NBA Finals 2019: Warriors' bid for three-peat faces toughest defensive challenge in Kawhi Leonard-led Raptors
If the Raptors are the toughest defensive squad that the Warriors have faced so far, the Warriors are the toughest offensive unit that the Raptors will face.
Will Durant play, and if so, how much? Durant is already ruled out for Game 1, but there’s a chance that his injury might be more serious than expected
If the Raptors are the toughest defensive squad that the Warriors have faced so far, the Warriors are the toughest offensive unit that the Raptors will face
For the Raptors to win this series, they have to hope that the Warriors struggle to score against their defence
The Golden State Warriors were already one of the greatest teams ever assembled in NBA history before they added Kevin Durant in the 2016 summer. Suddenly, a team that was a couple of minutes away from becoming a two-time champion had added one of the greatest scorers the league had ever seen.
It felt unfair. It felt as if Thanos had joined the Avengers. It felt like giving Harry Potter the power of the One Ring to rule them all. It felt like the star-studded ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ dance sequence in Om Shanti Om: just when you thought you had dealt with all these superstars, here come a few more.
The addition of Durant made them almost unassailable on paper. His presence promised many more championships, and three years later, that’s exactly where we are: Golden State has made it to their third consecutive Finals since signing Durant and fifth consecutive overall (most by any team since the 1960s Celtics). Since losing to LeBron and the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals, they have won 11 of their previous 11 playoff series, and are leering close to completing a rare three-peat of NBA titles.
But this potential of a threepeat almost didn’t happen. For one half of the 2017 Conference Finals, before the ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ Warriors reached their first Finals together, one man nearly ambushed their entire narrative.
Yes, the re-loaded Warriors (67 wins) were the best regular season team in the NBA that season. But, led by their unassuming superstar Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs (61 wins) were almost impenetrable, too.
The Warriors entered the highly anticipated 2017 Western Conference Finals with 67 regular season wins and a perfect playoff record. But facing them was the league’s second-best team, San Antonio, led by their own unassuming superstar, Kawhi Leonard. Coming off back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, Leonard had since evolved his game to become an even better offensive threat. He finished third in MVP voting that season, but was the lone star player of a Spurs side that was otherwise in flux.
For a brief glimmer of greatness in Game 1, Leonard outshone all of Golden State’s rings of power: Durant, Curry, Thompson, Green. He had 26 points in less than 24 minutes to start Game 1, and everything clicked for San Antonio, who led by as much as 25 points early in the game.
But then, Zaza happened. After a jump shot from the corner, Leonard landed and rolled his ankle over the outstretched foot of Warriors’ big man Zaza Pachulia. He never really recovered and left the game early in the third quarter. In the absence of the Spurs’ biggest game-changer, the Warriors took control, Curry scored 40 points, and Golden State roared back to a two-point victory.
Leonard didn’t play again in that series, and the Warriors swept the Spurs. A few weeks later, they defeated the Cavaliers 4-1 in the Finals. A year later, the Warriors won their second title, again over LeBron and the Cavs. Leonard, meanwhile, had a disastrous season, playing only nine games in lieu of his mysterious injury status and broken faith with his franchise. The Spurs traded Leonard to Toronto in the offseason.
It seemed as if the injury break that had sparked Golden State’s championship run had derailed Leonard and the Spurs forever.
Which brings us now to the present season. Leonard has eased his way into recovery and the Raptors have excelled, finishing with even a better regular-season record than Golden State. But it was in the playoffs where Leonard showed the world that he was truly back and better than ever. He emerged once again as the best two-way player in the league, carried his team forward while the supporting cast often let him down, hit an iconic series-winning three, and shut down and outplayed this year’s MVP-favourite. Known for his famous poker-face, an unemotional Terminator of basketball, Leonard sent the emotional Raptors fanbase into a frenzy, carrying them to their first NBA Finals in franchise history and becoming a legend for Toronto basketball in only one season.
And now, galloping closer from the horizon, come the Warriors.
Yes, the team that essentially closed the chapter on the first half of Leonard’s career will meet him again as he hopes to start the second chapter with a flourish. And, with rumours of Kevin Durant’s future boiling hotter than a North Indian summer, it seems likely that Leonard will be tied to the Warriors’ future after this series, too.
But before we speak of his future absence, we must address Durant’s present presence. As in, his availability for the Finals themselves. Durant was playing at peak level through the course of the first round and a half of the playoffs, becoming a singular offensive force while the other Warriors took a backseat to his brilliance. But a strained calf in Game 5 of the second round against Houston suddenly shook up the prospects for the championship favourites. Without their best-performing player, would the Warriors be able to survive Houston? Get past the Conference Finals? Win their third-consecutive title?
The answers to all those questions so far have been a thumping ‘yes’. Durant’s absence cleared up space for Golden State to play offense in the preferred style that once made them such a revolutionary force in NBA basketball. Instead of relying on Durant, the Warriors reverted to more ball-movement, more player movement, and a lot more Stephen Curry.
Curry — in the last few weeks — is possibly playing his best stretch of playoff basketball, and the Warriors have been undefeated since Durant’s exit. Green has rounded up to form that makes him a gamechanger on both ends of the floor and Thompson has improved both his shooting and production. The Warriors won Game 5 against the Rockets, won Game 6 on the road to close out the series, and swept the Trail Blazers in the Conference Finals. Before Durant returns, a certain DeMarcus Cousins might be revving up for a comeback to the line-up, too.
So, what happens next?
It’s difficult to predict this series, because there’s been so little of concrete evidence between these two teams to build upon. The Raptors became a new team this season with the addition of Leonard and Danny Green. They met Golden State twice in the regular season and won both games. But Curry and Draymond Green didn’t play in the first game in November (Durant and Leonard had an exciting head-to-head matchup) and Leonard wasn’t in the line-up when the Raptors won on the road a month later. Ever since then, Toronto has also added Marc Gasol to the team.
Both teams have changed their approach from the regular season to the playoffs so drastically that it would hardly be useful to hark back to their season statistics for analysing the road ahead. The Raptors, who relied on Leonard to score 23.2 percent of their points in the regular season, have now seen that number shoot to 29.7, becoming a little more of a one-man team. Leonard, meanwhile, is defending at a higher level than before, too, exemplified with the work he did against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the previous series.
Meanwhile, the Warriors have seen their approach change in multiple iterations already this season. Curry was out early, so they played with Durant taking a bigger role in the offence. Then Curry returned, and DeMarcus Cousins became a small part of the team, too. In the playoffs, Durant took centre-stage, and when he got hurt, it became a Curry-centric team once again.
The biggest question for either team in the Finals is: will Durant play, and if so, how much? Durant is already ruled out for Game 1, but there’s a chance that his injury might be more serious than expected. He might continue to sit until the Warriors are in dire need of his rescue. The Raptors will theoretically prefer to play the Warriors without Durant so that Leonard can be relieved of one lesser major defensive assignment. But the Warriors offence has been markedly better in Durant's absence, and they might continue that trend in the Finals.
However, no matter how good the Warriors looked offensively in the last series, the Raptors stand before them as perhaps the toughest defensive challenge they have faced in years in the playoffs. The Raptors had the fifth-best defensive rating in the league all season, and cranked it up to second in the playoffs. The only team better defensively than them in the playoffs was the Bucks, against whom they just won four consecutive games. Between Leonard, Green, Ibaka, Siakam, Lowry, Gasol and the rest, the Raptors are better equipped to cause the Warriors more discomfort than they have faced so far in the playoffs.
The Warriors, to no one’s surprise, were the league’s best shooting team (in terms of True Shooting Percentage) in the season and have continued to be the best in the postseason too, with and without Durant. But the Raptors aren’t that far behind and have the potential of lighting it up.
Golden State’s biggest advantage with and without Durant has been their passing. They are regularly on top of the NBA’s assist rankings and had the highest assist-percentage in the league in the regular season and the playoffs. This is where they usually run teams off the floor, and where the Raptors will struggle to keep up. Their passing has lent to their offensive rating shooting up considerably after Durant’s injury.
If the Raptors are the toughest defensive squad that the Warriors have faced so far, the Warriors are the toughest offensive unit that the Raptors will face. But they shouldn’t hang their heads too low: Golden State are the toughest offence for anyone in the league to stop.
With Durant out, the Raptors will have to focus on slowing down Curry’s influence to halt the Warriors. But, as the Rockets in the later stages of the series and the Trail Blazers learned, that is easier said than done. Curry couldn’t be stopped by defensive traps and couldn’t be stopped in the pick-and-roll. It has been tough to stop him from getting wide open when he’s running off screens without the ball, and he’s tough to stop when he decides to create for himself off the dribble, either in the perimeter or by attacking the paint.
Beyond Curry creating havoc, there’s Klay Thompson, one of the greatest shooters in history to worry about. Beyond him, it’s the disruptive force of Draymond Green, who can be the team’s best defender, or its best creator, or its best on the open floors, or the best of all of those. Sometimes shots by Iguodala and Livingston start going on, and Iguodala amps it up defensively, and Looney begins to find easy baskets in the paint, and McKinnie and Cook begins to hit their shots, and so on and so on. And the Warriors become a nightmare, recurring in the Finals, year after year.
The Raptors have home-court advantage and perhaps the most in-form player in the NBA. Without Durant, I believe that the Warriors might stumble early in the series. For the Raptors to win this series, they have to hope that the Warriors struggle to score against their defence, and that Durant remains benched for the length of the series. It will still take continuing super-heroics from Leonard on both ends of the floor. It will take Lowry to show consistency for the full series, Siakam to blunt Green’s effect on the floor, Gasol and Ibaka to overwhelm Golden State with size, and the open Raptors shooters to make their shots.
If they’re able to win the Finals, it would complete Leonard’s redemption, not just against Golden State but against the entire league that forgot him in his absence last season. It would be his second championship, and likely his second Finals MVP, vaulting him higher in the conversation of the best players in the game.
But the Warriors are still the favourite, and even without Durant, their talent and chemistry are at its zenith right now. Curry and Co will likely do enough to make this an extremely difficult task for Toronto. And a returning Durant, who can score buckets in his sleep, could make this difficult task near-impossible.
Another title would give Golden State their fourth in five years and their third in a row, cementing the most-successful five-year stretch in the expanded NBA. It would be the fourth ring for the core of Curry, Thompson, Green, Iguodala, and Livingston, and the third for Durant. They are already one of the greatest teams in NBA history. We’ll be singing their praises longer than the Om Shanti Om soundtrack is played at Indian weddings. Now that would be true timelessness.
My Finals prediction: Warriors in 6.
Finals MVP: Stephen Curry.
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