May 14, 2017. Seven minutes and 55 seconds remaining in the third quarter of game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals. The Spurs have dominated the heavily favored Warriors to a tune of 76-55, lead by third place MVP finisher Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, having already missed game six of the previous series due to an ankle injury and already tweaked the same ankle stepping on a teammate’s foot earlier in this game, goes up for a stepback jumper from the corner. The shot bounces off the rim, a foul is called, and the series is effectively over. That was the play where Warriors center Zaza Pachulia infamously injured Leonard by stepping into his landing space, causing Kawhi to badly twist his ankle after he descended onto Zaza’s ominous, large foot.
And so the Kawhi saga began. What ensued was an emphatic combatic in game one and a subsequent sweep of the Spurs by the Warriors, an enigmatic injury holdout and conspiracy between Kawhi in the Spurs which headlined as the weirdest story of 2018 that did not include Markelle Fultz, and a trade that summer that sent Kawhi and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Demar DeRozan–the most beloved figure in all of Raptors fandom.
Now, with the Raptors on their way to meet the same Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals, this saga comes to a close. Kawhi has waited now more than two years for this moment, quietly toiling and striving to get to the best possible version of himself, and now has his opportunity for revenge. Many, including yours truly, thought that with this likely being the last version of the Durant-Warriors (and perhaps the final year of the Warriors’ dynasty) that they would have to defeat a young and possible future dynasty from the East before ceding the reins. But those teams (the Celtics, Sixers, and Bucks) failed, and could all look drastically following this summer’s free agency. Some might see it as boring and anti-climatic that the Raptors are the Warriors’ final challenge to conclude this five year run, but I’ve come to see it as poetic in a way. The Warriors have effectively destroyed all of the top players around the league who have stood in their way. They ended up winning the struggle for control of the league against LeBron and Kyrie. Despite being pushed, they outlasted the Rockets in the battle of basketball efficiency. Years earlier, they broke the spirit of Westbrook and Durant’s Thunder, which as we all know led to the Warriors team we have now. However, there is still one dominant player from this era they have yet to prove themselves against. They have beaten the Spurs, but they have never beaten Kawhi Leonard. Ever since that game one in 2017 and even the opening night of the 16-17 season, Kawhi has always given the Dubs problems. And now, they meet face to face on basketball’s biggest stage. Here’s everything you need to know about this series before the ball is tipped off on Thursday night.
For all we make about depth and the value of being able to reliably play 12 different guys during the regular season, the playoffs always remind us that you really only need 8 guys, and even then you can still probably win if you have at least 6. But here’s where that chasm between the regular season in the playoffs comes in. A “guy” in the regular season is skilled and has a good attitude, and can always be thrown out on the court for a couple minutes to make something happen. A “guy” in the playoffs means that if you put a gun to that coach’s head and ask him who he really trusts, he has to be one of the names. My Sixers lost a series they should have won because the only real guy they had after their starting five was James Ennis, and the Blazers probably went a round too far because Evan Turner (Buckeye Alert!) proved that despite his deficiencies, he’s never afraid, and that matters with your season on the line.
The Raptors’ eight guys, in order of importance, are as follows: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, and Norman Powell. I hope that anyone who is at least a moderate NBA fan sees the glaring problems with this order. Let’s start with Danny Green. He’s a starter, yet I have him ranked seventh here. I’ve never had complete faith in him due to his inconsistency, as he went from being one of the league’s best marksmen from 2013 through 2015, to finishing below league average for three consecutive years, before returning to elite percentage in 2019. Against Milwaukee, he reverted back to 2016-2018 Danny, and Nick Nurse promptly benched him for the entire second half of game six. If the Raps want any chance at the upset, they need Danny shooting at least 50% from the three for the next two weeks. The other alarming incongruity is that the Raptors will most likely never be able to play their five best players at the same time. Maybe against a normal team you could live with Siakam at the 3, Ibaka at the 4, and Gasol at the 5, given Siakam’s cat-like quickness and Ibaka’s prior history as a power forward. But against the Warriors, a dynasty built on destroying slow bigs with modern small ball, playing three bigs feels like a sin.
So already we’re dealing with the fact that the Raptors do not start their five best players and cannot play their five best players at the same time. Oof. It doesn’t stop there. When I say Toronto has these eight guys, I really mean only these eight guys. Their bench after Noman Powell … Jodie Meeks, Pat McCaw, Jeremy Lin, Malcolm Miller, Eric Moreland, and Chris Boucher. The Raptors might be better off trotting out their fat, inflatable mascot rather than one of those stiffs. However, there is one option: the return of OG Anunoby. OG had an emergency appendectomy surgery less than a week before the Finals and people speculated that he could not return till at the least third round, but perhaps not even that. There’s a reason this wasn’t huge news at the time. After a stellar rookie campaign, OG’s shooting percentages dipped while his usage and playing time remained unchanged. He was the lone disappointment in the best year of Raptors’ history. But even if he’s a minus on offense, he’s still a 6’8”, 232 pound body that can switch on defense and beat up opposing players. The teams that have actually challenged the Warriors over the last five years (the 2015 Grizzlies, 2015 Cavs, 2016 Thunder, 2016 Cavs, and 2018 Rockets) have all done so by slowing the pace and playing terrific, stifling defense. The Raptors’ best defensive lineup might be Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam, and Anunoby, as the latter four of those guys can switch every single match-up without worry.
On the Warriors’ side of things, it’s hard to predict their rotation and its effect considering that we don’t know when Durant will return and the rotation with Durant is a lot different than the rotation without Durant. I’ll go ahead and predict that the game one starters for the Warriors will be Steph, Klay, Draymond, Iguodala, and Andrew Bogut. Look, I know that Bogut has looked borderline unplayable these last two rounds, lumbering up and down the court even worse than 37 year-old Arvydas Sabonis. But for some reason, Steve Kerr refuses to start Kevon Looney, a breakout star of the playoffs, and even brought him off the bench against the Blazers in favor of starting Damon Jones. Kerr will see the enormous Gasol lining up and decide that he needs his own big white, blubbering behemoth as a counter. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, I’m just telling you what’s going to happen. Looney deserves a lot of playing time: he had already shown flashes of his quickness and athleticism, and he finally developed the awareness and soft hands he needed to put it all together. Alfonzo McKinnie and Shaun Livingston are sure to see the court as long athletic wings, but I do worry that the Raptors could expose Livingston in what has definitely been the drop off season of his glorious late career run. Not that I really trust either of them, but Jonas Jerebko and Quinn Cook are both capable subs, Jerebko being able to defend, rebound, and hit at least one jumper, and Cook being able to initiate pick and roll action. Again, I would not expect either of them to play more than eight minutes or to play any minutes in close fourth quarters, but the one shot they can each hit in the second quarters is sometimes the one shot that makes a difference.
But of course, this is entirely different as soon as KD comes back. With Durant, the Warriors are relying on less ball movement, which means a shorter rotation and more basic actions that give Durant isolation opportunities. There’s no definitive answer for which one is better. Having arguably the league’s best player in Durant get the ball most of the time seems like it should be the obvious answer, but it’s also undeniable that without him, the rest of the Dubs screen faster, cut harder, and play a 2014 Spurs-like brand of basketball.
Off the Court Impacts
Of course, I have to talk about the ominous free agent storylines hanging over this Finals. It could honestly be the most awkward moment in NBA history if Durant comes back to the Warriors in game three with the Dubs up 2-0 and they lose, sparking a whole “Durant makes the Warriors worse” narrative, concluding with Golden State fans slamming KD in the head with the door on his way out. There’s also speculation that Durant might not play at all in this series, and that this calf strain is a lot worse than we were told. But somehow, KD’s impending future seems insignificant compared to that of Kawhi. KD could literally win Finals MVP by averaging 60 points per game and be named the Mayor of Oakland and I still don’t think he would stay. It’s been a done deal all year that he wants to go play for the Knicks, and if not them, he won’t stay in Steph’s shadow, and he’ll bolt for another enticing option like the Clippers or the Nets. Kawhi on the other hand is a complete enigma. At the moment, I would actually bet on him staying in Toronto. They went farther than anyone predicted and proved if he stays around, they’ll run the East for at least the next three years. As LeBron has shown us, nothing enhances your legacy more than being in the Finals every single year. I just don’t know how you walk away from a team that has set you up perfectly for what your (supposed) goal is, and from a fan base that worships Kawhi like a Greek god. If the Raptors win the Finals, then it should pretty much be a done deal, as Kawhi would literally have to be the biggest egotistical maniac on the planet to walk away from a future dynasty just so he can live in the warm weather. However, if the Raps lose, it’s basically 50-50, Clippers or Raptors. Before the playoffs started, I would’ve guaranteed that Kawhi would be a Clipper in 2020, but back then I didn’t know that Kawhi and the Raptors would go on a historic run to the Finals. I’m positive that Raptors’ fans will appreciate this season no matter what, win or lose, Kawhi staying or leaving. But they also know that the next two weeks could be the difference between rebuilding to this level for all of the 2020s or owning the league for the 2020s.
I’ve been thinking a lot about who will guard who in this series. Gasol and Bogut will guard each other, and same goes for Looney. I bet that Draymond and Siakam match up, both sagging off the other and acting as free safeties disrupting the offense’s main action, and daring the other to hoist inefficient threes. Now here’s where the cross matching begins. Danny Green will guard Klay as he did when he was with the Spurs and with the Raptors’ two games against the Warriors this season. However, Steph Curry will most likely defend Danny on the other end, as the Warriors have always hidden him from beefy, quick point guards by hiding him on guys who lack off the dribble skills, such as Danny Green. If Toronto wants to post up Green against the smaller Curry or have him try to drive and create, the Warriors would send them gift baskets expressing their thanks. I hope you know what this all means. Without KD, I think the Raptors will put Kawhi on Steph, hoping that Kawhi’s terrifying strength and athleticism bullies Curry into mistakes and misses. The only con to this is that Kawhi is already hampered with a calf injury, and having to track the greatest off ball mover in basketball history will not give him any time to rest. I could see Lowry guarding a lot of people, but with my projected starting lineups, I think the Raptors would be content with him on Iggy, as Iggy’s already a shaky shooter and the Toronto coaching staff has great faith in the overwhelming strength of Lowry’s stout, cinder block body.
I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure whether Klay or Iggy should be on Kawhi duty. I have a feeling will see Iggy on Kawhi to start, leaving Lowry for Klay Thompson. The added bonus of this plan is that the Warriors can freely switch any Lowry-Leonard screens and not worry about mismatches at all. I just feel like Klay can swallow up Lowry with his size, while Iggy has that wiry core that allows him to stay up close and bother Kawhi, but not get blown by off the dribble.
And all of this is without Durant. That’s what we have to remember. As soon as Durant comes back, these alignments go out the window, as either Siakam or Leonard has to guard the Slim Reaper at all times. And with that you suddenly free up the others like Steph, Klay, and Draymond. It’s the problem that every team faces when challenging the Warriors.
(Notice how I haven’t mentioned Demarcus Cousins until this sentence. I find it more unlikely that he returns than Durant. Boogie was awful for the majority of this season and would not be able to start against a Toronto team that would be foaming at the mouth to put him in pick and roll defense. The only role Boogie could possibly have is some off the bench scoring during those four minutes to start the second quarter when Kerr rolls out a lineup of Klay and four subs)
The consensus pick for this series has been Warriors in six–a comfortable prediction that allows people to get away with saying, “I think Toronto can give them a challenge, but the champs are still the champs.” Heck, as soon as the Eastern Conference Finals ended, my first thought was Warriors in six. But I kept looking at the tape, and kept seeing such positive signs for the Raptors. Even if the games happened in the last calendar year and both rosters look very different now, it still matters that the Raptors won both regular season game sin the is series.
I think that this will be a lot like the 2018 Western Conference Finals. Golden State is going to come out looking awesome and go up 2-1, with every talking head coronating them as champs. Only then will the Raptors respond by pulling out a close game four in Oracle, followed by another nail-biting win in game five. The world at large will just about lose its mind with the prospect of the Warriors being dethroned being a mere game away from fruition. But reality is not often what people want. I think the Warriors will come back to win the last two games, cementing their legacy not only as a great team, but as an all time clutch team, being able to pull out a game seven on the road to cement their legacy, something that only Russell’s ‘ 69 Celtics were able to do.
My Pick: Warriors 4, Raptors 3