Typically, when a playoff series starts, the first thing to look at when considering the matchup is how the two teams fared against each other in the regular season. But in this case, it’s hard to put too much stock into how the two head-to-head regular season games between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors went down.
Both games had key players missing, from Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green to Norman Powell. The Raptors have also seen a roster transformation since then, turning C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, and Jonas Valanciunas into Marc Gasol.
The Raptors come in battle-tested, and their offense appears to be rounding in to form, most likely how Nurse envisioned it when he spent time talking to Kawhi Leonard for the first time. Meanwhile, the Warriors are heading into the NBA Finals looking like their old pre-Kevin Durant championship team.
With that being said, here are some of the things that we will be keeping our eye on throughout the series. Note that Kevin Durant, Boogie Cousins, and OG Anunoby were not factored in on this piece; we’ll proceed as if those players won’t play until late in the series, and we’ll incorporate them as they make their appearance.
For the Warriors
Marc Gasol is expected to start for the Raptors, and it remains to be seen who the Warriors would start against him. Andrew Bogut would have the size and strength to go against Gasol, but would be a liability if the Raptors target him on any pick-and-roll action involving Gasol. Kevon Looney, and the assortment of back-up Warriors bigs would just get eaten alive by Gasol on the post.
Gasol also brings a lot to the Raptors offense — he can create shots for his teammates, and he’s a decent floor spacer.
The best strategy for the Warriors is to run Gasol off the floor by targeting him on switches with Steph Curry or Klay Thompson and making him unplayable as long as they are on the floor.
How to Stop Kawhi
The Warriors utilized Kevin Durant primarily on Kawhi in the regular season; Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have seen their share of minutes guarding Leonard over the years, mainly because of their switching defense. The Warriors won’t be too concerned who’s got Leonard from possession-to-possession, as long as one of those three are matched up with him.
I would expect Iguodala to start in place of Durant, as he’s got the size, strength, quickness, and excellent hands to somewhat slow down Leonard. We might even see Jordan Bell or Alfonzo McKinnie on Leonard when Igoudala needs a rest.
Could we see the Warriors challenge Kawhi’s teammates by trapping him and making Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, et al either create a shot or make plays? Or could the Warriors employ their LeBron tactic of letting him go off, while shutting down everybody else? How should the Warriors approach Kawhi’s pick-and-roll action — should Kawhi’s defender fight through the screen, go under, or switch?
Kevon Looney is the Warriors’ unsung hero of their current post-season run. There’s a chance that the Warriors might not be playing in June if not for Looney’s contribution off the bench; his rebounding, defense, and whatever he can give them on the offensive end are leaps and bounds better than what Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut, and Damian Jones combined, all of whom started ahead of him, have offered.
It’s not like Looney hasn’t started ever, in fact, he started for the Warriors for one-third of their season. However, the Warriors have a shallow bench and having Klay, Draymond, and Steph on the floor can mask their weak fifth Beatle like Bogut or Bell, even to buy a few minutes.
The Raptors in the post-season have struggled right out of the gate, so most likely coach Kerr can afford to be patient. However, this move could come sooner if the Warriors struggle against the Raptors.
For the Raptors
Siakam’s Time to Shine?
When the two teams first played early in the season, Pascal Siakam was just getting started putting the league on notice, and given how lackadaisical the Warriors were during the season, it’s easy to think that they never paid attention to him. Siakam surprised them by dropping 26 points in the Raptors’ OT win in November, including some clutch free throw shooting to ice the game.
The next time the two teams saw each other, Siakam had a much harder time scoring and was turning the ball over for what feels like almost every other possession.
That was five months ago, and Siakam has demonstrated growth in his game as the season went along. The post-season tested his development, and he gutted through some growing pains against stricter competition and his scouting report.
This time, Siakam won’t be facing any unicorns. There won’t be any tall and quick defenders that can keep up with him looking at the Warriors roster. They don’t have a Jonathan Isaac, Joel Embiid, nor Giannis Antetokounmpo sagging and daring him to shoot, while still have enough athleticism to contain his downhill attacks.
The Warriors offensive style matches Siakam’s too; Siakam would gladly run court to court to get easy baskets rather than doing it the hard way on a halfcourt set. It will be interesting to see who ends up guarding him, but the Warriors like to switch, and Siakam can get his pick of the litter on who he can post up, and put on a spin-cycle.
Break the Glass In Case of Emergency: Start Ibaka
It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that Marc Gasol might get run off the floor by the Warriors by merely getting him switched against Curry. To Gasol’s credit, he did a great job contesting the Milwaukee Bucks’ three-point shooters when he had to rotate on them.
Fortunately for the Raptors, they have a fall-back option. If this is not the series for Gasol, they have Serge Ibaka ready to step in, whether to start in the future, or to get early minutes if Gasol gets a quick hook.
Ibaka started 51 games for the Raptors, and has familiarity with the starting unit. Matching his minutes with Kyle Lowry gives the Raptors a really nice go-to play if their initial offense bogs down; the Lowry/Ibaka pick-and-roll chemistry on the floor is among the best this team has ever seen.
Raptors Small Ball
Can coach Nurse afford to utilize both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet? Nurse likes to play these two point guards in-between quarters, especially to give Kawhi his rest. However, if both Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are on the same floor, will they be capable enough to keep up with those two defensively?
VanVleet actually played excellent defense trying to hang and contest the Splash Brothers around the perimeter in the regular season, and we have recent historical data that he can chase someone like JJ Redick, who thrives off constant movement, and the defender has to be attached to his hip at all times to stand a chance.
It’s a big risk for Nurse if this combo backfires, and while Danny Green is a capable defender on either Splash Brothers, he hasn’t broken out of his offensive funk yet.
Nurse and the Raptors targeted Steph Curry a lot in the regular season. We’ve seen Danny Green go after Curry in the post to either score or break down the Warriors’ defense. The Raptors can exploit the Warriors’ switching defense by targeting Curry on switches — whether it’s Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, or Danny Green and put him on the post. Heck, I won’t even be surprised if we see Norm Powell try to attack Curry.
Attack the Basket
The Raptors have had plenty of reps against high-level interior defense: Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, and Milwaukee Bucks were all tough to score on in and around the paint. Yet, the Raptors managed to score enough, if not use that collapsing defense to create perimeter shots.
The Warriors don’t offer the same size and interior defense compared to those other teams; in fact, their interior defense is suspect. Jonas Valanciunas had some success around the paint against the Warriors; even Enes Kanter dropped 10 points and 16 rebounds with one good shoulder in one of their playoff games.
If the Warriors don’t collapse their defense, Kawhi, Siakam, and to some extent Gasol and Ibaka should have an easier time scoring in the paint compared to their earlier series.
For Both Teams
Whose “Numbers” Are Stronger?
The Warriors broke into the scene a few years ago with their slogan “Strength in Numbers,” but ever since the arrival of Kevin Durant, that hasn’t been the case. Kevon Looney and Andre Iguodala are their only reliable bench players, and with Durant’s injury, Iguodala would be moving up as a starter.
That leaves Kerr with Looney, what’s left of Shaun Livingston, former Raptors/Raptors905-er Alfonzo McKinnie, and Jonas Jerebko, who had a good showing against the Raptors in the regular season. Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell haven’t seen consistent minutes outside of garbage time.
The Raptors were once touted as a team with a deep bench heading into the post-season; however, we’ve seen Nurse shorten his playoff rotation to as little as 6.5 (with Powell getting a DNP, and Fred VanVleet with the extreme Keith Bogans).
The Eastern Conference Finals marked the return of Playoff Powell, and the emergence of Fred VanVleet. Unlike the Warriors, the Raptors needed some scoring punch off the bench, and those two have been wildly inconsistent in the playoffs. Another critical bench piece for the Raptors is Serge Ibaka, who, depending on Marc Gasol’s struggles could potentially get the starting centre job if things go wrong for the Raptors early in this series.
Switch Defense, Anyone?
Expect the Raptors and the Warriors to implement a switch-heavy defense, where it doesn’t really matter that much what the initial coverage would be, as both teams would look for ball movement that can use switches along the way.
The key for the Raptors is always to be able to keep up with Thompson and Curry, which means Lowry (if he’s guarding one of the Splash Brothers) can’t sag off them and provide help defense.
The Raptors’ transition defense suffered against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals primarily because they have to worry about trying to avoid cross-matches. Against the Warriors, they don’t have to worry about that as much (well, they don’t really want Gasol or Ibaka on Curry right off the bat).
For the Warriors, it doesn’t really matter that much whether Iguodala or Thompson, or even Green would end up with Kawhi, as the Raptors will initiate a pick-and-roll action involving whoever they want to target (whether it’s Curry, Bogut, or Looney).
The Durant-less Warriors focus on a lot of player movement, and because of this, I am not going to conjure my own matchup strategies, as the Warriors can easily shake them off if the opposing team will willfully switch at all times.