By Mikee Salud
With a LeBron-less Eastern Conference for the first time since 2003, a new team had to rise to the occasion. Preseason predictions had the Boston Celtics winning the East, with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward supplementing sturdy veteran Al Horford and rising young talents in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. A pair of shocking midseason trades had Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris uniting with Philadelphia’s young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, effectively throwing their hat into the ring to challenge for East supremacy. During the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by MVP-favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo, dominated throughout, winning an NBA-best 60 wins. But despite all of these worthy challengers, it was the Toronto Raptors, whose consistently excellent regular seasons were often plagued by their inconsistency in the postseason, who came out on top as the Kings of the East, this time led by their new (and potentially temporary) superstar, Kawhi Leonard.
While their risky swap of DeMar DeRozan for Leonard seems to have worked out for now, they now face an impossible task, as the Golden State Warriors are back in the Finals for the fifth year in a row, this time with a chance at becoming the first team since the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers to three-peat. Or is it impossible?
Yes, the Warriors are coming off an impressive sweep against the Portland Trail Blazers, but the fact still remains that they are weaker than they’ve ever been during this era of dominance, with DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant all hurting. While they all have a chance of coming back during the series, their current championship hopes rest on Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the core that started this winning run all those years ago. Add this to the uncertainty of Kevin Durant returning the Warriors after this season, this really might be the last championship run the Warriors have in them. With the right team, their lack of depth can be exposed. Are the Raptors going to be that right team?
The Raptors this postseason have been almost wholly dependent on Kawhi Leonard, and he has responded with a legendary showing, averaging 31.2 points on 50 percent shooting, 39 percent three-point shooting, and 87 percent free-throw shooting. From 15 to 24 feet away from the basket, Leonard has shot an outrageous 58 percent, displaying a midrange mastery that can be described as Jordan-esque. He’s been at his most effective as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, scoring 1.08 points per possession with a 56 percent effective field goal percentage in these situations. Leonard will most certainly be guarded by Andre Iguodala for the majority of the series, and with how transcendent Leonard has been this postseason, Iggy definitely has his work cut out for him, especially at this point in his career.
This does not even factor in Leonard’s main calling card: his all-wordly defense. He has currently held opponents 5.2 percent below their field goal percentage when he’s guarding them, most notably disrupting Giannis Antetokounmpo in the last series. And despite missing almost the entirety of last season and missing 22 games this season, Leonard has appeared in every game during these playoffs, averaging a playoff-high 39 minutes per game, and has a 32.1 percent usage rate, third-highest among all playoff players. The question now is how much Leonard has left in the tank.
His supporting cast has been inconsistent at best, and with them playing a mostly eight-man rotation, the Raptors need all of their supporting cast at the top of their game. In fact, the Raptors are 22.7 points worse per 100 possessions when Leonard is off the court. It’s impossible for Leonard to play all 48 minutes without killing himself, so it is crucial for head coach Nick Nurse to rest Leonard at the most opportune times.
And when it comes to his supporting cast, look for Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam to try and help Leonard in the offense. Both Lowry and Siakam have been up-and-down throughout the playoffs. Lowry, who infamously started off the postseason scoring 0 points against the Orlando Magic, is needed to be the secondary playmaker and tertiary scoring option. He’s done a decent job setting up his teammates, averaging 6.4 assists per game, with his teammates scoring 46 percent from the field when Lowry passes to them. His three pointer needs to carry over from his past series against Milwaukee, where he shot 47 percent from distance, as opposed to the first two series, where he shot 26 percent from three. Siakam, whose postseason has been a coming-out party of sorts, needs to focus on shots close to the rim and the right corner 3 instead of pulling up in the midrange, where he has shot 32 percent.
Danny Green and Fred VanVleet are also crucial to the Raptors attack, and have been varying degrees of amazing and terrible these past couple of weeks. Green was amazing from outside during the regular season, shooting 46 percent from outside, the second-best mark in the NBA; however, he has only been able to shoot 31 percent from three during the postseason, a drastic drop off from where he had been and where he should be. VanVleet, on the other hand, was absolutely terrible during the first two series and the first half of the Milwaukee series, combining to shoot 20 percent from three during this span. However, once his son was born, VanVleet miraculously caught fire from downtown, shooting 82 percent from three on 17 attempts. Obviously, the real VanVleet is actually somewhere in the middle, but in any case, both Green and VanVleet’s three point shooting is the key to unlocking the Raptors middling offense.
But while the team has struggled to score, the Raptors have instead built their playoff success on their defense, having the second-best defensive rating in the postseason and limiting their opponents to shooting only 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three-point line. Armed with two Defensive Player of the Year winners in Leonard and Marc Gasol, two point-of-attack bulldogs at the point guard position in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and long, switchy athletes such as Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam, they pose as the best defense the Warriors have ever faced in the playoffs.
Additionally, this Toronto Raptors team has been excellent this postseason in forcing turnovers (opponents are surrendering 14.9 turnovers per game), something that the Warriors have been prone to do a lot since Kerr inherited the team. Considering that the Raptors have been able to convert these turnovers into 18 points per game, their best chance to defeat the Warriors are through controlling the pace and forcing them to make mistakes.
Admittedly, most of my research has generally been through the lens of how the Raptors can defeat the Warriors, which is also my backhanded way of acknowledging the greatness of the Warriors -- even in their most vulnerable state. The Warriors have destroying opponents in their traditional pass-happy, frenetic style. If anything, this postseason has been a return to their roots, as they have been carried with their original championship core with Durant and Cousins hurt. When dissecting the Warriors for this series, you have to analyze two different teams -- the Warriors with Durant and the Warriors without Durant -- because they are, in fact, some discernible differences between the two.
The narrative that the Warriors are better without Durant is absurd, as shown in the chart above. Sure, they might be able to win without him (plus they seem to rebound better and turn the ball over less), but they are better with him on the court. When plays break down, Durant acts as the team's insurance policy, being able to score on pretty much anyone and anywhere on the court. Durant is for sure out for the first two games, and anything past that is anyone's guess. But even so, swapping out Durant with Iguodala still proves to be very effective. And besides this allows us to have a front-row seat to the Stephen Curry show.
Curry's performances these past couple of games have had shades of his 2016 season. Since Durant has been out, he's been averaging 35.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists on 47 percent shooting from the field, 42 percent from the three-point line, and 95 percent from the free throw line. Additionally, Draymond Green has been brought back to life after a sluggish regular season.
Curry and Green have been spectacular; on the other end of the spectrum, it is interesting to note the ineffectiveness of Klay Thompson this postseason. The team is a mind-blowing 18 points better without him on the court, which comes into question how much they can really depend on Thompson being the main scoring option for the times when Curry is on the bench.
While it’s obvious the crazy amount of All-Stars are what make the Warriors a historic team, they also have an offensive system that is about as versatile as it gets. Averaging 305 passes throughout the postseason, defenses are constantly on their toes as the ball zips around the court with a plethora of off-ball screens to get Golden State’s stars open for a three pointer. With the limitless range that both Curry and Thompson employ and the playmaking prowess of Green and Iguodala, it allows their other players to cut and get open shots near the rim, as they get around 11 field goal attempts per game off of cuts and convert them 72 percent of the time.
But even with all that, there's still no denying the lack of depth Golden State employs due to their top-heavy roster. As such, key minutes have been given to unlikely contributors Jordan Bell and Alfonzo McKinnie -- and they will keep getting these minutes until their injured stars come back healthy (if at all). While both players have had their moments, it’s mostly been uninspiring play at best (the Warriors are about 3 points worse when either are on the court). But the Warriors don’t need them to be heroes at all; as long as the team doesn’t get annihilated during the minutes Bell and McKinnie play, that’s all they will need.
UPDATE: Per Shams Charania, DeMarcus Cousins has been cleared to play in Game 1. While this doesn't necessarily ensure that he will be starting or playing big minutes, he at least adds a floor-spacing/post-up option for the Warriors, whilst allowing them to be less dependent on guys like Jordan Bell and Damian Jones. Luckily for the Raptors, Marc Gasol has been a menace guarding guys in the post, with opponents having a measly 24 percent effective field goal percentage when Gasol is posted up on them. The Raptors have also been really good at boxing out the opposing team during the playoffs, which will be beneficial when Cousins is out there trying to get rebounds. Ultimately, Cousins adds another dimension to the Warriors attack and will help them, but that does not mean the Raptors' defense is not prepared.
What is most conspicuous is the drop in defense that the Warriors have experienced, a trend that has largely gone unnoticed to the public due to the fact the Warriors still manage to win in spite of it. The Warriors are giving up about 2 points more per 100 possessions in the postseason than they did in the regular season.
Losing Durant hurts more than just their offense; his length and range allows the Warriors more defensive versatility, as well as providing a surprisingly adept weakside shot blocker at the rim. It also makes the 35-year old Iguodala expend more energy than he should have to at this stage in his career. While the Raptors have struggled to put up points, the Warriors still need to be more engaged in this part of game, and not allow the likes of Green, Ibaka, and Gasol to heat up.
An interesting matchup that the Warriors are more than likely going to explore is having Curry going up against the Gasol and Ibaka. Curry is already going to be a handful for the Raptors to guard (Lowry and VanVleet are good point guard defenders, but neither have the quickness and strength to fight through the number of off-ball screens to chase Curry on the perimeter), and while Gasol and Ibaka are capable post defenders, they would get eaten up if switched on Curry. Also look for the Warriors to keep using the Curry-Draymond pick-and-roll, which teams still haven’t found an answer for after all these years.
The Warriors have had a stranglehold on the league for pretty much the past 4 years, and despite how satisfying a Toronto victory would be for all of Canada, I still can’t imagine the Warriors losing here. A three-peat is in their fortune, solidifying what we already knew about this iteration of the Warriors: they are one of the best teams in the history of the league. Toronto -- or rather, Kawhi -- will keep things interesting and make this a series tough. Either way, both teams should cherish this series, as both might be superstar-less (or in the Warriors case, with one less superstar) on their teams next season.
Prediction: Warriors in 6