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Analyzing the Kawhi Effect and what it means for the Raptors in the Finals

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With Game 6 of the ECF behind them, what have we learned about the Raptors and Kawhi Leonard? Also, will the potential return of OG Anunoby unlock something else for Toronto?

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s pretty easy for this column to devolve into “I can’t believe the Raptors are in the Finals!”, so let’s try to keep it simple. First, we’ll take a quick look back at the predominant narrative in the Eastern Conference Finals between the Raptors and the Bucks. Second, we’ll see how that applies to Toronto’s series against the Golden State Warriors.

In the process, we’ll throw in a couple other thoughts for the next four to seven games of the NBA Finals — which, again, feature the Toronto Raptors.

Kawhi Leonard, Superstar

Kawhi Leonard’s impact on both ends could not be denied in the Conference Finals. We’ve covered this story plenty, so we’ll just very quickly tie a bow on it here.

Kawhi defended Giannis Antetokounmpo for 160 possessions. The Bucks scored 143 points (89 ORTG), while Giannis scored 30 points. In all of Giannis’ other 304 possessions, the Bucks scored 361 points (119 ORTG), while Giannis scored 106 points. See the difference?

Meanwhile, in Kawhi’s 208 minutes on the court, the Raptors carried a 109 ORTG, and in his 42 minutes resting, that dropped to a 91 ORTG. That 17-point swing was second on the team (Kyle Lowry, the guy who supposedly can’t get it done in the playoffs, edged ahead with a 19-point swing).

Overall, the Raptors had a +3 net rating with Kawhi and a -10 net rating without him. That 13-point swing was again second on the team, behind only Bucks-killer Norman Powell (+10 on-court net rating, -8 off-court net rating).

By the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate statistic, Kawhi ranked first by far on the Raptors with a +18 PIE. Lowry was 2nd at +12, with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol both registering a +9. By way of comparison, Giannis registered a +16 for the series. And for the record, Giannis led all players in the regular season with a +21 PIE, another sign of how much Leonard affected his game in the playoffs.

(Player Impact Estimate (PIE): a box-score aggregate statistic that puts more value on box-score stats based on how available those stats were in the game that was played. For example, a rebound in a game where the total number of rebounds available was very high would be worth less; points are worth less in high scoring games, etc.)

Kawhi in the Finals

So, how does Leonard’s performance project into the next round?

Well, Kawhi played the Warriors just once this season. It was an odd game, with the Warriors playing without Steph Curry and Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant putting on a show to keep the Warriors close before Toronto stole the narrow victory. This was one of those early season games where the Raptors overplayed their bench units, letting the Warriors stay in the game, even forcing overtime, in spite of Ibaka and Danny Green (who both played mostly with the starting group) having point differentials of +16.

Of course, the Raptors would play the Warriors again two weeks later, with the Warriors fielding a full lineup and the Raptors resting Kawhi. Toronto won that one by 20, dominating from start to finish. Hard to draw a lot of lessons from either game — especially given the changes to the roster since then.

For what it is worth, Kawhi did have one of his more extravagant individual showings of the regular season against the Warriors. He posted 37 points, eight rebounds, and three assists with only one turnover in 44 minutes, while shooting 58 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three.

Before that, the last time Kawhi had played the Warriors was Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, in which he got injured. He missed all nine games (between the regular season and playoffs) the Spurs played the Warriors in 2017-18 due to his injury.

As a refresher, here is what Kawhi had been accomplishing in that all-too-brief outing in the Western Conference Finals before getting hurt. He played 24 minutes, and put up 26 points, eight rebounds, three assists, with only one turnover, and was a +21 on the night. The Warriors managed only a 89 ORTG while he was on the court, and ended with a 115 ORTG on the night. The Spurs would fall apart after his injury, managing to lose that game by two and going on to get swept by the Warriors. That is the last time Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry met in a game. Sadly, the NBA’s matchup data does not go back that far to see who Kawhi was guarding, but with the success he’s found in key matchups so far, I expect Nick Nurse will find a use for him.

In that playoff run, Kawhi had been averaging a PIE of +20. In this playoff run, he is averaging a PIE of +20. There is every sign Kawhi is capable of putting up the same sort of performance. And if he does, well, who knows?

A Potential Return

It’s been reported that OG Anunoby might be able to play in the Finals, starting around Game 4 or so. That would be great news for the Raptors.

In the Conference Finals, the Raptors got a lot of support from Norman Powell, and if he continues that play, that’s great news. But Powell struggled mightily before that round in the playoffs, and if his game disappears again, or if Fred VanVleet struggles again with his shot, having an extra solid rotation piece could be invaluable.

Anunoby could also increase the available options when going small, if the Warriors prove capable of playing the Raptors’ centres off the floor (something I’m hopeful they will not be able to do).

But one thing the Raptors must be sure not to do is expand their rotation to play more units with mostly bench players on the floor. Take a look at Anunoby’s most used pairings (among players still with the team).

Partner | Minutes | Net Rating
Powell: 620 MP, -1.8
VanVleet: 588 MP, -1.9
Lowry: 504 MP, +6.8
Ibaka: 452 MP, -1.9
Siakam: 423 MP, +5.6
Leonard: 363 MP, -6.5
Green: 362 MP, +7.0
Gasol: 176 MP, +0.5

Note the obvious pattern. Playing with other bench players, not so good. Playing with mostly starters, great. But also note one oddity, OG had real trouble playing next to Kawhi. It should be noted they were fine in a small sample of OG playing with the starters (with OG in Siakam’s place and Ibaka at C), but in the many looks where Kawhi was the only starter playing with the bench, it never worked.

In the playoffs, the Raptors have done a better job of shrinking the rotation and limiting those bench-heavy looks, which were proven over and over again in the regular season not to work very well. With OG potentially returning to the lineup, this may well be a test of whether that was by design or forced upon them. The Finals promise to be a very difficult task with minimal margin for error — and the Raptors returning to bad habits from the regular season would be a big problem.

But if used correctly, OG has the potential to spell Kawhi effectively and provide a similar type of defender in his place. Similarly, OG could spell Siakam, if those opportunities come beside the other starters filling the same role he found success in during his rookie season.

This might be the least pressing of the tests for the Raptors coaching staff going into the Finals, but failing it could well undo any other successes they manage in the early part of the series. That said, if Toronto passes that rotation test, it could be the last piece needed to unlock the defensive versatility required to do the unthinkable.

All stats per NBA.com