Unlike all those climbers waiting in line on Mt. Everest, at long last we’ve reached the summit of the NBA season. The Toronto Raptors, making their first-ever Finals appearance, will host the Golden State Warriors, playing in the Finals for a historic fifth straight year, in Game 1 on Thursday night (9 PM ET, ABC). The thousand-foot view of this NBA season has been the air of inevitability surrounding another Golden State title run, but now that we’ve reached the final stage and some of the conditions on the ground have changed, does the narrative still hold?
The bad news for contrarians and content producers alike, is the Warriors, with or without Kevin Durant, still look like a dominant force. Golden State is 5-0 since Durant went down with a calf strain of still-unspecified severity (more on that in a bit), in the process re-discovering their joyous, ball movement-heavy style from the ’14-’15 and ’15-’16 seasons. MVP-caliber Steph Curry has also returned, averaging a mind-boggling 35.8/ 7.6/ 6.6 on 49/ 42/ 95 shooting splits in the five contests. Draymond Green has been unleashed in a larger role as well, looking like the all-court menace and triple-double machine he was in the early days of the Warriors’ dynasty. In short, the Dubs come into the Finals happy, well-rested, and seemingly galvanized by the absence of one of history’s greatest players. Whether KD plays or not, is there any reason to think the Raptors have a shot at this thing?
Naturally, the answer rests on the chiseled shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. Since Durant went down, The Klaw has cemented himself as the unquestioned MVP of the playoffs (if such an award existed; wait, why doesn’t it?), churning out iconic stat lines, moments, and bland interviews in equal measure. Earlier in the postseason, I compared him semi-favorably to ’91 MJ, and even after a slew of games against elite competition, the comparison still basically holds:
[Quick side note: there are a few crazy things about that ’91 Bulls team, apex Jordan’s untouchable playoff run obviously being chief among them. They played only 17 total playoff games, going 15-2, whereas the Raptors have already played 18 and haven’t even begun the Finals yet. The ’96 Bulls are held up as the gold standard of those dynastic years because of the 72 wins, but the ’90-’91 team was playing in a much tougher league-wide competitive environment. They won 61 games with a young-ish core — remember, at that time Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were not yet considered guys a team could “count on” — dominated the postseason, and effectively closed the windows of both the Bad Boy Pistons and the Showtime Lakers in the same year. An all-time team which gets taken for granted a bit because of all the additional success which followed it.]
Anyhoo, back to Kawhi. By virtually any measure, he is having one of the most prolific and efficient postseason runs the league has ever seen. Looking for ways to quantify his dominance, I began combing Basketball-Reference for comps. When I searched for players appearing in a minimum of 12 playoff games (so basically, they made it to the Conference Finals or further) who tallied at least 28 ppg, a True Shooting Percentage of 60%, and .250 Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, here is the entire list:
Needless to say, Kawhi finds himself in some pretty lofty company. [Fun things about this table: First, LeBron appears three separate times, and didn’t win the title in any of those three years. After one garbage season in the L.A. cesspool, it’s remarkable how quickly we forget what an unbelievable playoff performer he’s been over such a long period of time. Second, two guys from the ’17 Warriors make the list. The ’16 team obviously captured the zeitgeist (for better and worse), but when we look back on this era in NBA history with some distance and perspective, that ’17 squad is going to be remembered as one of the most untouchable teams in history. The only reason they didn’t sweep the playoffs — non-Zaza division, speaking of Kawhi — was because Cleveland had an out-of-body shooting performance in Game 4 of the Finals. Seriously, go back and watch that game sometime. It was nuts. They couldn’t freaking miss. OK moving on, for real this time. I just love these trips down memory lane.]
Suffice it to say, when a player is performing at MJ/LeBron/Kareem levels of excellence, his team has to be considered a threat, regardless of opponent. [To be clear, I’m not saying Kawhi is the historical equal of those guys; merely that he is performing at a similar level at this moment. Don’t @ me.] Guys who can blow up an opponent’s game plan at both ends of the floor like this just don’t come along. As soon as coach Nick Nurse switched Kawhi onto Giannis full-time, the Conference Finals were basically a wrap. [Had Coach Bud made a few additional adjustments, as I and many others suggested, perhaps things would have gone differently, but alas.] So no, I do not think another Warriors’ championship parade is inevitable, even as it does remain likely. With that established, let’s take a look at the questions which will determine how much of a chance Toronto has of pulling the upset, starting with the seven-foot elephant in the room…
How much, if at all, will Durant play? It makes sense to start here because KD’s presence or absence more or less dictates the lens through which we view all of the other strategic questions in the series. We know Durant is out for Game 1, and likely beyond. The little birds keep whispering his injury is more serious than originally reported and he is probably done for the year, though this remains nothing more than speculation at this point. From a gamesmanship perspective, it makes total sense for the Warriors to prop up the narrative he may return during the series, since if the Raptors in any way suspect they are about to face one of the greatest players in history, it would be malpractice not to game plan for him. If KD is able to play, he immediately becomes the logical matchup for Kawhi at both ends, and all of the assignments become different than they otherwise would have been were Toronto facing the “O.G.” Warriors. His presence would allow Steve Kerr to rely far more heavily on the Death Lineup (Steph/Klay/KD/Draymond/Iguodala) because of the added shooting and defensive versatility Durant brings to the lineup over Shaun Livingston, which in turn would force Toronto to re-jigger its rotation in specific ways (more on that later).
Leading up to the Finals, everyone is pointing to one alarming stat: in the past 32 games Golden State has played with Curry but without KD, the Warriors are 31-1. It lacks the proper context, but even so, the stat shows unequivocally the Warriors can win this series without Durant, and may even be significant favorites to do so. The difference is, if KD is able to play and perform at something resembling his normal level, it becomes tremendously difficult to see a path to victory for Toronto. I tend to think the injury is more serious than we’ve been told, and he probably will not see the floor. If he does, it may only be because things have gone sideways and they need to break the glass. I suspect deep down the “classic” Warriors want to do this without him to prove they are a championship team regardless of his impending free agency decision, and as more than a little bit of a “fuck you” to Durant himself for the way he’s conducted his business this season.
There are two completely different possible series about to unfold: one where Durant plays the bulk of it, and one where he plays very little to none of it. It’s damn near impossible to analyze without choosing one lane or the other, so I’m going to pick the latter, in part because I think he’ll be physically unable to play, and in part because the series is more competitive without him. [Yes, of course it would be thrilling to watch KD and Kawhi go toe-to-toe, so I won’t exactly be crying in my beer if I’m wrong.]
Who guards Kawhi? The regular season matchups are not terribly informative in this regard, as Kawhi sat for one of the games and Durant got the primary assignment in the other. [FWIW, Toronto won both contests during the regular year. As I’ve mentioned in the past, regular season head-to-head records tend not to be predictive of postseason outcomes in a statistically reliable way.] If Durant is out or limited, the obvious candidate is Andre Iguodala, who has enough strength, smarts, and quickness to at least make Leonard work for the points he will inevitably get. Iggy is a more complementary offensive player than the other likely options (Klay or Draymond), so the cost of him draining his tank to hound Kawhi is less. Additionally, the Raptors will probably want to stick Kawhi on a more threatening offensive player — Draymond so he can switch the screens or Curry/Klay so he can shut off their flow of open looks — which could create cross-matches the Warriors can take advantage of in transition.
Golden State will switch up the looks on Leonard, so in addition to Iggy, Klay, Draymond, Livingston, and Alfonso McKinnie will likely all get a crack at slowing him down at various times. Similar to how the champs defended James Harden and Damian Lillard in previous rounds, they will frequently blitz Kawhi in the pick-and-roll in an attempt to get the ball out of his hands and force his teammates to make plays in 4-on-3 situations. Kawhi’s passing is the only part of his game anyone could remotely classify as a “weakness,” but lest we forget, he’s also a freaking basketball robot. Milwaukee tried something similar as the East Finals progressed, but Kawhi apparently downloaded a software update and responded with a combined 16 assists in Games 5 and 6, so the Warriors may have to pick their poison. The Raptors have craftier playmakers in the short roll (Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and even Kyle Lowry if they decide to invert the pick) and more capable shooters on the weak side than what a depleted Portland team was able to muster against Golden State, so forcing the ball out of Kahwi’s hands may be their best option, but it’s far from a death knell for Toronto’s offense. Which leads right into the next important question…
Can Toronto’s role players stay hot? There is virtually no way backup point guard Fred VanVleet is going to continue shooting flames out of his fingertips. He shot 14-of-17 from deep in Games 5 and 6 combined — a small sample size anomaly which effectively tipped the series in the Raptors’ favor — but even with some expected regression, he’ll need to continue to be a reliable release valve to keep pace with the Dubs. Gasol will have to keep hitting threes out of the pick-and-pop at a high enough rate (he’s at an even 40% for the playoffs) to draw Golden State’s bigs out away from the hoop and open up driving and cutting lanes. Serge Ibaka has been up and down throughout the postseason, but he’s saved Toronto’s (Canadian) bacon with big performances a couple times already. When he puts together a plus shooting game to go along with his usual defensive versatility and rugged athleticism on the offensive glass, he raises the team’s ceiling considerably. Danny Green was lousy, full stop, in the Milwaukee series, shooting only 4-of-23 from deep and ceding minutes to the more effective Norman Powell, but it’s hard to imagine such an accomplished postseason shooter won’t snap out of the slump at some point. [The image of Green raining holy hellfire on Miami in the 2014 Finals is forever etched into my brain. If you recall, the Heat’s semi-villainous, carpetbagging super-duperstar, coming in with consecutive Finals MVPs, left in free agency after that humbling defeat, so perhaps history could repeat itself?]
Siakam’s confidence has waxed and waned throughout the playoffs, and the Warriors will likely pull the same trick on him as Philly and Milwaukee did by nominally putting Draymond on him so he can roam the back line as a free safety, a la Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Spicy P will need to show he can knock down open corner threes consistently and attack closeouts with his frenetic athleticism to take Golden State out of that scheme. He’ll be a huge bellwether in this series, along with another one of their big men…
Will Marc Gasol get played off the floor? When Golden State goes small with Draymond at the 5, it’s going to be really tough to keep Gasol in the lineup. For all his defensive acumen, he will have a difficult time corralling the Curry/Green pick-and-roll, and at this point in his career, he doesn’t offer enough as a post-up brute on the other end to make up for the deficit. The Death Lineup (or the bastardized version with another wing in place of KD) has run many a hulking center into extinction, so there’s no shame in it. Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse will need to carefully tie Gasol’s minutes to those of Golden State’s traditional centers: the criminally underrated Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut, and perhaps Boogie Cousins, should he be available. Ibaka will be the big man of choice against the small-ball lineups, and should that prove untenable, Nurse could even run out the 6’9″ Siakam at center for stints. [This lineup was highly effective in limited minutes during the regular season, though it usually featured OG Anunoby and his gargantuan wingspan at the 4. Anunoby is questionable for Game 1 after missing the last six weeks due to an emergency appendectomy, so it remains to be seen if Nurse will be gun-shy about deploying this configuration.]
Gasol’s playmaking and floor spacing have unlocked the best version of Toronto’s offense; they are first in the league in both assists and three-point percentage since his arrival. He has an uncanny pick-and-roll chemistry with Kyle Lowry as a second-side attack opposite Kawhi’s iso-heavy brilliance. If Golden State can run him off the floor with its small unit, the Raps may not have enough firepower to keep up.
Can Toronto’s elite defense keep the score manageable? When Golden State has the ball, we’re in true “unstoppable force/immovable object” territory. Toronto sports the no. 1 rated defense in the playoffs, while Golden State unsurprisingly has the no. 1 offense. [Both teams rank no. 8 on the other side of the ball, an OCD-calming level of symmetry for all the stat nerds out there.] No one can truly stop Golden State’s offensive machine, but the Raptors have all the elements to at least make it a grind: a stratospheric collective basketball IQ; multiple bodies to throw at Steph Curry; rangy, athletic bigs and wings to closeout to the three-point arc; and an All-World, “In Case of Emergency” stopper (Kawhi) to throw on either KD, Steph, or Klay should one of them start to detonate. They are best in the league at limiting transition, which served them tremendously well in the last round. Once Toronto shut down Milwaukee’s vaunted fast break game, the Bucks were completely lost in the half court. This same game plan will be necessary but not sufficient against Golden State, as the Warriors have a whole universe of counters in their set offense if they can’t get out and run.
The Raptors will also need to encourage Golden State’s tendency to be careless with the ball, as Toronto is elite in capitalizing off turnovers as well. They absolutely want to avoid a track meet (RIP, Clippers and Blazers), but they’ll need to run selectively to generate enough easy buckets and stay within arm’s reach of the Dubs late in games. If Toronto can keep the scores in the 90’s and low 100’s, they have a real shot. If Golden State gets up into the 110-115+ range, the Raptors are cooked. Toronto obviously hasn’t faced an offense this explosive, but the inverse is also true, so it will be fascinating to see which side is able to set the tempo for the series.
So who’s it gonna be? Raptors in seven. Chances are I’m going to look foolish for this, but where’s the fun in playing it safe? The Warriors will probably just uncork the ultimate weapon in Durant if things start to go sideways, but I am seeing some shades of the ’04 Finals here: an organizationally fatigued, fraying dynasty struggling against a balanced upstart with a vise-grip defense made whole by a midseason trade for a veteran big man. Golden State has better complementary guys than did those Lakers, but the Pistons also didn’t have a Jordanesque superstar in his prime, so we’ll say those cancel each other out. Pulling out a Game 7 on the road is an exceedingly difficult task, particularly in an environment where the Raptors faithful will be foaming at the mouth and speaking in tongues (politely, of course) by that point. I’m not super excited to watch Drake celebrate and act like he’s part of the team, but in the end, I’d rather be wrong about the predictable outcome than the fun, historic one.
Enjoy the highest level of basketball on Planet Earth, everybody. Let’s do this!