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Saturday, June 08, 2019

Kawhi Not? Leonard Leads Way as Raptors are One Win Away From Dethroning Warriors

Kawhi Leonard dominated in all phases of the game as his Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors 105-92 to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Only one team has ever blown a 3-1 Finals lead--the Warriors, in 2016 versus LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. Leonard finished with a game-high 36 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and a game-high four steals while shooting 11-22 from the field (including 5-9 from three point range) and 9-9 from the free throw line. He also had no turnovers in a team-high 41 minutes of action. Leonard is well on his way to claiming his second Finals MVP in the past six seasons. Serge Ibaka contributed 20 points off of the bench in just 22 minutes, Pascal Siakam added 19 points and Kyle Lowry had a significant impact that is not captured by his pedestrian box score numbers (10 points, team-high seven assists).

The most important name in the Golden State box score is the name that did not appear: Kevin Durant. Have you seen any articles in the past few days about "gravity" and about how much better the Warriors are without Durant? The silence on that front is deafening, and refreshing. The playoffs do a wonderful job of myth-busting. Not only can everyone see the truth now about Durant versus Curry but every year in the playoffs we get to examine--and refute--the notion that James Harden is a "foundational player." There are major cracks in the "foundation" when Harden falls apart every postseason without fail and when he cannot lead his team to a series victory against a Warriors team sans Durant who--in case you did not realize it--is clearly Golden State's best player.

Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney both returned from the injuries that caused them to miss Toronto's game three win and they both made significant contributions--a team-high 28 points on 11-18 field goal shooting for Thompson, 10 points and six rebounds off of the bench for Looney--but, as is often the case in the NBA, these games are decided by which team's best player has the most impact. With Durant sidelined, Curry is the Warriors' best player, and he finished with 27 points and six assists while shooting 9-22 from the field (including 2-9 from three point range). Curry did not have a terrible game but he did not have a good game by his standards, and he certainly did not play as well as Leonard did. It should not be surprising that Curry is wearing down as the series progresses. Size matters in the NBA and that is a major reason that guys like Curry and Steve Nash simply are not as good or as valuable as Finals MVPs such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant--and Kawhi Leonard.

Draymond Green narrowly missed posting a triple double (10 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds) but he also had the second-worst plus/minus number on the team (-13) and he often let his temper get the best of him; he was whistled for four fouls and one technical foul but on several occasions he chirped loudly enough to earn a second technical foul and automatic ejection. While Lowry's impact was more than the sum of his boxscore numbers during this game, it could fairly be said that Green's impact was less than the sum of his boxscore numbers during this game.

Much is said about Golden State's championship DNA and grit--deservedly so--but take note that in this key road game the Raptors bounced back to win after trailing by double figures in the first half. The Raptors started out the game shooting 3-13 from the field and in the first quarter Raptors not named Leonard shot 1-13 from the field; fortunately for Toronto, the Raptor named Leonard scored 14 first quarter points on 5-8 field goal shooting, so the Warriors only led 23-17 after the first stanza.

Toronto shot 15-44 (.351) from the field in the first half but only trailed 46-42 at halftime. During the famous "Rope a Dope" heavyweight boxing match between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali, Foreman hit Ali with everything that he had for several rounds before Ali looked at him and asked, "That all you got, George?" Foreman later recalled that this was the moment he realized, "This ain't what I thought it was." The Warriors had their "This ain't what I thought it was" moment in the third quarter, starting with Leonard drilling back to back three pointers to give Toronto a 48-46 lead. The teams traded the lead for a little while but Leonard had set the tone for what turned out to be a 37-21 Toronto third quarter explosion, paced by Leonard's 17 points on 5-7 field goal shooting.

The Raptors led 82-72 with 9:35 left in the fourth quarter after Shaun Livingston hit two free throws. Livingston clocked Fred Van Vleet with an inadvertent elbow on the play, opening a nasty gash underneath Van Vleet's right eye and knocking out multiple teeth. Van Vleet has been a major spark plug for the Raptors. If there was ever a time for Curry to take over and the Warriors to make a series-saving run, that was it--but, instead, Ibaka answered with a three point play on the next possession, Thompson missed a long three pointer and Leonard drilled a "That's all, folks" three pointer to put the Raptors up 88-72. The Warriors never got closer than eight points the rest of the way and when they were down 10 with about two and a half minutes to go Curry uncorked an airball that punctuated the final sentence in the Durant-Curry "debate" that made about as much sense as "debating"whether or not the Earth is flat.

The series is not over until one team wins four games, so now is not the time to place this series in historical context, but two diverse sets of thought come to mind:

1) The last time that we saw a healthy Kawhi Leonard playing for the San Antonio Spurs, they were pounding the Golden State Warriors--with Kevin Durant--before a dirty Zaza Pachulia play took Leonard out of the series. There is a lot of talk about Gregg Popovich and the "Spurs way" but ever since Leonard got hurt and then left San Antonio the Spurs have not been anything special while the Raptors are on the verge of winning the franchise's first title. The common denominator in dominating the Warriors for the Spurs and then the Raptors is Leonard. Alienating and then trading Leonard is not adding much to Popovich's legacy.

2) After hearing so much about "gravity" and about Golden State's regular season record without Durant here are some numbers to consider in the next few days before game five: Curry has no Finals MVPs in his first four Finals appearances, he has a 1-6 record in his last seven Finals games without Durant and in his last full Finals without Durant the Warriors became the only team in NBA history to squander a 3-1 lead. "Gravity," indeed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 AM


Thursday, June 06, 2019

Leonard Leads Balanced Attack As Raptors Subdue Warriors to Take 2-1 Lead

Kawhi Leonard scored 30 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished for six assists while leading Toronto to a 123-109 victory over Golden State in game three of the NBA Finals. The Raptors reclaimed the home court advantage that they lost in game two and they are now two wins away from dethroning the two-time defending champions. All five Toronto starters scored in double figures: Kyle Lowry finally showed up in the Finals (23 points, nine assists), Pascal Siakam had a nice all-around game (18 points, nine rebounds, six assists), Danny Green is no longer missing (18 points, 6-10 shooting from three point range) and Marc Gasol provided physical presence at both ends of the court (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists).

Stephen Curry scored a playoff career-high 47 points while also contributing eight rebounds and seven assists but only two other Warriors reached double figures in scoring: Draymond Green (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Andre Iguodala (11 points, six rebounds, three assists). Kevin Durant remains out of action due to his calf injury and Klay Thompson was a late scratch after hurting his hamstring in game two. The Warriors also felt the absence of Kevon Looney, the center who has been ruled out for the rest of the series after injuring his shoulder.

DeMarcus Cousins, who had a strong performance in game two, looked like he was plodding through quicksand while wearing a 50 pound backpack: he scored four points on 1-7 field goal shooting in just 19 minutes. One of the biggest challenges when coming back from an injury after a long absence is to not only reclaim one's former excellence--we saw more than a glimpse of that in game two--but to maintain that level consistently with a body that is not yet 100% conditioned for extended NBA minutes. Cousins can and will still be a factor in this series but he is a wildcard factor, not a day in, day out factor like he was capable of being before he got hurt.

Curry scored 17 points in the first quarter en route to 25 points in the first half and then he scored 22 points in the second half. He is a great player who had a magnificent game but, that being said, we know that if Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook had scored 47 points on 14-31 field goal shooting while only one other teammate attempted more than 10 shots from the field then there would have been endless talk about Bryant or Westbrook shooting too much, not being efficient and not trusting their teammates. That talk would have been nonsense under any circumstances, and particularly with two All-Stars out of the lineup, so no one should nitpick at the margins of Curry's boxscore numbers. Just remember that the media does not apply the same standards to all players.

Speaking of double standards, the NBA must decide what is a foul on long jump shots and then the league must consistently enforce whatever it decides. Now, chaos reigns supreme.  James Harden flops all over the place and is rewarded. Other players are knocked down and nothing is called. Also, Thompson's injury happened when he was blatantly flopping to try to fool the referees into calling a foul; if the league established standards for shooting fouls and consistently followed those standards then there would be no incentive for Harden, Thompson and others to contort their bodies after shooting the ball as if they are suffering from some kind of serious neurological condition.

The headline in some game stories may relate to Stephen Curry's scoring or the absence of Golden State's injured players but no one should diminish what the Raptors have accomplished thus far or the possibility that the Raptors will indeed win the title; after all, Golden State's current run of excellence began in the 2015 Finals when they defeated a Cleveland team that was missing two All-Star caliber players, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love--two players who, not incidentally, were healthy in 2016 and who each played a major role in Cleveland's Finals victory versus the Warriors, the last time that Golden State lost a playoff series.

Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately, and, in any case, based on what we have been hearing about "gravity" for the past month one might have been forgiven for thinking that Stephen Curry could walk on water while creating enough space to carry any four players to victory. There have been a lot of "gravity" statistics bandied about and a lot of numbers cited pertaining to the Warriors' record with Curry and without Durant, so try this number on for size: the Warriors are 1-5 in their last six NBA Finals games without Durant. In case the tales of gravitational pull warped your memory, you will recall that the Warriors are 8-1 in their NBA Finals games with Durant, during which time they won two titles and he won two Finals MVPs.

Toronto quickly jumped out to a 17-7 lead in game three and the Raptors extended that to 28-16 late in the first quarter. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy correctly noted that the early story was "not about (Golden State) being depleted" but rather about "good offense beating bad defense." The Raptors are a championship caliber team and they would be a contending team in just about any season in recent NBA history, and they deserve credit for that, credit that should not be minimized by endless paeans to Curry or constant lamenting about the Warriors' injuries. One of the reasons that few teams have ever had a five year run like the Warriors' current five year run is that few teams have ever enjoyed as much relative health as the Warriors have--and the Warriors have also been the beneficiary of injuries to not just Irving and Love but also to Kawhi Leonard, whose San Antonio Spurs were beating the brakes off of the Warriors in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Zaza Pachulia took Leonard out with a series-ending cheap shot. So, if you are going to say that the Warriors would have won the 2019 title but for the Durant and Thompson injuries then you also must entertain the notion that the Warriors may not have won the 2015 and 2017 titles had the injury gods not favored them in those years.

Leonard is a throwback superstar in all of the right ways. He has Julius Erving's big hands and gentlemanly demeanor combined with Scottie Pippen's suffocating defense and a free throw/three point shooting touch that neither Erving nor Pippen consistently demonstrated. That is not to say that Leonard is greater than either player--such comparisons generate more heat than light and are not the point of this article--but rather that he is a joy to watch for a basketball purist. Leonard makes the right play, he leads his team quietly but effectively and he does not show up the other team or the referees. At the 6:28 mark of the first half, he was whistled for a charge even though Draymond Green was backpedaling and clearly had at least one foot in the restricted area. Leonard did not yell or complain; he just headed back up court to play defense. I don't know why the San Antonio Spurs chose to publicly trash Leonard and poison their relationship with him but that looks like the biggest mistake by far of the Gregg Popovich era. Leonard is a great player at both ends of the court and if he stays healthy he will remain one of the league's best players for years to come.

ESPN's Jalen Rose often says that the "Third Quarter Warriors" are the NBA's 31st team but Leonard kept the "Third Quarter Warriors" in check in game three, scoring 15 points in the third stanza as the Raptors outscored the Warriors 36-31 to pad their lead and, although the Warriors kept battling, essentially clinch the win.    

In the next 24-48 hours all of the smoke and mirrors about Durant's current condition will disappear. If there is any way that Durant can play in this series, he will be on the court in game four on Friday. If he does not play on Friday, I would be surprised to see him on the court before next season. I will be very surprised if Thompson does not play in game four and I think that there is a better than 50% chance that Durant plays as well. I suspect that the Warriors thought that they had a puncher's chance to win game three without both players and that they also thought that even if they lost then they could win three of the next four games if both players are available the rest of the way--or, Durant may have actually suffered a season-ending injury that the Warriors will not disclose until the season ends, which could be sooner than the Warriors and the bards of  "gravity" ever suspected.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM


Monday, June 03, 2019

Gritty Golden State Beats Toronto 109-104 in Game Two of the NBA Finals

Winning a championship is not always about things being orderly, aesthetically pleasing and smooth; sometimes, winning a championship is about things being chaotic, grimy and rough--and that was game two in a nutshell for the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, who survived a 12 point first half deficit to beat the Toronto Raptors 109-104, even the NBA Finals at 1-1, and claim home court advantage as the series shifts from Canada to California for the next two games.

Klay Thompson led Golden State with 25 points on 10-17 field goal shooting despite playing just 32 minutes; he suffered a hamstring injury late in the third quarter and did not play the rest of the game. The injury apparently happened when he did the splits during his follow through on a long jump shot, in an attempt to fool the referees into calling a foul. The referees did not fall for Thompson's stunt, Thompson landed awkwardly and he favored his left hamstring for the next few possessions before asking out of the game. I do not wish injury on any player, but I despise the way so many players try to cheat the game as opposed to just making plays. Thompson is one of the greatest shooters of all-time; he should concentrate on shooting the ball, not trying to trick the referees. If Thompson had done his normal follow through he almost certainly would not have been injured. Let's hope he recovers quickly--and learns his lesson.

Stephen Curry scored 23 points, dished four assists and had just one turnover but he only shot 6-17 from the field, including 3-10 from the three point line. It was odd to listen to ABC's broadcasting crew bend over backwards to make excuses for Curry, claiming early in the game that an undefined "something" was not right with Curry. There is an old quip among chess players about never beating a healthy opponent, and that seems to be the standard that is applied to Curry; if he is beaten, outplayed or anything less than the greatest thing since sliced bread the only possible explanation is that he is injured, sick or possibly near death. I love Curry's game--and I have never heard him make excuses--but the media coverage that he gets is very biased in his favor. Russell Westbrook played in the first round of the playoffs this season with multiple injuries that subsequently required surgery but no allowances were made in his favor while he played, or after he had those surgeries.

Golden State's best all-around player was Draymond Green, who was all over the court as the point of the spear defensively while also contributing 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

DeMarcus Cousins, who Coach Steve Kerr moved into the starting lineup in just his second game back after missing most of the playoffs due to injury, had a significant impact with 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Cousins' ability to grab a defensive rebound and then push the ball up the court was a major factor during the game-deciding third quarter run. Cousins' comeback from injury is impressive and his performance puts to shame anyone who suggested that the Warriors do not need him or that putting him in the lineup would cause more harm than good. It should be self-evident that inserting an All-Star caliber center into the lineup is a good thing, but then again there are many so-called experts who are convinced that Golden State is better off without Kevin Durant, so one should not assume that anything is self-evident!

Andre Iguodala has turned into this generation's Robert Horry; his eight points, eight rebounds and six assists do not jump out of the boxscore but he made numerous key plays, culminating in the three point shot that clinched Golden State's victory with seven seconds remaining.

Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors with game-high totals in points (34) and rebounds (14) but he shot just 8-20 from the field and committed five turnovers. Despite the low shooting percentage and high turnovers, Leonard did enough as his team's best player for Toronto to win, but his supporting cast let him down.

While no one could have reasonably expected Pascal Siakam to match his game one performance of 32 points on 14-17 field goal shooting, the Raptors need more from him than 12 points on 5-18 field goal shooting. Siakam had a very good floor game (eight rebounds, five assists, no turnovers), but a team's second option must shoot better than Siakam did.

Fred VanVleet scored 17 points but his 7-17 field goal shooting--including 2-8 from three point range--is also not quite good enough. Marc Gasol (six points on 2-7 field goal shooting) was awful, and Kyle Lowry (13 points on 4-11 field goal shooting before fouling out) was not much better. Lowry's advocates claim that he does positive things that do not show up in the boxscore but, while that is true to some extent, he does not take enough charges and make enough savvy plays to compensate for his poor shooting, his excessive fouling and his poor decision making--which culminated in collecting his sixth foul on a reach in 90 feet away from the basket he was defending. The fifth Toronto starter, Danny Green, is appearing on milk cartons throughout Canada; if you see him, please let him know that the NBA Finals are taking place now, his team is participating, and any assistance that he can provide would be much appreciated. 

During the first quarter, the teams traded body blows. Thompson scored the Warriors' first nine points as they jumped out to a 9-7 lead but the Raptors were up 27-26 by the end of that stanza.

Curry missed his first six shots from the field, but then he made his next four attempts. The Raptors led 47-35 after Kawhi Leonard converted a three point play with 5:16 remaining in the first half. Up to that point, the Warriors' defense looked shaky, they were shooting less than .400 from the field and it seemed like they were heading into an 0-2 hole--but the Warriors closed the first half by outscoring the Raptors 19-12, including a 9-3 run in the last two minutes. The boxing cliche states that you have to knock out the champion, and the Raptors had just missed a golden opportunity to deliver a knockout punch. The Warriors blitzed the Raptors 18-0 to start the third quarter and never trailed the rest of the way. That 18-0 run is the longest such run in a Finals game since at least the ABA/NBA merger in 1976.

At halftime, Paul Pierce pointed out that for Golden State to win Curry must have the edge against VanVleet but in the first half those two players were basically a wash. There still are at least three games and possibly as many as five games left in this series, but the NBA Finals once again are heading in a direction away from Curry being the MVP. During his previous four Finals appearances, he has rarely been the best player on the court for any extended period of time--unlike Durant, who was dominant in his two Finals appearances with the Warriors, winning the Finals MVP both times--and that is noteworthy considering how much praise Curry receives and how favorably he is compared with some of the greatest players of all-time. While it is probably true that no Pantheon-level player was the best player in every ABA or NBA Finals in which he played, it must be noted that, other than Oscar Robertson--whose two NBA Finals appearances came late in his career, alongside a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--every Pantheon-level player was the best player in at least one ABA or NBA Finals. Curry's inability to be the best player on the sport's biggest stage is a factor that must be considered when comparing him to the best of the best; yes, he is a Top 50 player, but talk of him being the best point guard ever and/or one of the top 10 or 15 players of all-time is more than a little premature.

Redirecting our focus from historical context to the game at hand, much attention is given to plays that occur in the final two minutes or so of close games--and those plays may very well be significant--but the outcome of an NBA game is often determined by plays that take place much earlier; if you squander multiple possessions prior to the closing moments, you greatly magnify the likelihood that you will be trailing late in the game, which then puts a lot of pressure on you to be perfect or lucky--or both--in order to prevail. If the Raptors had been less careless with their second quarter lead and/or if they had been more focused at the start of the third quarter, then they would not have had to rely on last second plays to try to survive.

That being said, both teams committed some potentially fatal gaffes in the final moments. With 1:08 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Warriors led 106-98; I don't have one of those "win probability" spreadsheets handy but I would be willing to bet that a team leading by eight points with that amount of time left has a 99% chance of winning. Then, Cousins fouled Leonard on a drive to the hoop--and Curry threw the ball high in the air, drawing an automatic technical foul. Curry's foolish loss of focus could have proven costly--but since the Warriors won and the media loves Curry, do not expect to hear much about that play outside of this recap. Leonard made all three free throws, cutting the margin to 106-101.

Draymond Green then committed a turnover and the Raptors snared two offensive rebounds before Danny Green--he's alive!--made a three pointer with 26.9 seconds left. The Warriors only led 106-104 and with so little differential between shot clock and game clock the Raptors clearly needed to (1) foul quickly to extend the game and (2) avoid fouling Curry. The Raptors whiffed on opportunities to foul Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston before the ball found its way to a wide open Iguodala behind the three point line. Iguodala does many things well on a consistent basis, but outside shooting is not one of those things. The percentage play for the Warriors was to bleed as much clock as possible and then either force the Raptors to foul Curry or else launch a field goal attempt just before the shot clock expired, hoping either for a make or a scramble during which time ran out.

Instead, Iguodala took the shot and drained it with 7.0 seconds remaining. It was a bad, or at least questionable, shot and if he had missed it then the Raptors could have secured the defensive rebound, called timeout, advanced the ball and had a great opportunity to go for the tie or even the win. Iguodala's shot was not a good shot--much like Damian Lillard's long heave that eliminated Oklahoma City was not a good shot--but it was a gutsy, confident shot and by making it he sealed the win. Kudos to Iguodala for making the shot but shame on the Raptors for squandering so many early opportunities that they put themselves in a predicament such that they could be beaten by a bad, low percentage shot.

What have we learned about these teams collectively, and some of these players individually, after two NBA Finals games?

1) It is evident that Golden State is not better without Kevin Durant; the Warriors have transformed from a well-oiled machine to a jalopy that is leaking oil but is still able to barely cross the finish line ahead of everyone else. With Durant, the Warriors are one of the greatest teams of all-time; without Durant, they are a solid championship contender that has to grind out wins against other solid championship contenders (Portland was more pretender than contender, but Toronto is the real deal).

2) Kawhi Leonard is a beast but the amount of support that he receives from game to game varies widely and dictates how successful Toronto will be.

3) Stephen Curry is a great player but he is not a dominant NBA Finals performer in the mold of the Pantheon players.

4) Pascal Siakam may very well be a future All-Star but the Raptors will not win this series unless he plays like an All-Star more often than not for the remainder of this series.

5) We keep hearing that Golden State has no depth, but every time someone on that squad gets hurt the Warriors are able to put a former All-Star and/or former Lottery pick into the rotation. When DeMarcus Cousins is healthy he is a proven 25-10 player but the Warriors are so deep they survived for more than a month without him before pushing the "Break in case of emergency" button and starting him in game two of the Finals.

6) It is foolish to overreact to the vicissitudes of one game. Unless Durant comes back and is healthy enough to be his usual dominant self, these teams are pretty evenly matched and this figures to be a long series. Golden State has the edge in terms of championship experience and mental toughness, while Toronto has the best individual player (Kawhi Leonard). We will still likely see at least one more road win--and many more hot takes--before the 2019 champion is crowned.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 AM