The NBA Finals are almost here. The Golden State Warriors will be playing their first game in nearly ten days when the Finals kick-off on Thursday. Rest or rust, Las Vegas has installed them as the favorites to win their third straight Championship. This is even without a healthy Kevin Durant. While he has accompanied the team to Toronto, he will sit out game one. It’s pretty impressive and a testament to the Warriors talent and program that most people still think they are the favorites in these Finals even without Durant.
It’s not hard to see why the Warriors are favored after their dominant sweep of the Portland Trailblazers in the Western Conference Finals. Raptors are led by Kawhi Leonard, who has been unstoppable in the playoffs. He is playing at an MVP level and his ability to play both ends of the floor makes him a unique challenge.
As the saying goes, defense wins Championships. As exciting as the Warriors and Stephen Curry are on offense, it’s their defense that has won them multiple rings. The Warriors have several able bodies to throw at Kawhi and he will be guarded Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green at various times in this series. Kawhi has been great against the Warriors in the past. What the Warriors hope to do this time around is slow him down enough to put enough pressure on the other Raptors to step up and score.
It would help the Warriors if Draymond is relatively free on the defensive end. This is where he has been at his best in these playoffs. The more the Raptors are able to force him to stick with his man, the more successful they will be.
Kawhi versus Curry
Both Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry have had MVP caliber playoffs so far. We can be certain that both coaching staffs are spending sleepless nights figuring out how to defend these two stars. Raptors Coach Nick Nurse has to make a call on what he wants to do with Leonard on defense. If Durant was playing, Kawhi would be the one tasked with slowing him down. That would make life easier for Curry and others. However, Kawhi could play the same free safety role as Draymond Green. He could clog up the passing lanes and disrupt many of the Warriors’ actions. Or, he could even take turns on Curry, the centerpiece of the Warriors offense.
One of the intriguing questions going into the series is, will Coach Nurse put Kawhi on Curry? As good as Kawhi is and as much experience as he has defending super-stars, Curry is an entirely different player. Curry’s off-ball action and movement will be a big challenge for Kawhi and might tire him out and weaken his sore quad. That’s something the Raptors can’t afford to happen given how critical Kawhi has been to their offense. So, Coach Nurse may selectively deploy Kawhi on Curry in clutch situations, but not as a primary defender.
Size and Matchups
A key strength of this Raptors team is that they have good defenders with size and long wingspans. Between Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Danny Green, there is a lot of length and defensive acumen to go around. This is what makes the Raptors more difficult than the other teams the Warriors beat like the Blazers or Clippers. Even the Rockets, with their roster designed to slow down the Warriors, do not have the size and versatility of the Raptors.
It will be interesting to see how the Raptors defend Curry. This will set the tone for this series for the Raptors against a Durant-less Warriors. The Warriors, on the other hand, will try to isolate Curry on the bigs like Gasol and try to force them out of the game. This is how they dictate matchups and control the pace. The Warriors are at their best when they play small and push the pace. The Raptors should try to slow down and control the boards with their size. If they let the Warriors win this chess match, the series will be over before they realize what hit them. It’s really hard to beat the Warriors four out of seven times in an up-tempo, small-ball series. The Raptors have the size, but they have to figure out a way to keep that size on the court.
The Warriors have defeated LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers three times over the last four years in the Finals. This is one of the reasons why people pick the Warriors to win again. As great as Kawhi is, he is no LeBron James on the offensive end. The Warriors can do to Kawhi what they have done to LeBron James. They can let him get thirty or forty points, but bottle up his teammates. Alternately, they could also double-take Kawhi and force the others to make shots in the clutch. Either way, the supporting cast becomes extremely important.
Can Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet make the Warriors pay? The Raptors could take a similar approach to defend Curry. They could trap him and get the ball out of his hands. While the Warriors bench is not great, their offensive system seems to generate good shots. Plus, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are way more than a supporting cast. They are capable of making big offensive plays, which will be needed, especially without Durant. Draymond nearly controlled the series against Portland in the last round.
Last but not least, the Warriors will not be scared of the moment. Their experience is going to be vital in these games. This is a relatively new setting for most of the Raptors though Kawhi, Green, and Ibaka have previously played in the Finals. The Warriors have been there, done that, and will be ready for whatever the Finals throws at them.
Warriors in Six
In conclusion, my pick is Warriors take it in six. Their experience and offensive versatility should clinch it for them. Let the prognostications end and the actual games begin.