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