The Raptors are in the Finals. That feels good to say. The last Toronto team from the “Big 3” (MLB, NHL, NBA) to make the championship round was the Blue Jays in 1993. So we know this Raptors team will have a place in history, even if its place in history feels less important now. As Kawhi Leonard would put, you just gotta enjoy the moment.
This week, Fred VanVleet’s three-point shooting, the Raptors’ defense, and Kawhi Leonard’s Game 6 performance really brought the heat. Let’s take the Toronto Temperature.
Kawhi Leonard’s Game 6
In Game 6, with 2:18 left to go in the third quarter, the Raptors were down 76-61. From there on, it was Kawhi Leonard’s show. On the Raptors first trip down after a pair of Ersan Ilyasova free throws, Leonard beat Malcolm Brogdon in isolation to his spot near the free throw line. After a pump-fake, Leonard stepped through for the floater (plus the foul). 76-64 Bucks.
On the next trip down, with Giannis Antetokounmpo guarding Leonard this time, the Raptors ran a pick-and-roll with Fred VanVleet as the screener. Antetokounmpo had trouble fighting through the screen (maybe a miscommunication) and Leonard was able to step into a long two. 76-66 Bucks.
On the next Raptors possession, Leonard was isolated at the elbow surveying for cutters. Antetokounmpo, now guarding Serge Ibaka, drifted over towards Leonard. The middle of the lane opened up. Ibaka saw it and walked right through. A lay-in. 76-68 Bucks. 55.9 seconds to go in the quarter.
On the next trip down, to cap off the run, Leonard paced down the court, stopped behind the three-point line, shot-faked, and let Eric Bledsoe barrel into him. Three free throws. And you kind of have to laugh at this point, but Leonard missed his last free throw, grabbed his own rebound, and was fouled once again. Two more free throws. He split the pair. When it was all said and done at the end of the third quarter it was 76-71 Bucks. What a turnaround. What a sequence for Leonard.
Fred VanVleet, Back on Track
Following the birth of his second child, VanVleet turned in three straight killer performances against the Bucks. In Games 4, 5, and 6, he shot 14-of-17 from three — which was the highest percentage from deep over a three-game span in NBA playoff history, with at least 15 attempts, per Justin Kubatko’s twitter.
Looking ahead to the Finals, VanVleet figures to play a big role defending Steph Curry. In their one meeting during the regular season, VanVleet was stellar. On 39 possessions with VanVleet as the primary defender, Curry scored four points on 1-of-6 shooting with three turnovers. VanVleet was into the chest of Curry all night. On one turnover, VanVleet fought through a screen-and-roll and deflected Curry’s pass back to the popping big. On another turnover, on account of VanVleet’s ball pressure, Curry ended up stumbling on his drive towards the rim.
The ability of VanVleet to navigate through screens and get up into Curry makes him the unquestioned sixth man for the Raptors heading into this series.
Defending the Warriors
The Warriors, for at least Game 1, will be without Kevin Durant. How that impacts the Warriors offense is up for debate. Historically, the Warriors have been pretty good without Durant. In their past 32 games without Durant and with Steph Curry, they are 31-1. That’s remarkable.
But how effective will their offense be versus the Raptors? The Raptors have the second best defensive rating of the playoffs, allowing 102.4 points per 100 possessions. The Raptors are switchy on positions 2-through-4 and have unique defensive skill sets at the point guard and centre positions. Fred VanVleet is a credible Steph Curry defender. Kyle Lowry leads the playoffs in loose balls recovered (40) and charges drawn (15). Serge Ibaka has recorded an 11 block game before (with Oklahoma City in 2012). Marc Gasol is one of the smartest defenders from this decade.
The defensive challenge for the Raptors, though, is completely new. The Warriors, with Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry (and later on Kevin Durant), can spot up 30-feet away from the hoop with such a quick release. The Raptors will need to contest those shots while also locating cutters and off-ball movement going towards the rim. The result is a stretched out defense. You need to be in two places at one time. Serge Ibaka said it best during Tuesday’s practise on the Raptors mindset defending the Warriors. “You can’t relax because if you relax & they get hot its gonna be a long night. You cannot be lazy against them. The key is don’t be lazy.”
Danny Green, Missing Shots
Scotiabank Arena was very quiet anticipating three-balls from Danny Green in Game 6. In the first quarter, all three of his attempts from deep rimmed out. After each missed shot, the fanbase let out an exhale of frustration, disappointment, and maybe even a little compassion. It’s hard not to feel badly for Green. He was 198-of-435 (45.5%) from deep in the regular season. But against Milwaukee, Green only shot 4-of-23 (17.4%) from deep.
As the series progressed, Nick Nurse went in other directions, opting for the ball-handling of Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet over Green. After averaging 29 minutes per game from Games 1-to-4, Green played 16 minutes in Game 5 and 14 minutes in Game 6. The starting lineup, with him, just wasn’t playing well. The starters in Games 5 and 6 were a -14 in 18 minutes, The starters, with VanVleet in place of Green, in those same two games, were a +7 in 20 minutes.
Looking ahead to Golden State, Green will need to make a couple of threes to prop up the starting unit. As it stands now, his stellar defense hasn’t been enough to keep him on the court. They need a little bit more.
Ernie Johnson Interviewing Masai Ujiri
Following the Raptors Game 6 victory over the Bucks, Ernie Johnson interviewed, one by one, Masai Ujiri, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry at centre court. His last question for Masai: “Hey, one more thing, how did that trade work out for ya.” Masai laughed, maybe a little nervously, and answered the question. “He’s the best player in the league and we’re happy he’s in Toronto.”
That interaction got swept up in the glory of the moment as it should have but I think Ernie’s question was out of touch. It was a celebration! No one wants to feel awkward and talk about a trade that happened 10 months ago. Everyone just wants to support the team. People in the stands were literally crying with joy. While he meant it in jest, for Ernie to ask that question over the PA system in Scotiabank Arena is confusing in my eyes.
Kevon Looney Contributing
The Warriors haven’t exactly figured out their centre rotation. Steve Kerr has rotated through Damian Jones, Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut, and Kevon Looney all playoffs. It is impossible to predict who gets the start on any given night. In Games 1 and 2 versus Portland, Andrew Bogout got the start. He was solid in Game 1, nabbing two steals and a block in eight minutes. In Game 2, however, he only played four minutes, before checking out for the more athletic Kevon Looney. In Game 3, Damian Jones got the start. He picked up three fouls in three minutes and never saw the court again. In Game 4, Steve Kerr had one more trick up his sleeve, inserting Jordan Bell into the starting lineup. He played 14 minutes in total, which was more than any of the other starting centres that series.
Beneath all of the centre jumble, though, lies an effective player for Golden State: Kevon Looney. In 109 minutes over four games versus Portland, he scored 40 points on 18-of-23 shooting, with 26 rebounds (12 offensive).
Looking ahead to the Finals, the margin of error will certainly be too thin for any Damian Jones minutes. But the others, I would imagine, are all in play. It will be interesting to see who Kerr lands on for Game 1. Do the Warriors feel comfortable with any non-Looney or non-Draymond Green minutes at centre? How much do they trust Jordan Bell? How does DeMarcus Cousins figure into the series? We’ll see. For the Raptors, though, they should be excited about the Warriors centre rotation being in flux.