Green, Thompson, and Iguodala together. Maybe not even this Raptors’ unit.
If Durant is out for the series, I’m taking Toronto in seven.
But since I don’t envision that happening, the last game in Oracle Arena’s history is one to remember.
Warriors in six.
*All stats via Cleaning The Glass*