Continuing from Part 1 of my 2019 NBA Finals Preview, which you can read here, we will look at more of the technical aspects of this series in Part 2.
Part 2: X’s and O’s
How will Kevin Durant’s potential absence affect this series?
Throughout the past 2 rounds of the Western Playoffs, a narrative that I heard a lot was that the Warriors play better without Kevin Durant. This is a point that has something behind it, as the Warriors seem to share the ball more, spread out the shots among the team more, and get everyone a touch or a look almost every time down the floor with Durant sidelined. This especially held true last series, when the Warriors used this type of ball to sweep the Blazers. The thing is, though, the Warriors aren’t any less efficient without KD, it just doesn’t look as good. Durant will often take possessions where he holds the ball for 10+ seconds of the shot clock, isolate his man, and take a contested shot- and because he is the best scorer in the game, and possibly in the history of the league, these shots will often go in. But, to the earlier point, his teammates are not involved in possessions like this and the ball is not moving the same way.
HOWEVER! As we so often see in the playoffs, late in games, the offense will often devolve to 1 on 1 play- because defenses are so locked in, coaches have days and days to scout opposing offenses- their movements and actions- and this ball and man movement does not work to the same efficiency that it does early in games, and in the regular season in general. So, late in games, having an elite individual scorer who can bail you out if your set play doesn’t work, or can clear out a space on the court and go get a bucket, guys who can do this are invaluable in the Playoffs. And KD is the ultimate version of these guys. So, of course, his absence will absolutely be felt by the Warriors and will give the Raptors a big boost in the series until he is back, if he does come back (Durant has already been ruled out of Game 1).
The Raptors can also use Durant’s absence to their benefit defensively. Having multiple elite defensive players (Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green) will allow the Raptors to keep up with the Warriors offense in a way that the Cavs teams of the past two Finals were not able to. And individually, for however many games Durant is sidelined, the Raptors and coach Nick Nurse can cook up many different ways to deploy these defenders against the Warriors’ various threats. They can simply stick Leonard on Steph Curry, try to limit him as much as possible and force the other Warriors, with no Durant, to do the majority of the scoring. They can throw Leonard on Klay Thompson, who is capable of putting up 30 at any moment. They can use a combination of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green to rotate between Curry and Thompson so as to keep them fresher for the offensive end. Just having Durant off the court opens up so much for the Raptors defensively that, especially because they have home court, they have a legitimate chance to split the first two games or even take a 2-0 lead into Oracle for Game 3.
How can the Raptors counterpunch the Warriors’ best lineups in this series?
According to NBA.com, the Warriors’ best three lineups this year were:
- Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney (313 mins played, 121.3 offensive rtg, 102.7 defensive rtg, 18.7 net rtg)
- Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Demarcus Cousins (268 mins, 115.7 Ortg, 103 Drtg, 12.6 net rtg)
- Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green (178 mins, 124.1 Ortg, 95 Drtg, 29.1 net rtg)
To make some sense of these stats, offensive, defensive, and net rating are all analytical stats that measure a team’s performance on the court. To explain it briefly, the offensive rating means points scored on average per every 100 possessions, and defensive rating means points given up on average per every 100 possessions. The net rating, then, is just the difference between the two.
To put this in perspective, the Warriors led the NBA this regular season in offensive rating as a team, putting up a 114.9- one of the highest for a team in NBA regular season history. But all three of these individual lineups above had a higher offensive rating than the Warriors did as a team. This just shows how dominant these lineups are when they share the floor. The Milwaukee Bucks led the league this regular season in Defensive Rating, putting up a 104.9- very impressive also. But as you see, these three lineups above all put up defensive ratings lower than- therefore better than- the Bucks’ league-leading rating. And finally, the highest net rating in the league also belonged to the Bucks, with an 8.6. And above, all three of those lineups’ net ratings were above 10, especially the third lineup which put up a ridiculous 29.1 net rating.
So with all this being said, it is clear that these three lineups are statistically putting up some of the best individual lineup numbers we’ve ever seen. So how can the Raptors counter these lineups?
1. Steph Curry- Matchup: Kyle Lowry/Kawhi Leonard
As I wrote above, the absence of Kevin Durant will make things a lot easier on the Raptors defensively, and it starts here. I think Leonard should guard Curry in stretches of the game for sure- for a different look, and to stop the Warriors offense from flowing. But I doubt that Leonard, even if he is primarily on Curry, will be guarding him all game, which is okay because Lowry is considered an above average defensive point guard. With enough strength to bump their opponent and make life uncomfortable, fight through screens and contest shots, Lowry has what’s needed to stifle Curry throughout a series.
2. Klay Thompson- Matchup: Danny Green/Kawhi Leonard
Another player that will likely see multiple looks throughout the series on defense, Klay Thompson will be very important to this series especially if Durant continues to miss time. And Danny Green will likely see the large part of this matchup, as his size (6’5, 6’10 wingspan) is perfect to contest a shooter like Thompson and not allow them to get into a rhythm. And being a shooter himself, Green likely knows the little things that will help him have the best chance of knocking Thompson off his game. Again, Kawhi Leonard will likely also see some time on Green, as he will probably be switching between Curry and Klay for as long as Durant is out.
3. Kevin Durant- Matchup: Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard made Second Team All-Defense this year, but for my money, there’s no player in the league I’d rather have guarding Kevin Durant over a series. However, many minutes as Kevin Durant does play in this series, I see him likely having Leonard across from him. Durant is as unguardable as any player in the league, but Leonard will frustrate him more than likely any individual defender he’d see.
4. Draymond Green- Matchup: Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam is a player who had a breakout year this season, averaging 17 and 7, and I believe his game is very similar to Draymond Green’s. He doesn’t get the same responsibility of taking the ball up the floor that Green does, but they are both “undersized” power forwards who are able to move somewhat like guards do while defending multiple positions and being able to switch onto guards without being a liability. I think Siakam can do a good job of keeping Draymond from getting into a rhythm on the fast break, which he did at a very high level in the Western Conference Finals against Portland.
5. Demarcus Cousins/Kevon Looney- Matchup: Marc Gasol/Serge Ibaka
Demarcus Cousins, even coming off an injury, is an absolute load to deal with. He is one of the strongest, most physical and most talented players in the league. Marc Gasol, however, is as perfect as a matchup you can ask for. At 7’1, 255, Gasol is big and physical enough to bang with Cousins, and is intelligent defensively enough to be able to guard him well without letting his team defensive responsibilities fall. It is unclear how many games, and when, Cousins will be able to play, but when he does, Gasol should match up well. And as for Looney, he is not a threat on offense, but is just a modern big man who contests shots at the rim, rebounds, runs the floor, and looks for lobs or dump offs around the rim for his points. He will never create his own shot. So, Gasol or Ibaka should do absolutely fine on him defensively.
6. Andre Iguodala- Matchup: Kawhi Leonard/Danny Green/Pascal Siakam/Norman Powell
Iguodala is a very unique player within the Warriors system- his versatility on offense and defense makes him very important for their lineups in which they move the ball the most and switch on defense the most. However, he, in whatever lineup he finds himself in, will almost always be no higher than the third option offensively. So, defensively this will likely be a situation of availability. Whoever the longest and most athletic wing is on the floor for the Raptors that isn’t already busy guarding a Curry, Thompson, or Durant will likely be the one guarding Iguodala.
So, these are the options I see the Raptors having defensively this series. Again, Kevin Durant being out will be a major factor for however many games he misses, and it will be very interesting to see how and whether the Raptors are able to take advantage of that. Tune in later this week for Part 3 of this preview- X-Factors for each team and predictions.