The NBA Finals start tomorrow. Let’s dig in on the major questions that will define the series and decide which of the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors will be crowned champions.
Will Kevin Durant return during this series? If so, when? And in what condition will his game and body be?
In some ways, this is the question that will define the entire series. Whether or not Durant is on the floor — and if he is, whether or not he is at full strength — has a cascading effect on everything else that matters.
At this point, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether either of those things will actually happen. We know Durant is out for Game 1, but beyond that, it’s difficult to gauge what the plan is. He’s traveling to Toronto, which seems like a good sign after he did not travel to either Houston or Portland, but he has still yet to progress to doing on-court work.
Would he really suit up for Game 2 four days from now if he still hasn’t gotten on the court yet? Is one practice enough time to ramp up to game speed? And will the Warriors even have a real practice instead of a mere light shootaround between games? Game 3 isn’t until next Wednesday. That gives Durant nearly another week to recover. But does his timeline change depending on what happens during the two-game set in Toronto?
There’s also the question of what kind of shape Durant is in right now. He hasn’t played since May 8, which is now three weeks ago. He’s not been doing on-court work, and there has to be some concern about stamina in his first game or two back. He doesn’t seem like the type to be overly affected by that given how much of his game is based on size and length and the fact that he can simply shoot over anyone, from anywhere, but it’s still another factor in this whole thing.
Who starts at center until Durant comes back? And what happens with DeMarcus Cousins?
Andrew Bogut started Game 6 against the Rockets, and Games 1 and 2 against the Blazers. Damian Jones started Game 3 of the Portland series, and Jordan Bell started Game 4. None of those guys is Kevon Looney, who has been the Warriors’ best center during the playoffs and seems like the obvious fit as the starter.
With the Raptors starting Marc Gasol at center, there will be a temptation for Kerr to start Bogut. You can almost feel him wanting to do it. It’s comfortable. But 2019 Bogut is not 2015 or 2016 Bogut, and the Warriors benefit more from the things some of their other centers bring to the table.
Bell only occasionally seems to have Kerr’s trust. Jones has played six total minutes during the playoffs, including the game that he started. Looney averaged only 18.5 minutes per game during the regular season and is just over 20 during the playoffs, but that number spiked to 27.6 per game during the Portland series, where he acquitted himself quite nicely. He figures to get the bulk of the minutes at that spot, but Kerr might decide to keep bringing him off the bench.
Assuming Andre Iguodala is over the issue that kept him out of Game 4 of the Conference Finals, he is presumably going to resume his place in the starting lineup, and that raises the question of what will happen with Cousins if he and Durant both return to the floor. Coming off his injury, he is unlikely to be moving any better laterally than he did during the regular season, and he was often a defensive liability during his time on the floor this year. His best role will almost surely be as a second-unit fulcrum alongside Klay Thompson, but he might balk at coming off the bench. Will the Warriors elect to start him and give him big minutes, or will they lean on the lineups that have been the foundation of their previous title runs?
Who does Kawhi Leonard defend while Durant is out?
If Durant’s playing, Leonard is almost surely going to guard him. If he’s not, though, there are a bunch of different ways the Raptors could choose to deploy him.
- Kawhi on Stephen Curry: While this would be tremendously fascinating, it also seems wildly unlikely. Leonard has spent a grand total of 76 possessions guarding Curry in the past five seasons, according to Second Spectrum, and did not guard him for a single possession when the teams played this year. (Those possessions worked out fantastically for the Spurs: Curry’s usage rate was just 21.4 percent and the Warriors had an offensive rating of just 102.6 on those possessions.) Given the offensive burden Leonard is likely to shoulder during this series, it doesn’t make much sense to ask him to also defend Curry — especially when the Raptors have other capable options.
- Kawhi on Klay Thompson: For similar reasons, it’s also unlikely that Leonard guards Thompson. Having to chase him through the wave of screens the Warriors set for him is too taxing for a player who will already have to do so much.
- Kawhi on Andre Iguodala: While it may seem counterintuitive for the Raptors to use a defender of Leonard’s caliber on Golden State’s least-threatening perimeter player, there is more merit to the idea than it would appear on the surface. The Raptors have other high-level defensive options they can use on Golden State’s three other stars, and if Leonard isn’t tasked with handling any of them one-on-one, it would allow him to roam off Iguodala and put out other fires elsewhere. If there is anyone Toronto can count on to know just how much he can help off his man and still recover in time to snuff out any threat he may pose, it’s Kawhi.
- Kawhi on Draymond Green: This is perhaps the most intriguing option. Having Leonard on Green would allow for him to either easily switch onto Curry when the Warriors use their best and most common pick-and-roll pairing, or force the Warriors to use a non-Green screener as the primary guy to create space for Curry if they don’t want him to have to deal with Kawhi on switches. Leonard can’t help off Green as liberally as Iguodala because the Warriors have so much experience countering that strategy with long-distance hand-offs and the like, but again, he can be trusted to figure out the right distance and the right timing.
Can Danny Green bounce back?
After seeing his shoot drop off for much of the past three seasons in San Antonio (he shot only 35.7 percent from 3 from 2016 through 2018 after shooting 42.3 percent from deep across the prior four seasons), Green bounced back in a big way during his first year in Toronto, knocking down 45.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. He fit in just about as seamlessly as possible.
He was still quite good during the early part of Toronto’s playoff run, but he’s been an outright disaster offensively since Game 6 of the Philly series, shooting 21 percent from the floor and 19 percent from 3. It didn’t affect his playing time at first, but over the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, he saw his playing time cut dramatically. After averaging 31 minutes a night through Game 4, he played 30 total in Games 5 and 6.
Green has kept working defensively even while in his shooting slump, and the Raptors will need him on that end during this series. But their offense can’t hum at peak efficiency unless he’s providing the weak side shooting threat he provided throughout the entire season. (Fred VanVleet can’t continue shooting 80-plus percent forever.)
Will the Warriors cross-match Klay Thompson onto Kyle Lowry from the jump?
In much the same way as Leonard, Curry is going to bear a whole lot of the creative burden for Golden State’s offense. The Warriors have a bit of a burden-sharing style with Green and even Iguodala handling the ball a decent amount, but without Durant, Steph is the Warriors’ primary on-the-ball creator and almost always the only off-the-dribble threat on the floor.
All of that makes it unwise to ask Curry to also guard Lowry on the other end. Luckily for Golden State, the Raptors provide an even more convenient hiding spot for Curry than the Blazers did last round when the Warriors used Thompson to guard Damian Lillard. Green is not nearly as challenging to guard as CJ McCollum, though he did break out a few post moves on Curry when these teams played during the regular season.
Klay’s size could also serve the purpose of disrupting Lowry’s dribble, and allow for the Warriors to more easily switch any Lowry-Leonard or Leonard-Lowry pick-and-rolls, while at the same time forcing the Raptors to use Green as the screener if they want to orchestrate a switch so that Curry is the one who has to guard Leonard or Lowry. That means Green’s not spacing the floor and also that their usual screeners are occupying similarly unfamiliar roles.
Will either Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka be able to stay on the floor if the Warriors go small? And what do the Raptors do if they can’t?
It’s more difficult for Golden State to roll out a Death Lineup-like unit without Durant, so that works in the Raptors’ favor. It’s highly likely that one of Looney, Bogut, Bell, or Jones will be on the floor at all times. If none of them are out there, then it’s almost assured that Shaun Livingston will be. That means there will always be a convenient place to stash Gasol or Ibaka on defense without having to ask them to do too much work in space.
Both players are high-level defenders, but playing against the Warriors when they go small calls for an entirely different skill set than what is typical of a center. Ibaka has shown an ability to hang against those lineups in the past (the 2016 Western Conference Finals with the Thunder) but A. he’s three years older, and B. the ideal version of the Warriors’ Death Lineup now includes Durant instead of Harrison Barnes, and Durant was on the Thunder last time around.
Whether he or Gasol can be out there against Durant-inclusive or Durant-less small-ball lineups depends just as much on what they bring to the table offensively as it does whether they will be able to survive defending in space. Posting up smaller guys, not being afraid to let it fly from 3, moving the ball from the elbows … all of this and more is required.
If neither player can stay on the floor, will the Raptors go small with Siakam at center? Can Norman Powell or Fred VanVleet step in alongside Green and Leonard on the perimeter and make those lineups workable? Not having OG Anunoby as another big wing hurts here.
Is there any way to slow down the Steph Curry pick-and-roll?
During the regular season, Curry ran just about 27 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions. That number shot up to 31 per 100 possessions prior to Durant’s injury against the Rockets, and it’s skyrocketed to 40 per 100 since KD went out — and those pick-and-rolls are generating a completely ridiculous 1.31 points per chance. That’s a whole lot better than the best offense you could dream up. Is there any good answer?
The Raptors have a bunch of options, and almost none of them are good. Going under screens is a non-starter. Going over and playing a drop with the big man is as well because Curry will just snake or pull up from 3. Blitzing could work, but doing so just invites Green or Iguodala to make a play in 4-on-3 situations, and those guys almost always make that work. Switching might be the best of bad options, but even then, Curry is likely to fry whichever poor big man ends up guarding him.
Toronto’s best bet might just be to try all of these different looks in every game and hope to trip him up in all the confusion. That probably won’t work, but it’s better than letting him get into a rhythm against one coverage that he can tear up all night.
Can Pascal Siakam survive the likely Draymond Green matchup?
For Toronto to survive — or preferably for the Raptors, thrive — Siakam needs to come close to playing Green to a draw. At the least, he can’t be dramatically outplayed. That’s a tall order against anyone, but as well as Green is rolling right now, it might be impossible for Siakam to live up to that standard.
Still, the Raptors’ do-it-all forward is in many ways a bellwether for the team on both ends of the floor. He creates so much havoc for Toronto’s defense in both the half-court and open floor, and his abilities as a secondary ball-handler unlock a lot of different options for the Raptors offensively. Using him as the ball-handler in screen-and-roll situations puts opponents in challenging positions; his speed dribble hand-off action is incredibly tough to stop; he has a workable post-up game, and he keys the team’s break more often than not.
Green is arguably the best help defender in the NBA, and he will presumably slough liberally off Siakam to gum up the works for everybody else. Siakam will have to make him pay not just with his shooting, but also timely and well-placed cuts. And force Green into doing the same on the other end. It’s an impossible task, but it’s what has to be asked of him in this matchup.
Does home court matter at all?
Nope. The Warriors can win anywhere.
Have the Raptors already convinced Kawhi to stay?
This question won’t hang over the entire series like the question of whether Durant is leaving for greener pastures, but it’s just as consequential to the future of the league.
If Leonard stays in Toronto, the Raptors remain a power and would enter next season among the inner-circle title favorites — especially if Durant is playing elsewhere. If Leonard stays in Toronto, one fewer star is on the market for the max-chasers this summer. That means a team like the Clippers or Knicks or Nets or Lakers or Mavericks is going to strike out in free agency and either has to go after a lower-level free agent or pivot to using their cap space in another way. Which of those teams misses could determine a whole lot else about what happens in free agency.
If Leonard leaves, well, some other team is getting an outright superstar. And if Leonard leaves, the Raptors will suddenly be in a much different place, with players like Lowry and Gasol potentially on the block.
But is the result of this series really going to tip the scales one way or the other? This season to date has been everything Toronto could have asked for when making this deal in the first place. They’ve climbed the mountain and will not play for the right to be called champions. If that’s not enough to convince Leonard that Toronto is the place to be, there’s not anything that was going to do it.