2019 NBA Finals Preview

For four weeks this NBA season, I was wrong about Toronto.

That was the first two weeks before the season tipped off and the two weeks after it did.

Boston was my Finals pick out of the East.  It was completely defensible, even though it only took those first two weeks of the season to figure out that probably wasn’t going to happen.

Toronto was the next team in line, prior to the season and as soon as our realization about Boston came to fruition.  They had the talent.  They eventually had the look.  And they had what Milwaukee didn’t: Experience, and a player that mattered.  Like, really really mattered.

That player and that experience is going to matter in this series.  It may keep it a little closer than we think.

NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Toronto Raptors

Despite what we have seen from the Warriors in their five-and-a-half games without Kevin Durant, they are more likely to win their fourth title in four years and their third in a row if he is playing (Good players = better basketball teams?  Does that formula make sense?), but it’s not because of how he affects the Warriors on the offensive side of the court.

Simply, Durant is the Warriors best option to defend Kawhi Leonard, who is having an early-postseason Durant-like run right now.  Kawhi’s slow yet methodical and conducted offensive performances have torched teams.  How do you defend someone at that size, with that length, with that game?  You put Kevin Durant on him, who by the way was the biggest reason why Golden State beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the 2017 Finals due to his defensive performance on one of the two best players of all-time.  LeBron was still ridiculous that series, but Durant forced him a level below the standard we had held him to.  Durant made him less unstoppable.  Durant made him not the God-mode LeBron we saw in 2016.

That’s why the Warriors got Durant.  It’s also why the Raptors got Kawhi.  They’re both players who can be the guy on offense and shut the guy down on defense.

Which is why if KD misses a substantial amount of games, the Raptors could be in pretty good shape.

Klay Thompson is an excellent defender, but probably won’t have the answers for this Kawhi.  And when Golden State successfully blitzed and trapped Damian Lillard in the Western Conference Finals against Portland leaving CJ McCollum to takeover, he did exactly that.  Guarding Kawhi is a whole other beast than someone like McCollum.

Tasking old man Andre Iguodala with that assignment for the games KD is out for is plain mean, and Draymond Green, despite flipping the switch and playing like the best defensive player in the league lately, doesn’t have the speed to contest Kawhi drives.

Draymond and Kevon Looney, yes Kevon Looney, are the keys to Golden State defensively in this series.  How the Warriors match them up and switch them determines everything for the Raptors.  No one, even a lockdown defensive team like Toronto, can match the Warriors offense when its firing.  It’s not a defensive issue at all.  When the Warriors are at their peak, the best defense ever can’t do anything.  It’s that unstoppable.  You have to counter it with the same shot-making and have the numbers go in your favor (Which means that Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and even DeMarcus Cousins are all almost unplayable in this series.  Boogie getting torched and Ibaka+Gasol getting ran off the court are not things either team is going to get away with).  If the Warriors defend the Raptors by switching Looney and Draymond between Pascal Siakam and Kawhi, you can kiss a seven game series and/or a NBA Championship away for the Raptors.  Looney’s insane, mind-boggling athleticism and switchability defensively makes him an underrated candidate to guard Kawhi.  He has the foot speed and the size.  A Kawhi shake and bake or crossover may mean trouble, but having Draymond’s rim protection and blocking ability on Siakam, who’ll be floating around the rim for tip-ins and put-backs and spacing out for threes, is probably worth it.

Draymond on Kawhi in games that KD is out for is a risky bet for the Warriors.  Kawhi’s game this postseason has reached a level where at its peak it is totally unguardable.  Allowing that to occur in the first two games of the series, which Durant is almost certainly out for, could put Golden State shockingly down 2-0 if everything goes right.  The Raptors have home court, meaning that while Golden State probably won’t be intimidated by the atmosphere, it could give the Raptors a boost and sense of confidence.  That crowd has been a ruckus all postseason, and now their team is in the NBA Finals for the first time ever.  They certainly won’t be helping Golden State out.

But it seems incredibly unfeasible that the back-to-back champs would be down 2-0 in a Finals without LeBron James in it.  Their effort won’t fluctuate this time.  The Cavaliers were a team the Warriors had seen time and time again in big games and series.  They knew how far they could stretch their lack of effort.  But in a series against a new opponent in Toronto, and in a series without Kevin Durant, who is the difference-maker no matter how great they look and play without him, testing the effort waters is a dangerous proposition.  Toronto is really good; way better than any team Golden State has seen in the last two years.  And without Durant on the court in a Warriors uniform, Toronto is even scarier.

Still, there is no conceivable way for me to pick them.  Not even in seven.  The Warriors just have that extra gear offensively, and they can shift to it at any time.  You’re up five and then down 15.  It can happen that fast.  There is no stopping, countering, or picking against that.

Kawhi is going to have a game or two, and if the Raptors get lucky, maybe Durant is out three-to-four games.  Four makes things interesting for the Raptors; Toronto probably loses at least one game that KD is out for thanks to a cold shooting night or a hot Golden State shooting night.  But the general consensus on Durant is a two game absence currently.  If that’s the case, the Warriors will be fine.  Remember when Stephen Curry was a bad postseason player?  Me neither.

Prediction: Warriors in 6

Raptors-Bucks Preview

Due to some crazy seeding and hot streaks, we didn’t totally get the Conference Finals we expected in the West.  In the East though, we got exactly what we expected.

No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.1 Milwaukee Bucks 

Most teams in the league don’t have anybody to stop or even slightly contain Giannis Antetokounmpo.  That’s why he’s at the heart of one of the more contested and fantastic MVP debates in awhile.  He’s unstoppable.

But there’s a couple teams that do have options for him.  These options aren’t going to stop him, but they could him work a bit more.  These teams are Golden State, Philadelphia, and the Raptors.  That’s it.

But the difference with the Raptors is that there’s a case they have two guys: Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam.  Siakam has maybe the closest skill set to Giannis in the league, with insane length and athleticism that translates both ways incredibly effectively.  And Kawhi is the best perimeter defender of all-time, who went head-to-head with LeBron in a Finals and won at 21-years-old.

Toronto is the team most well built to make Giannis not matter as much in a series. If they plant Kawhi or Siakiam on him, that’s a pretty good bet from Toronto’s side. If they switch everything against him, that’s a good bet too.  Throwing mixed coverages and involving Danny Green makes Giannis have to work and defer even more.  The Raptors could also imitate what Boston did in Game 1 of the second round, and build a wall anchored by Kawhi or Siakam, with the other shadowing on the wing and Marc Gasol staying home yet coming up to the elbow, creating a brunt force Giannis would have to penetrate.

Milwaukee’s drive and kick offense is the counter to Giannis being off.  But Toronto’s length and recovering ability limit its effectiveness as well; the Raptors have been the third best defenders of the three this postseason (by opponent three point percentage) and were eighth in the league for the season overall (The Bucks finished 22nd).

So what if Giannis is contained?  Who’s the guy?  I would certainly hope it’s not “I’m gonna show you why I deserved that contract” Eric Bledsoe, who is going to dribble too much, jack threes and take bad mid-rangers, completely messing up Milwaukee’s offensive flow.  Is it Khris Middleton?  He’s coming off of an excellent series against Boston, but he kills them every time those two teams play.  Middleton’s an underrated No.1 offensive option; he’s got a better handle than people give him credit for and is good at creating his own shot.  But is he enough against Toronto, who plays a similar style of offense and has dudes who have been in big games before?

That’s another huge advantage to Toronto in this series.  If Milwaukee’s offense faces trouble, they don’t have anyone to really guide the ship on or off the court.  They don’t have experience.  Practically no one on that roster has been in big games before.  The Raptors have seven dudes who have been in big games, and I know that can be poked… Lowry’s sucked, everyone’s had their butts handed to them by LeBron, blah, blah.  But it’s probably better to have your butts kicked by the best player in the world than to not have any experience in big games at all.

All of this is not saying that Toronto is going to slaughter Milwaukee.  Giannis might be contained a bit but he will not be stopped.  There’s going to be two games in this series where he completely dominated not because Toronto is bad but because Giannis is that good.  Some nights you’re just not going to have a chance.   Plus, the Bucks were the best defensive team in the league all year.  If the Bucks can have Giannis force Kawhi into a Game 7 against Philly-like performance (Look, the shot was incredible, but that wasn’t exactly a showcase from Kawhi.  He never takes that many shots and isn’t that type of offensive player.  He knows that and knew it after the game too.  Most of the time a lot of those shots won’t go in), then they’re letting Kyle Lowry beat them.  I will let him shoot in big games all I can.

Siakam is the x-factor for Toronto offensively.  Giannis giving Kawhi a tough time forces Lowry to go into facilitator mode, and Siakam feeds off that.  Despite being able to put up 30, Siakam isn’t a volume scorer.  He hangs around the rim and gets put-backs.  He stands in the corner and shoots threes that are swung to him.  He’s the type of guy who, when you at the box score, you say, “Wait, Siakam has 30?!?”  It makes no sense at all how he gets there.

The Bucks don’t really have a guy for him.  Malcolm Brogdon will be back at full minutes at some point in this series, but he’s a little undersized to play under the rim where Toronto usually has him.  Siakam trying to drive is probably a better matchup for Brogdon; he can use his athleticism more that way and poke at the ball.

If Siakam can put up 20 a game in this series, that’s trouble for Milwaukee, who can’t have Siakam going off and Giannis doing the opposite in the same night.  That’s a loss for the Bucks immediately.

The other thing Milwaukee has going for them is their fight.  We’ve seen Toronto slack in way too many games, regular season or postseason.  If Milwaukee is up they won’t back down.  If they’re down they won’t quit.  Toronto is going to have to stay keyed in defensively, because even though Giannis won’t bring a rain of threes to the plate, he can run up the score just as quick as someone like Stephen Curry can.

As I said above, this is no way a Toronto slaughter.  Giannis is going to have his moments.  I just think Toronto can make him have less of those, and it will keep the Raptors around a little more than most anticipate.

Prediction: Raptors in 7

Trail Blazers-Warriors Preview

Picking against the Warriors is probably one of the four dumbest things I have done in my entire life.  It wasn’t like it was a non-obvious error either.  After watching Game 1, I immediately thought, “Wow, that was really stupid.”  The Warriors were awake in the middle of the night.  And they had all of their tools ready to go.

Golden State is now in a mode where it seems like they are unstoppable on all fronts.  Kevin Durant has torched everyone this playoffs, and did the same to Houston until suffering a calf injury (WHICH WAS DEFINITELY NOT AN ACHILLES INJURY, REGGIE MILLER) in Game 5.  With KD, the Warriors are probably unbeatable.  Without KD, they might be the same.  The Splash Brothers put on a classic display in Game 6, despite Stephen Curry’s zero point first half.  Klay Thompson held down the fort until Curry found himself, and he did in the most outrageous, most Steph way ever.  Thanks to another James Harden collapse/no-show, Golden State got out of the series in six, and shut everyone, including myself, up for a decently long time.

Does all of this praise lead to an overcorrection in my prediction against Portland?  Possibly.  But the Trail Blazers have their own sense of dominance in their favor right now as well.  Despite letting Denver take them to seven games, the Trail Blazers are riding CJ McCollum, and yes Damian Lillard as well (Despite a brutal series against the Nuggets… more on that later), high right now.  Those two, along with Enes Kanter doing stuff have Portland in the West Finals.  Yeah, they’re actually out of the second round.  And they’re really scary.

No.3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.1 Golden State Warriors 

Kevin Durant’s injury is the biggest headline heading into this series and it absolutely should be.  His loss affects Golden State and Portland equally.  For Golden State, his loss doesn’t guarantee a win.  For Portland, his absence makes winning possible.

The dilemma for Portland in this series is what to do with KD when he’s on the court.  Their biggest issue over the years has been getting offense out of their wings, not defense.  Al-Faruoq Aminu and Mo Harkless have been horrendous offensively in the playoffs, shooting poorly from three and from the field in general (We saw that continued Sunday).  The two have been better defensively than offensively this postseason, but were both cooked relentlessly against Denver, sinking some of their defensive stats to a non-impressive level.  That wasn’t very surprising though; we knew Portland was going to have troubles guarding Denver because, well, everybody does, and we knew that Denver wasn’t going to guard Portland effectively either.  That series was going to be offense vs. offense and Denver got a lot more of it than I thought they would.

Golden State plays differently, and more importantly has a much different type of player than anyone on Denver in KD.  A player like Durant is someone that we would assume Aminu and Harkless would be more fit to guard; a lengthy, athletic wing who can shoot and score rather than smaller guards running all over the place.  But this is Kevin Durant, who not only is named Kevin Durant probably deserves an inappropriate word as his middle name after the postseason he’s put on.  The Clippers never really had a chance at guarding him, so they’re a wash, but Houston’s Lebron/best player stopper in PJ Tucker didn’t have a chance either.  If Tucker got cooked, Aminu and Harkless are in for a long series.  Thankfully, there’s a good chance they’ll only have to deal with KD for 2-3 games, because even when he’s out, this is a tough matchup for Portland.

Shutting down the rest of Golden State down requires similar personnel and strategy as helping contain Durant does as well.  The Denver series gave us a first hand look at what happens when you have to make the Trail Blazers work on defense.  And Game 6 against Houston gave us a first hand look at what happens when KD isn’t on the court for Golden State.  The doors can open for Curry, and Klay can turn into a super-sized version of what he already is.  The ball moves.  Guys move (ALL.  THE.  TIME.).  They play fast.  And it’s impossible to guard.  It looks like what we watched in 2014-2015.  It’s completely new and unstoppable.  It’s what won the Warriors their first title.

It’s not going to be defense that Portland needs to be in games.  It’s going to be offense.  They’ve made that trade-off work all playoffs.

Golden State can’t play Portland’s guards the way Denver did.  They don’t have the personnel, or really the skill.

The Nuggets usually had Gary Harris on CJ McCollum and blitzed and trapped Dame with whoever they had.

Notice how Mason Plumlee leaves Zach Collins, a decent stretch big, wide open and follows Gary Harris for the double team on Lillard?  Denver did this all series with their variety of defenders, and it pestered Dame into bad and missed shots.

The Warriors are similar to the Nuggets, though they lack the depth.  Their backcourt is one lockdown defender (Klay Thompson as Harris) and a not-so-lockdown defender (Stephen Curry as Murray).  Golden State doesn’t have another real defensive guard to help possibly blitz Lillard with (Curry?), since Andre Iguodula is going to be tasked with stopping CJ.

The Warriors could just switch everything and take their chances with that; those odds are in their favor, especially with KD in the lineup.  But if Dame returns to the form we saw in the first round and McCollum keeps this tear up, there may be no real effective option.  Offense will be the defense.

That’s the case for both teams in this series.  Both defenses could be legitimately screwed.  For the first two games of the series, the ones in which Golden State will be without KD, Portland has to get Dame and CJ loose, because the Splash Brothers are going to be firing.  CJ has shown that his own one-man show can be enough, and if the Warriors exhibit a lower effort performance, that’s probably a Portland W.  What’s guaranteed after that?  Maybe the Blazers shoot well when Golden State doesn’t?

When Portland won Sunday, I thought this could go seven games.  Since then, it’s slowly trickled down to fewer and fewer games.  Six feels right.  It’s possible the Blazers get lucky and Golden State doesn’t try in a game in which KD plays in.  Or maybe this crazy Enes Kanter run single-handily kills Golden State in a game.  If KD is only out for two games, seven means doubting KD.  I am not about to that to him or this Warriors team again.

Prediction: Golden State in 6