TORONTO — We’re finally reaching the end of what’s been a long, somewhat bizarre, landscape-shifting NBA season. And somehow, it feels as if we’re still not fully realizing just how crazy these finals could potentially be.
The Warriors, in most people’s eyes, will enter as favorites — something that’s understandable given their talent, their history and the ease with which they reached this stage. The challengers, meanwhile, are the Raptors, who have home-court advantage and likely the most lethal two-way talent in the league. The Raptors also figure to benefit from the absence of reigning back-to-back finals MVP Kevin Durant — whom we still don’t know when to expect back, if he returns at all.
While TV executives may be less than thrilled about Toronto replacing a LeBron James-led club in the title round, there’s plenty to analyze that could swing the series in one direction or the other. Here are the three biggest things we’ll be watching as the NBA Finals kick off here Thursday night.
Who’s guarding Kawhi? And how will Toronto deal with Steph?
We saw in the Eastern Conference finals how big a game-changer it can be when one superstar begins defending another. Kawhi Leonard began taking defensive responsibility of likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 3 of the series against Milwaukee, limiting him in half-court scenarios while getting support from teammates, who helped wall off the paint.
But who’s going to answer that call against Leonard for the Warriors, particularly without Durant? Our guess would be versatile wing Andre Iguodala, who generally took the role of guarding James in previous installments of the finals.
The regular-season matchups between these two teams took place in November and December; lineup weirdness and roster changes since then make it hard to extrapolate those games to this series: Kawhi missed one of the games, while Stephen Curry missed the other, and Toronto made a trade-deadline deal for Marc Gasol. Golden State primarily used Durant to defend Leonard in the lone matchup the Toronto star suited up for, and Durant is of course out for at least Game 1. For what it’s worth, Kawhi dominated offensively that game, much like he always does in matchups against the Warriors, scoring 37 points on 14-of-24 shooting from the field.
Draymond Green, a former defensive player of the year, could end up being the best bet to stop Leonard. The numbers certainly suggest that: In his three head-to-head matchups with Leonard since the start of the 2016-17 season, Green has rendered Leonard inefficient, holding him to just 28 points per 100 possessions, on a whopping 39 shot attempts per 100 possessions, according to data from Second Spectrum. By contrast, Kawhi has scored about 35 points per 100 possessions against Iguodala and Klay Thompson and nearly 49 points per 100 possessions against Durant.
But Warriors coach Steve Kerr may treat that move as a “break in case of emergency” option. If Draymond takes that assignment for long stretches, it could leave the Warriors vulnerable at the rim, where Green does much of his best defensive work during the playoffs.
On the flip side, it’s also fair to wonder who will handle defending Curry for Toronto. While it wouldn’t be shocking to see Leonard end up defending him here and there because of an occasional switch, expect the Raptors to show plenty of faith in backup guard Fred VanVleet, who has fared very well against Curry in the past.
It’s almost certain that more attention will be given to VanVleet’s offense in this series. After all, he’s coming off arguably the greatest three-game perimeter-shooting stretch in postseason history — and all in the wake of the birth of his son. But his determination to stay glued to Curry while on defense — something the Cavaliers simply couldn’t do in last year’s finals — stands out on film. On several occasions, that resulted in the ball swinging to the other side of the floor:
The numbers tell the story even more clearly: VanVleet limited the two-time MVP to a measly 10 points per 100 possessions during their matchup this season, per Second Spectrum.
No, it wouldn’t be wise to assume that he can keep Curry under wraps to that extent in the finals. But even when you increase the sample size and start with the 2016-17 season, VanVleet has still surrendered just 21 points per 100 plays to Curry. So there are indications that he may be able to slow Steph down. And that’s big. The less Toronto has to run a second defender at Curry, the better the Raptors can protect the rim against Green’s short rolls, which annihilated the Blazers because of how decisive the fiery forward was in that series.
Can Toronto limit the Warriors in transition?
So many clubs have been overtaken by the Warriors’ debilitating runs over the years, and nothing fuels those infernos like a parade of missed shots and live-ball turnovers. But the Raptors are incredibly cautious about both, which figures to give them a decent chance in this series.
During the regular season, Toronto was the most efficient defense in the NBA after missing a shot on the offensive end, allowing just 105 points per 100 possessions after a misfire, according to the data site Inpredictable. The Raptors excelled in this regard during the conference finals: They abandoned efforts to crash the offensive glass at times, realizing the greater importance of thwarting Antetokounmpo’s transition opportunities.
Toronto also doesn’t turn the ball over much. The team’s 12.2 percent turnover rate this postseason would have ranked as the NBA’s best during the regular season. This is one area in which Kawhi’s elite one-on-one skills become even more useful: He can do so much on his own, without having to pass the ball, and those sorts of plays limit the likelihood of a turnover while also slowing the game down.
Playing at a controlled tempo can help a great deal against the Warriors, particularly in these first two games before Golden State returns to Oracle Arena, where they often play considerably faster.
How will the series change if and when Durant returns?
Depending on the state of the series at the time, Durant’s return has the potential to be a sports talk radio host’s dream. If the Raptors play solidly at home, it wouldn’t be shocking for them to jump out to an early series lead. Should that happen, and then Durant comes back and helps the Warriors tie the series in Oakland, it would point to the obvious: that for however talented the Dubs are, they still need Durant — at least in certain spots, as a cushion — to get by certain opponents in tough situations.
There’s an alternate universe in which the Warriors could jump out to a 2-0 lead of their own in Toronto before heading home to Oakland. Perhaps the most fascinating development possible would be if Durant is then cleared, and Golden State struggles to reincorporate him on offense. (The first two games could also result in a split, in which case maybe more nuanced takes would emerge upon Durant’s return and offer less breathless hyperbole about his value to the team.)
In any case, there’s no doubt about what the Warriors’ preference is in all this. They view Durant as both a defensive option on Kawhi and as someone on whom Leonard would have to expend energy himself. (Durant had a season-high 51 points against Toronto earlier this year, and Leonard was his primary defender that night.) Not having someone in your lineup who can do both those things — especially given that Leonard is far and away the best player the Raptors have — could be incredibly costly in a series like this one.
Kerr has had to dig deep into his bench — using Alfonzo McKinnie and Jonas Jerebko for longer stretches — to fill in as the team coped with Durant’s absence (and an injury to Iguodala). That worked well enough against Portland. But the Blazers weren’t as stingy or as adaptable as the Raptors, who have posted the league’s most efficient defense following a switch this postseason.
It may all end up being academic. Perhaps the Warriors’ original core is talented enough to make it where none of this — including Durant’s return — ultimately matters. But more likely than not, Toronto will at least hold its own by playing the sort of hard-nosed, challenging defense that the Warriors haven’t seen in a while. And if that happens, we may finally get an answer to how badly Golden State did, or didn’t, need Durant in order to win an NBA championship.
From ABC News:
Check out our latest NBA predictions.