SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX)- The Golden State Warriors are back in the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year, staring down a Toronto Raptors team that is making the franchise’s first-ever Finals appearance. The series begins Thursday night at 5 p.m. Pacific time in Toronto. There isn’t much to be gleaned from the regular-season meetings, as Golden State was missing Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry for one matchup, while Toronto was missing Kawhi Leonard in the other.
With four more wins, Steve Kerr’s group would become just the sixth team in NBA history to complete the three-peat, joining the 1952-54 Minneapolis Lakers, 1959-66 Boston Celtics, 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, 1996-98 Bulls and 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers. They have reached this point despite star forward Kevin Durant missing the last five games (Game 6 in Houston and all of the Portland series) due to a strained calf muscle. In Durant’s absence, the Warriors have returned to the 2014-16 approach that gave opposing defenses and coaches nightmares.
Guard Stephen Curry is averaging 35.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists and six made threes per game, serving once more as the fulcrum around which the offense functions. More than just Curry’s individual numbers, the difference can be seen in the way that the Warriors are running their offense as detailed in depth by Zach Lowe of ESPN last week. The team’s off-ball movement is just a bit crisper and the offense more varied with Durant off the floor. The Curry, Thomspon, Iguodala, Green, Looney lineup has posted the seventh-best net rating among five-man groups in the postseason (+5.7). That isn’t to say that the team won’t welcome KD back with open arms when he is ready to return, but they certainly present a different type of challenge.
On the other side, Kawhi Leonard is closing in on the type of postseason — a Finals run averaging over 30 points per game with a true shooting percentage better than 60% — only LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have accomplished. Leonard has put up those prolific offensive numbers while spending stretches of every game guarding the other team’s best player. Against the Sixers, he shut down Ben Simmons then switched onto Jimmy Butler when Butler began taking over the series. Against the Bucks, he took Khris Middleton out of rhythm before switching onto Giannis Antetokounmpo and slowing his rampages to the rim.
The most interesting question lies in Leonard’s supporting cast. When they play the way that they did over the final four games of the Eastern Conference Finals, this Raptors team looks good enough to compete with Golden State. The Raptors starting five of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol have the third-best net rating of the playoffs at +12.1, while logging the most minutes (314) of any five-man group in the postseason. Swap out Gasol for Serge Ibaka, and that number has been even higher (+36.1) in 36 minutes of action.
With Durant likely out for at least Game 1, Raptors coach Nick Nurse has an opportunity to tinker with where Kawhi plays on defense. Placing him on Curry would be a tough ask, as Steph is basically the Energizer bunny come to life on offense, in constant motion. But, Nurse could set Kawhi loose on Klay Thompson to try and slow/shut down the secondary option like he did with Middleton. Or, he could have Kawhi on Draymond, allowing him the opportunity to sag off on the perimeter and clog passing lanes. Either way, it will be fascinating to see how a guy who has played the role of both elite defensive stopper and primary offensive engine holds up over the course of the series.
As for defending Kawhi, the Warriors have multiple options. Thompson and Green were both Second Team All-NBA defense selections and could spend time trying to frustrate Kawhi. Andre Iguodala off the bench has looked like his usual annoying self on the defensive end in this postseason. In addition, Kerr likely watched what the Bucks did against Kawhi in Games 1 and 2 and will send some hard traps after him on the pick and roll to force the ball out of his hands. The chess match of defensive assignments and counter-adjustments by each coach will be key.
Golden State, when healthy, has the talent advantage in the starting lineup without question. The foursome of Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green is hard to beat. But, the concern comes with the bench, where outside of Iguodala (assuming Durant gets healthy) there are some question marks. DeMarcus Cousins is a question mark returning from a torn quadriceps muscle. Shaun Livingston hasn’t been the same steadying presence this postseason when he’s been on the floor, as the team is -1.8 with him on the floor and +9.8 with him off. Jonas Jerebko, Alfonso McKinnie and Jordan Bell have all at least put up positive on-court numbers, but it’s been by small margins.
On the other side, Ibaka has been massive off the bench for the Raptors, posting a +6.5 on/off split. Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell have also made positive on-court contributions, but their net on/off splits both sit in the negatives overall.
In the end, the edge still goes to the Warriors, with Vegas favoring them at 1/3 odds to win the title. But, for Game 1, The Raptors are listed as slight favorites (-1). The CBSSports.com crew all picked the Warriors to win, but every single one of them had the Raptors taking at least one game, with four of the experts believing the series will go six or seven games.