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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



At Thursday, June 06, 2019 7:15:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Great coverage David. I haven't had time to comment, but I'd like to clear my thoughts.

Giannis & the Bucks:

Great season. I expected them to make the Finals, but this is part of the growing pains. They have an excellent team and this year was good experience. I expect them to be back in the mix next year. Hopefully, they'll add another player that create off the dribble. I won't allow a playoff series change my perspective on Giannis. He is still arguably the best player in the world. I hope he continues to work on his jumpshot.


I underrated this dude so much. You are correct; he is a beast. Until these playoffs, I was unwilling to include him in the "best player in the world" conversation. I hadn't seen enough and felt so many were jumping the gun. I was WRONG. We talked about our top 10s earlier these playoffs and I have to make a revision to make. Kawhi is in the category with Durant, Giannis, and LeBron. You can order those 4 in a few different ways and have legitimate arguments, but I can't rank another player over any of them. This is not an overreaction, but more so a realization that I'm late to the party. Would this be your top 4 David?

This series:

I did not expect the Raptors to make the finals, but here we are. Going in, I predicted Raptors in 7, IF and only IF Durant did not return. I'm sticking to my pick.


Thank you for airing out the double standards applied to other players.

At Friday, June 07, 2019 8:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Kawhi is definitely an elite player. A healthy Russell Westbrook has to be in the top four or five as well. Regarding LeBron James, it will be interesting to see if last season was an aberration, or if age/injuries are eroding his impact to the extent that he is no longer a top five player.

At Thursday, June 13, 2019 6:22:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...


Yes, this season is a little difficult to evaluate in terms of ranking certain players. Westbrook is my favorite player, but I struggle with ranking him over either of those 4 forwards at this point. I'm writing this season off for LeBron and we'll see what he looks like next year. I'd likely take a healthy Durant slightly over Leonard. Giannis was the best individual player during the season, but Kawhi was better in the playoffs. LeBron was de facto until this year so it's a toss-up. All 4 of those guys are bigger, better scorers (Giannis is debatable I guess) and better defenders (probably not old LeBron).

I personally have Westbrook and Curry competing for #5 in my rankings. 2016 was the only year where I felt Curry might have been superior and even then Westbrook was arguably the better player on the Thunder at that point. In a vacuum, give me Russell every day of the week, but I can't argue with Curry and the Warriors' success. I guess going into the 2020 season, both are top 5 with Durant being out.

Davis and George should make it interesting next season. Davis, a 6'10 forward who can score, rebound, and defend at elite levels SHOULD be a top 5 player, but he lacks the impact. George, a guy with the size of those superstar forwards who can also score and defend SHOULD be in consideration for the top 5, but he lacks the consistency.

At Friday, June 14, 2019 2:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It depends on what is being ranked. Kawhi Leonard was the best player in the 2019 playoffs. Giannis was the best player during the regular season. If LeBron is a top five player now based on impact (not reputation) then he is closer to fifth than first. Westbrook is a dominant player who is misunderstood and underrated. Davis has not proven that he can consistently elevate his team's play. Durant was obviously a top five player before he got hurt. George is not in my top five but the media likes him now because they can credit any OKC success to him while still blaming Westbrook for any OKC failures.


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