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Series Preview: Raptors are able underdogs to Warriors in NBA Finals

We look at three storylines heading into the NBA Finals, where the Raptors can own an opportunity to win it all.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I still believed they’d find a way to blow it. Standing there in between reviews in the final minute of Game 6, it felt like the Raptors had somehow found a new, previously unforeseen way to lose and break the fanbase. The ball was moving deeper into the corner. Inbounds passes have always been an issue for this team.

Then, they got it in. Pascal Siakam hit a free throw, then Kawhi Leonard held off the two most imposing Milwaukee Bucks players — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez — to secure the rebound and hit two more. And it was over.

Being there for Game 6 will be something I never forget. Sounds cliché, but it’s true. Losing my voice booing Giannis free throws, seeing how loud the arena could get when Kawhi threw down The Dunk, walking out into bedlam on Lake Shore. It was all there, and now we’re here. The Raptors are in the damn NBA Finals, where they’ll meet the pre-eminent threat in the NBA: the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors, of course, are fresh off a demonstrative sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, one where they came back in the second half of every game to win — and did so without Kevin Durant. Durant will definitely miss Game 1 of this series and it looks unlikely that he’ll be back before the series shifts to the Bay Area next week.

In losing Durant, the Warriors rekindled their 73-win form. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson rained threes. Draymond Green, whether out of necessity or desire for a contract, played to the best version of himself: a total wrecker on both ends of the floor. The role players, levelled up by the gravity of Curry, played their roles.

It’s likely the Raptors will have to beat both versions of the Warriors to win this series, with Durant and without. They have the tools to do so. If there’s anything we learned in the Bucks series, it’s that there’s no team the Toronto defence can’t handle in the half court. They’re both switchy and have a high ability to recover. The last two minutes of Game 6, much like Game 7 against Philadelphia, were a crash course in suffocating defence.

Besides this basic premise of competitiveness, though, what do the Raptors actually have to do to win the whole thing? The stage is set, let’s look at my three storylines heading into the NBA Finals.

Stopping the Runs (Somehow)

Channeling their inner Thanos, the Warriors were inevitable in the Western Conference Finals. Despite building leads in the first half of all four games, the Trail Blazers simply couldn’t hang with the Warriors down the stretch, giving up massive runs to lose in a sweep.

Let me start with a caveat: the Raptors are too balanced to suffer a similar fate. The Blazers — hampered by poor shooting from the Al-Farouq Aminu / Mo Harkless combination — made it easy for the Warriors to load their defence in the middle, essentially removing Damian Lillard’s creation from the series. Even Meyers Leonard couldn’t dam the flood in the long run.

Given how the Eastern Conference Finals turned out, the Raptors should be able to put enough shooters on the floor to keep the Warriors a bit more honest. The Warriors are also the first opportunity the Raptors have in this playoff run to go centre-less, as Golden State will play stretches with Draymond Green at the five. This allows another shooter like Norman Powell and, later in the series we hope, OG Anunoby to play on the wing.

Still, somehow finding a way to keep the Warriors from going on extended scoring runs will be the key to winning this series. The Cavaliers did it exceptionally well in their 2016 title run, slowing the pace of the Warriors with a 1-5 switching defence and walking the ball up on most possessions. There’s a reason Game 7 of that series was one of the most tense in modern history (though never uglier than 2010 between the Lakers and Celtics). Having the gamebreaking half court player — Kawhi Leonard in this series before Durant returns, LeBron James in 2016 — counts for a lot when the pace slows. The Raptors need to take advantage of his playmaking ability in the half court, while still using fast break opportunities.

As it was in the Milwaukee series, pace will typically be dictated by the team making shots to limit runout opportunities. The Warriors have been demonstrative in this regard, tops in the playoffs in offensive rating (116.4), assist percentage (66.7%), and effective field goal percentage (55.6%). While their pace is middling, they’ve also been the beneficiary of second chance opportunities, leading with an offensive rebound percentage of 30.1. Both Draymond Green and Kevon Looney have averaged over two per game.

This drills down to watching lineups. If the Raptors have the opportunity to go small, it will be imperative on Pascal Siakam to limit Green in the paint. When the Warriors are big with Looney or DeMarcus Cousins at the five, then it’ll be Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka (who has been great against the Warriors this year) with the task.

This is the least suited series for Gasol on the defensive end, and the most tempting for the Raptors to play a wing at the four, so watching how lineups change will be interesting.

Finding Space for Kawhi

Against the Blazers, the Warriors played a hard trapping defence that forced Damian Lillard to give up the ball. While different role players — Meyers Leonard, Seth Curry — stepped up in spurts, overall the strategy was sound. It took Portland’s best player out of his comfort zone after an already taxing two rounds, then succeeded on the bet that the Blazers’ role players couldn’t sustain scoring.

It’ll be fascinating to see whether Golden State uses the same strategy against Kawhi Leonard. Leonard’s operating tactic has been weighted to the right side of the floor, which has typically left Pascal Siakam as the weak side creator on the left.

If the Warriors go with the likely starting matchup of Green on Siakam, this leaves an opportunity over there. If the Warriors shade over or trap Kawhi with Green in centre field — where he’s the best in history — Kawhi or other Raptors will be able to find Siakam in the corner. From there, it’ll be an open look.

Danny Green and Siakam have had the most consistent corner looks in this playoffs run. In this series, it’s imperative that they keep the Warriors’ defence honest. Otherwise, it’s very easy for Golden State to throw three of the top defenders in the NBA — Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala into Kawhi’s line of attack on the strong side of the floor. Again, harkening back to the 2016 Finals, a 35.6% three-point shooting series for J.R. Smith was enough to keep the Warriors thinking about the weak side, creating more driving room for Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.

A Ready Rotation

One of the greatest sighs of relief in the Bucks series was when Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet revived their games. The latter did so in spectacular fashion, making 14-of-17 threes in the last three games of the series to bury Milwaukee. Needless to say, the production of these two will be equally important in the NBA Finals.

The Warriors, as owners of no less than five centres when DeMarcus Cousins returns (possibly for Game 1), have been known to make some perplexing lineup decisions with their bigs. Notably, Looney has been the best at the position in the playoffs, posting a net rating of 14.0 while tearing down an offensive rebound percentage of 13.8 in Warriors home games (Oracle likes nothing more than a three off a second chance opportunity). Still, Andrew Bogut and Jordan Bell have been getting starts and consistent minutes. Heck, Damian Jones started Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and was an abject disaster, committing three fouls in three minutes.

While the Warriors will never have a full bench lineup (having four future Hall of Famers comes in handy here), the Raptors have to find a way to use their role players to punish any lineups where Golden State rolls out their eighth through eleventh man in the rotation. Whittling the Warriors down to their key contributors is an admission of anxiety from Steve Kerr and even with two days between most games in the series, balancing the ability to rest is important.


It still feels strange to be in this position, picking a winner in the NBA Finals where the Toronto Raptors are involved. When we get a chance to properly breathe and look back at this playoff run, it’s already an obvious success. The punishing series against Philadelphia, punctuated with the greatest shot in franchise history. The revival of role players and the continued heroics of Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference Final. The humbling of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the fanbase’s role in doing so. This is all weighty stuff, and it comes before the pinnacle series in the Association.

The Warriors are going to be extremely difficult to beat. They’ve been on this stage before as a team, which counts for so much given the Raptors’ role players relative inexperience. If the rotations do whittle down, having Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala could be much more pivotal in the Finals than it was in the first three rounds for Golden State.

Still, the regular season has told us that the Raptors always play this team well. Kyle Lowry has been able to be himself when guarded by Steph Curry and will find a way to muck up games. Marc Gasol’s passing can help Toronto create flow against a great defence. Kawhi Leonard, for all purposes, is the best player in the series and certainly has memories of an ankle injury and a 23-point lead from two years ago.

It’ll be competitive. It’ll be entertaining. Still, it’s hard to pick against what might be the closing chapter for the most dominant NBA team in 50 years.

Verdict: Warriors in 6