The Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors defeated the Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks in four- and six-game conference finals series, respectively. This is Golden State’s fifth straight NBA Finals appearance — the most consecutive trips to the title series in a half-century — while Toronto is there for the first time.
How they got here
Golden State: If you want an idea of how well-oiled this Warriors machine is, the two-time defending champions just swept the Western Conference finals without Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. You don’t need to say much more than that.
They lost Cousins to a torn left quad in Game 2 of the first round and Durant to a right calf strain in Game 5 of the second round. Golden State is holding out hope both can return “at some point” in the Finals, but they may not even need them.
The Warriors even closed out the Blazers in Game 4 without Andre Iguodala, who was enjoying his annual playoff resurgence and unlocks all varieties of versatile lineups for coach Steve Kerr. Iguodala is expected to be ready to start this series.
More importantly, the Warriors still have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the triumvirate that delivered the first championship in 2015 and won a record 73 regular-season games together in 2016. They have outscored opponents by an average of five points per 100 possessions over 440 minutes in these playoffs, regardless of who else is on the court with them. That is not the landslide margin we have come to expect from the Warriors, but with two of the greatest shooters in NBA history and a peak-looking Green, Golden State has looked downright unstoppable in their five games since Durant suffered his injury.
They looked more vulnerable against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and through the first four games of their conference semifinals set with the Houston Rockets, but it’s hard to tell how much of that was this ridiculous collection of talent feeling they could coast to a fourth ring in five years without exerting max effort.
The absence of Durant created some urgency for these Warriors, and everyone has done well to respond, right on down to a bench that once seemed like a weakness. They have gotten contributions from everyone on the 15-man roster at some point in these playoffs, starting 11 different players, and fourth-year center Kevon Looney in particular has been a revelation. There is strength in numbers by the bay again.
Toronto: Kawhi Leonard has been incredible, doing his best Michael Jordan impression. That might be the long and short of how the Raptors have gotten here.
Toronto traded DeMar DeRozan in hopes of climbing out of the rut LeBron James stuck them in for the past few years, and here it is. The Raps made the Finals for the first time because Leonard made one of the greatest shots in NBA history to beat the Philadelphia 76ers at the buzzer of Game 7 in the second round, and then he owned MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals.
Entering Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks, Leonard was averaging 31.4 points on 51/41/89 shooting splits, with 8.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. The list of players to post those playoff numbers with that level of shooting efficiency (a 63.1 true shooting percentage) includes only LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
That doesn’t even account for the fact that Leonard took on the burden of primarily defending Antetokounmpo after the Raptors lost the first two games to Milwaukee. In the series-swinging Games 3-5, Kawhi guarded Giannis for 112 possessions, holding one of the most dominating forces in the game to 21 points on 9-for-27 shooting and three assists against four turnovers. The Bucks — owners of the East’s best offense during both the regular season and playoffs — scored a putrid 83 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was defending Antetokounmpo.
Most folks would give the Raptors a depth advantage against most anyone, including the top-heavy Warriors, but that has not always been the case in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam have been solid complementary pieces for Leonard, but fellow starters Marc Gasol and Danny Green have come and gone, and Toronto got little from its bench until Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell finally found their shooting strokes late against Milwaukee. And thank goodness Serge Ibaka was there to give Leonard even an iota of support in Game 7 against Philadelphia.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s rotation could get a boost from OG Anunoby, whose emergency appendectomy has thus far cost him the entirety of the playoffs. There is still not timetable for his return, but he has reportedly been progressing toward clearance for contact. They might just need his versatility against the Warriors.
Head to head
The Warriors and Raptors played twice in a two-week span between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with Toronto taking both games — an overtime victory at home and a 20-point blowout in Oakland without Leonard— but the Warriors were almost unrecognizable when compared with what we have seen from them in the playoffs.
Durant was remarkable in the first meeting, scoring 51 points on 31 shots with 11 rebounds and six assists, but Golden State was without Curry and Green in a 131-128 loss in OT. Jonas Jerebko scored 20 points in 33 minutes off the bench. It’s probably a safe bet to assume none of that will happen again in these Finals.
Likewise, Leonard sat the second game, when Durant was again great (37 points on 22 shots) but Curry, Thompson and Green combined for 26 points on 34 shots. Curry and Green were working their way back from respective knee and toe injuries, and Thompson was still working his way out of an early-season shooting slump. The result was an outlying 113-93 loss to the undermanned Raps at Oracle Arena.
Toronto can take solace in the fact that it operated on all offensive cylinders in both games against Golden State. Lowry, Siakam, Ibaka and Green were all solid each time out, and the Raptors were without Gasol, who would not be acquired via trade for another few months. Given Leonard’s production in his lone game against the Warriors this season (37 points on 14-of-24 shooting) and his pre-ankle injury performance the last time he faced the champs in a playoff game, there is reason to believe the Raptors can play even better against Golden State’s full complement.
Likely starting lineups
The Raptors have stuck with the same starting lineup throughout the playoffs and really ever since Nurse supplanted Ibaka in the starting lineup with Gasol in March.
The Spaniard played just 161 post-trade minutes in 14 regular-season games with Lowry, Green, Leonard and Siakam. That sample size has more than doubled in the playoffs, and they are as dominant as ever, outscoring opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions over 302 minutes in their first 16 playoff games together — more than twice as proficient as any of Golden State’s three most-used lineups.
Kerr’s starters have been in flux with the injuries to Cousins, Durant and Iguodala. The Warriors prefer to bring Looney’s energy off the bench, so Andrew Bogut, Jordan Bell and Damian Jones have all started at center, depending on matchups.
So long as Iguodala is healthy for Thursday’s Game 1 in Toronto, he will likely start alongside Curry, Thompson and Green. Bogut probably gets the call against fellow big and bulky veteran Gasol. That group has played only 22 minutes together this postseason, mostly because Bogut plays so little even when called upon to start.
Golden State’s most tested non-Durant lineup in these playoffs consists of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green and Looney. They have outscored opponents by a respectable 5.7 points per 100 possessions in 63 minutes together, which is reflective of a team that erased big deficits in three of four games against Portland.
If the series gets extended, the Warriors may get the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Cousins we all imagined. That group played only 17 minutes against the Clippers and was outscored by seven, but they were far more effective in the regular season, outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions.
Toronto has one big counter to play in this series, with Ibaka looming as a more athletic center option. With him playing alongside Lowry, Green, Leonard and Siakam, the Raptors were plus-28 in 36 playoff minutes heading into Game 6 of the East finals. They played 34 minutes together against the Warriors in the regular season and outscored them by 13.
Matchups to watch
Leonard vs. the Warriors with or without Durant: When Kawhi last faced these Warriors in the playoffs, they looked invincible in a pair of sweeps to start KD’s tenure with his new team. Yet, the San Antonio Spurs led Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals 78-55 when Zaza Pachulia stepped under Leonard’s ankle and ended his season. The Warriors stormed back for a two-point win and swept that series. Kawhi now gets another shot to prove that Game 1 was no fluke.
There are few answers for Durant, but Leonard has been as good as any dating back to their Spurs-Thunder days, and if KD cannot return to form, Golden State will be the team searching for a solution. You can count on Mordecai Brown’s right hand the number of players capable of being the top dog in a series against the Warriors, and Leonard might be as close to 2016 LeBron James as the league has.
Stephen Curry vs. his Finals narrative: Curry is a two-time league MVP, but the knock against him has been his perceived ineffectiveness in the Finals. Iguodala took home Finals MVP honors in Golden State’s first championship run, and Durant has won the award each of the past two title seasons. Curry’s shortcomings are wildly overstated. He has averaged 27.3 points on 45/41/93 splits, 5.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists in his four previous Finals trips. Still, a Finals MVP would add to his legacy, and the Warriors may need every bit of his legend if Durant fails to return.
Curry will have to get it done opposite Lowry and VanVleet, a pair of point guards who fit the physical mold of guys who give him fits. The Raptors might also try hiding them elsewhere and getting length on Curry. You can only bottle him up for so long until he explodes, so you just have to hope he doesn’t burn you too much.
Green vs. adjustments: You can have the brutish guards to manhandle Curry and the long-armed wings to contend with Durant, Thompson and Iguodala, as the Raptors do with Leonard, Green and Siakam, but rarely does anyone have an answer for Green, especially when he is playing like this. His ability to defend all five positions at an elite level and run the offense in either transition or the halfcourt is unmatched in the NBA. There are reasons why every team is searching for the next Draymond Green and why nobody can find him — because he is one of a kind.
So, what will Toronto do? They have mostly thrown Ibaka and Siakam at the problem, but Green is often too quick or too strong for any coach’s counter. As good as Green has been, he is still a subpar shooter, and you have to wonder if Nurse will let Gasol try his hand at sagging off of him at one end and punishing him in the post on the other. Except, when you try to leverage matchups against Golden State’s smaller lineups, Green is the reason that rarely works, so Nurse will be the next coach in a long line of them who must constantly tinker with his rotation of bigs.
How Golden State can win
Curry and Thompson stay aflame, Green keeps feeding the fire, and the Warriors do what they have done to the league for the past four years. God forbid Durant and Cousins return anywhere close to their pre-injury status. If they don’t, the Warriors can still get by with some help from their battled-tested role players. A throwback game or two from Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, a few handfuls of extra possessions courtesy of Looney and some accurate sniping from Jerebko, Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie ought to be enough to keep Curry, Thompson and Green cooking, so long as they can keep Leonard from pouring water on their party.
How Toronto can win
Leonard is the best player on the court, Siakam meets the moment in the biggest stage yet for his rising stardom, the officials let the Raptors bump Curry off his spot, and everyone on Toronto defends like hell. Strike the right balance between Gasol and Ibaka, squeeze multiple threes out of VanVleet, Powell and Danny Green every night, and give yourself a chance of keeping pace with the Golden State blitzkrieg. At least until a fed-up Durant returns to remind everyone he is the NBA’s alpha dog.
Prediction: Warriors in six.
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