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Friday, May 31, 2019

Raptors Control Game One, Defeat Warriors 118-109

The Toronto Raptors sucked the "gravity" out of the Golden State Warriors and took a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals with a 118-109 win. Prior to this series, there has been a lot of talk about Stephen Curry being better than Kevin Durant because of the "gravity" that Curry creates with his shooting skills and relentless movement without the ball--but in game one, Curry's Warriors trailed for most of the game, scored just 49 first half points and shot just .436 from the field.

Pascal Siakam scored a game-high 32 points for the Raptors, shooting a blistering 14-17 from the field. Siakam shot 6-6 from the field during the third quarter, part of a stretch during which he made 11 consecutive field goals without a miss--the longest such streak during the NBA Finals in 20 years. He also had eight rebounds and five assists. Kawhi Leonard had a poor shooting night from the field (5-14) but his huge fingerprints were all over this game as he scored 23 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished five assists and tied for game-high honors with a +11 plus/minus number during a game-high 43 minutes. If anyone displayed "gravity" and an impact that went beyond field goals made then it was Leonard, not Curry; the Warriors focused a lot of defensive attention on Leonard, and Leonard's teammates took advantage of the opportunities that this created. It was also nice to see no "load management" for Leonard during this game!

Marc Gasol scored 20 points, had seven rebounds and played a major role defensively by pressuring Curry whenever the Warriors forced a switch. Kyle Lowry shot poorly from the field (seven points on 2-9 field goal shooting) but he led the Raptors with nine assists, he had six rebounds and he tied for game-high honors with a +11 plus/minus number that reflects his intangible contributions. Yes, Lowry must shoot better if the Raptors are going to continue to be successful but he had a better game than his shooting numbers suggest. Fred VanVleet scored 15 points off of the bench and tied Leonard and Lowry with a +11 plus/minus number. The Raptors shot .506 from the field in addition to slowing down the Warriors' vaunted offense.

Meanwhile, Curry scored a game-high 34 points but his -9 plus/minus number was worse than the plus/minus number of every player other than Klay Thompson, who had a -10 plus/minus number despite scoring 21 points on 8-17 field goal shooting. Curry scored 13 first half points on 3-10 field goal shooting while amassing a -12 plus/minus number that was caused not only by his poor shooting but also the way that the Raptors targeted his defense.

It should not be surprising that Toronto's ability to throw multiple larger players at Curry--including bigs who can stay with Curry on switches, in addition to long-armed defenders at the point of attack--wore Curry down. This is a classic example of why Curry is not as good or valuable of a player as Kevin Durant is. Durant can shoot or pass over almost any trapping defense, but Curry is too small to do that. ABC's Mark Jackson put it well and succinctly: "Hopefully, this stops the chatter that this is a better basketball team without Kevin Durant." His co-analyst Jeff Van Gundy referred to the "absurdity of the discussion involving Kevin Durant." Those who either blindly love Curry and/or blindly hate Durant will not be swayed by any evidence but those who watch basketball objectively understand what they are seeing. It is possible for a clear-thinking person to simultaneously (1) think that Durant's move to Golden State from a contending Oklahoma City team was soft, (2) appreciate how great Durant has played since joining the Warriors and (3) believe that Curry is a great and special player who nevertheless is not as good or as valuable as Durant is.

Draymond Green had a triple double, but 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on 2-9 field goal shooting is not quite the level of overall impact that the Warriors expect and need from him. 

DeMarcus Cousins returned to the Warriors' lineup after missing 14 games due to a torn left quadriceps, scoring three points and passing for two assists in eight minutes. If Cousins' conditioning will permit him to play more minutes, he could be an important factor in this series, especially if Durant is not able to come back; Cousins can score on the block, he is a good passer and he provides some much-needed size in the paint. Cousins is a former All-Star, and the notion that Golden State is better without him or does not need him is almost as absurd as the nonsense about Curry being better than Durant.

All of that being said, one game does not make or break a series. While it is true that game one winners overwhelmingly tend to win NBA playoff series, if there is any team that can overcome a 1-0 deficit it is the two-time defending champion Warriors. Durant made this team into a nearly unbeatable dynasty but even without Durant and with a limited Cousins the Warriors are still a legitimate championship contender; they could very well win game two on the road and then take two games at home to grab control of the series. The Warriors are capable of winning the championship, but without Durant the path to a title is arduous and does not have much margin for error.

Game two will provide answers to some questions that will foretell the outcome of the series--specifically, are the Warriors a bit rusty after having an extended layoff, or are they just not quite good enough without Durant? If the Warriors were just rusty, then they will win game two and change the dynamic of this series by taking home court advantage. One thing that is evident is that Masai Ujiri has built a tough, defensive-minded Toronto team. He not only acquired Leonard after the San Antonio Spurs misdiagnosed Leonard's injury and then breached Leonard's trust by badmouthing him, but Ujiri surrounded Leonard with smart, tough two-way players. The Raptors are the "anti-Rockets"; the Rockets are full of bluster and "analytics" and flawed strategies that they refuse to adjust even when they miss 27 straight three pointers, while the Raptors are well-constructed, they keep their mouths shut (no whining, no complaining, no flopping) and they play a smart, tough brand of basketball that is well-suited to playoff competition.

So, am I changing my prediction of a Golden State series victory? No. That prediction may turn out to be incorrect, but I do not change my picks after every game, and I do not issue "hot takes." When I do a series preview I do not just predict the outcome but I explain what each team needs to do to win. The Raptors followed their recipe for success--two-way Leonard impact, supported by contributions from multiple members of the supporting cast--while the Warriors did not display their usual focus and composure. Without Durant, the Warriors are good enough to win but their margin for error is greatly diminished. We saw all of those features in game one. Game two may have a different outcome but as long as Durant is out we can expect a competitive series that will likely last for six or seven games; if Durant returns and is anywhere close to his typical form then the series shifts dramatically and decisively in Golden State's favor.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM


Sunday, May 26, 2019

Golden State Versus Toronto Preview

NBA Finals

Golden State (57-25) vs. Toronto (58-24)

Season series: Toronto, 2-0

Toronto can win if…Kawhi Leonard continues to play the best basketball of his career and if he receives adequate support from key players such as Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry. The Raptors will also have to showcase some version of the suffocating defense that shut down Milwaukee during the last four games of the Eastern Conference Finals; obviously, the defense that Toronto will use versus Golden State will not involve a 3-2 zone that dares Golden State's best player to shoot: that worked against Giannis Antetokounmpo but it will not work against the Warriors featuring Stephen Curry and it surely will not work against the Warriors if/when the injured Kevin Durant returns to action.

Prior to this season, Leonard's trophy case included the 2014 Finals MVP, two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2015, 2016), two All-NBA First Team selections and four All-Defensive Team selections (three times on the First Team, one time on the Second Team); this season, despite the "load management" that caused him to miss 22 games and--justifiably--cost him some votes, Leonard made the All-NBA Second Team and the All-Defensive Second Team.

None of those accomplishments foreshadowed what he is doing in the 2019 playoffs. Leonard is averaging a playoff career-high 31.2 ppg with shooting splits of .507/.388/.875. His rebounding (8.8 rpg) and assists (3.8 apg) are both above his career norms and close to his career-highs. Leonard led the underdog Raptors back from a 2-0 deficit against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks to a 4-2 Eastern Conference Finals win that lifted the Raptors to the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance.

Antetokounmpo deserves the 2019 regular season MVP but Leonard outplayed him in this series both individually and, more importantly, in terms of doing whatever needed to be done to elevate his team; watching Leonard in this series was like watching the "anti-James Harden": no flopping, no whining, no histrionics, no choking in big moments, no excuse-making, and the ability to adjust one's game to the requirements of the moment. Harden and his Houston Rockets take pride in following the same flawed game plan even when it is not working, but Leonard and the Raptors adjusted as the series progressed and, by games five and six, seemed to be one step ahead of the Bucks.

Superficially, the way that Leonard has taken his game to another level might seem to justify the "load management" concept but I am still philosophically opposed to "load management" because an NBA team should be constructed to win as many regular season games as possible to thereby obtain the best playoff seeding possible, ensuring home court advantage plus the most direct path to a championship. Winning the championship is the ultimate goal/prize, but I cringe when Kawhi Leonard says that the 82 regular season games are just practice. If Leonard and the Raptors view the regular season as practice and are going to treat it as such then the league should adjust ticket prices, TV revenues and sponsorships accordingly. Leonard is indisputably a great player but if he is going to spend the rest of his prime voluntarily missing at least 20 games per season then that should effect his historical ranking, regardless of how well or poorly the Raptors do in those games, and even regardless of whether or not the Raptors win the 2019 title. It is not right to treat the regular season like an extended training camp.

It is important to note that during those rare moments that Leonard rested during the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors did not collapse. Pascal Siakam has emerged as an All-Star caliber second option, and Kyle Lowry seems comfortable as the third option. Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet were not great all of the time but they made key contributions at critical moments, which is the necessary level of production for the roles that they play. Leonard will do his thing versus the Warriors but that will only be enough if all of those other guys step up as well. 

Circling back to Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, get ready for the "hot takes" as commentators overreact to one playoff series. This season, over the course of 82 games, Antetokounmpo clearly established himself as the NBA's best player and he lifted the Bucks to legitimate contender status. The Bucks were a few possessions away from taking a 3-0 lead against Toronto, which would have all but assured a trip to the NBA Finals. Does Antetokounmpo need to improve his shooting--particularly from the free throw line--and do the Bucks need to come up with a better way to face a 3-2 zone? Yes and yes. Was he somehow "exposed" as not truly great and do the Bucks have significant weaknesses? No and no. Antetokounmpo did not choke, he did not shrink from the moment and his two-way game will likely dominate the league for years to come; he is a superstar at the start of his journey who will learn a lot from his first--and almost certainly not last--Conference Finals appearance.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have a championship mentality and focus unmatched by any team in recent NBA history. No matter who gets hurt, or how big of a deficit this team faces, they stay calm, they stay committed to the game plan and they find a way to win. The Warriors look like a team of destiny. They have the same glint in their eyes that previous dynasty teams did. During their five year run they have sometimes won by domination and sometimes won by determination but--other than blowing the 3-1 Finals lead in 2016--they have always won.

Kevin Durant carried the Warriors through the first round of the playoffs and the first four-plus games versus the Houston Rockets, much the same way he carried the Warriors to back to back titles in 2017 and 2018. After Durant suffered a calf injury late in game five against Houston, Stephen Curry emerged from a shooting slump to reprise the level of play that he showcased during his back to back MVP regular seasons, a level that he had never reached before in the playoffs. Curry averaged 36.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 7.3 apg as the Warriors swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.

Klay Thompson had a subpar shooting series but he still averaged 21.5 ppg against Portland, while also playing his typically stellar defense. Draymond Green may have been the series MVP (though such an award is not officially given out), averaging 16.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 8.8 apg, 2.8 bpg and 2.3 spg. Some will argue that Curry's "gravity" provides openings that enable Green to thrive but, if anything, Portland was guilty of leaving Curry open too often, as opposed to sending so many defenders to Curry that other players were left open; anyway, even if Curry deserves some credit for Green's offensive production, Green not only played at a high level on that end of the court but he also anchored a suffocating defense--and Curry was a target on defense, not a player providing added value.

The Warriors were a championship-winning and championship-contending team before acquiring Durant, so no one should be surprised that they won a series without him, and no one should be surprised if the Warriors win a second series without him. Durant's value consists of transforming the Warriors from a perennial contender into an all-time dynasty, and also providing a much larger margin of error.

The Warriors' margin for error is smaller without Durant. They are rightly favored in this series, but they are also beatable.

Other things to consider: The Warriors are the first NBA team to advance to five straight NBA Finals since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics made it to 10 straight NBA Finals from 1957-66, winning nine titles; by the way, nine titles in 10 years is unlikely to ever be approached again, let alone surpassed: if the Warriors beat the Raptors this year they will not even be halfway toward matching Russell's Celtics! Nevertheless, if the Warriors win the 2019 title they will be the first NBA team to capture four championships in a five year span since Russell's Celtics.

Toronto enjoys home court advantage and superior overall health but nevertheless the intangibles favor Golden State; the Warriors do not look like a team that will collapse after fighting so hard to get back to the NBA Finals: they are not the 2004 Lakers, who were worn down after making it to four NBA Finals during a five year span and who were also beset by internal feuding. The Warriors have had some internal feuding this season but they never really looked like a team divided against itself and they certainly do not look that way now.

Leonard will not likely say so publicly, but this is a revenge series for him personally; his San Antonio Spurs were dominating game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals versus the Warriors when Zaza Pachulia slid under Leonard as Leonard landed after taking a jump shot; Pachulia’s dirty play ended Leonard's season and the Warriors not only came back to win that game but they swept the Spurs en route to capturing the first of the two titles of the Kevin Durant era. Think of how many things might be different for Leonard, the Spurs, the Warriors, the Raptors--and the entire league, for that matter--without that cheap shot! Leonard has historically given the Warriors the business and that figures to continue in this series; what remains to be seen is if his Toronto supporting cast can carry the same load that the Spurs did for Leonard during the 2014 championship run and during the 2017 playoff run that Pachulia ended abruptly.

Leonard is not going to choke and, unless he is taken out by injury, he will play at a Finals MVP level during this series. He will match Curry shot for shot while also providing a lot more impact defensively than Curry does. The championship will be decided by Green and Thompson versus Siakam and Lowry (not necessarily that they will play each other head to head, but in terms of their respective production levels), as well as bench versus bench. Curry is blessed with the best and deepest championship supporting cast in recent memory, and that will carry the day in this series.

If Durant returns and is able to play several games at a high level, this series could end up looking like a coronation before whatever comes next for the Warriors; if Durant does not play or if he is not his normal self, then this will be a competitive series in which the Warriors will grind their way to victory. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 PM