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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



At Sunday, May 26, 2019 8:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comparison between the Rockets and Raptors was an apt one to me personally because I remember thinking, at multiple points during multiple games in the Bucks-Raptors series, that Harden and Paul would have flipped out at that call going against them. One of Kawhi’s best qualities is how even keeled he is, and you could really see his influence on the team in how the Raptors just went with every call and got back on D.

As always, enjoying your playoff coverage.

At Monday, May 27, 2019 12:47:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

I'm not too surprised that most experts and fans are picking the GSW. Durant is what you said - he turns a championship contender into an all-timer, but he's out a few games, likely the rest of the series. While the GSW are 5-0 without him, they played only one game against a team as strong as the Raptors, and it's interesting to note that only Game 1 was an easy victory. Without Durant, the GSW managed to eke out wins against a team that wasn't as good as the Raptors. If they do fall behind in double digits against the Raptors, they won't come roaring back.

Now. Game 1 is absolutely crucial. If the GSW win, they'll tell Durant to stay home. If they lose Game 1, they'll be under severe pressure to win Game 2. Cuz even with Durant, it's nearly impossible to win 4 out of 5 games. If they go down two games, they'll be pressured into rushing Durant back.

Cousins? He might make a difference if he comes back before Durant, but he doesn't mesh well with their motion offense.

As for Rest versus Rust, the advantage goes to the Raptors cuz they will have had 4 days of rest before Thursday. That's plenty enough, whereas the GSW will have nine days off. Closer to rust-hood.

At Tuesday, May 28, 2019 11:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's also Kawhi's opportunity for revenge in terms of the shade that Durant threw at Kawhi after the Spurs beat the Heat years ago. Durant said at the time that Pop's system made Kawhi great. Well, this many years later I'd like to see the game's best offensive player face off against the best two-way player. Let's see Kawhi take it to Durant and ask him, in so many words, where's Pop's system now punk?

At Thursday, May 30, 2019 2:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

Yes, Kawhi Leonard is providing a great demonstration of the huge gap between a legit first option on a championship contender and an All-Star trying to masquerade as a legit first option on a championship contender.

At Thursday, May 30, 2019 2:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, the Warriors' record without Durant is misleading, for the reasons you suggest; for the most part, they have feasted on inferior teams when Durant was out. Toronto will be a true test. I expect Golden State to prevail but I also do not expect it to be easy if Durant does not play or if Durant plays but is not 100%.

At Thursday, May 30, 2019 2:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, it would be great to see Durant and Leonard go head to head to see who's who and what's what, particularly in light of Durant's comments about Leonard. The Warriors do not have a great answer for Leonard, going all the way back to Leonard's San Antonio days.


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