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Friday, June 14, 2019

Raptors Overcome Valiant Warriors, Win First NBA Title

By the time a playoff series reaches game six, the outcome is determined at least as much by will as by any other factor. The Golden State Warriors displayed tremendous will and grit on many occasions as they reached the NBA Finals five straight times and won three titles--and, in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals, the Toronto Raptors proved that they also have tremendous will and grit. Toronto beat Golden State 114-110 to eliminate the Warriors, close down Oracle Arena and claim the first title in franchise history. Kawhi Leonard was an easy and obvious choice for Finals MVP after averaging  28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg and 2.0 spg against the two-time defending champions. During the 2019 playoffs, Leonard averaged 30.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.6 spg with shooting splits of .490/.379/.884.

By the end of the Finals, the Warriors were playing an "anyone but Kawhi" defense, and Leonard found a way to not only still be productive individually but also to open up opportunities for his teammates, who stepped up big time. You might say that Leonard exercised a certain "gravity" over this series; that would be a good way to explain his impact on Golden State's defense, and his ability to create space for his teammates. Leonard's shooting splits in the Finals were .434/.357.906, but greatness is not only about numbers; it is about impact, and Leonard impacted the Finals like the true superstar that he is. As Paul Pierce noted, Leonard is the dynasty killer: he shut down the Miami Heat after the Heat won back to back titles, and now he shut down the Warriors after they won back to back titles. You could crack a joke that no one in San Antonio will laugh at, and say that Leonard shut down the Spurs' dynasty, too; badmouthing Leonard and making Leonard feel unappreciated has not turned out to be the greatest decision of the Popovich era.

One hot take after the Raptors blew a six point lead with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter was that the Raptors would not be able to overcome such a wound to their collective psyches--but the only people who think that way are people who do not understand that each NBA playoff game is a distinct entity; emotion rarely carries over from one game to the next, but matchup advantages do carry over. With Kevin Durant sidelined for all but 12 minutes of this series, the Raptors demonstrated throughout this series that they had several matchup advantages that they could exploit, and, not surprisingly, that proved to be the case in game six as well. The Raptors quickly dismissed the notion that there would be any game five hangover in game six. Kyle Lowry scored 15 first quarter points as Toronto opened the game with an 11-2 run and still led 33-32 at the end of the first stanza.

The only way that the Warriors sans Durant could even slow down Leonard a little was to send two defenders at him very aggressively and take their chances that another Raptor would not make them pay--but the Raptors have an All-Star point guard in Lowry, a tough and clutch backup point guard in Fred VanVleet, a former All-Star center in Marc Gasol, a young player who looks like a rising star in Pascal Siakam and other players who are more than capable of making contributions. The "anyone but Kawhi" defense is not going to work against a team that is this talented and this well-coached. In game six, Lowry finished with 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds while shooting 9-16 from the field. Siakam added 26 points and 10 rebounds while playing a game-high 46 minutes. VanVleet scored 22 points on 6-14 field goal shooting, including 5-11 from three point range. Gasol missed all five of his field goal attempts and scored just three points but he played good defense while also adding nine rebounds and four assists.

The game was close throughout, and the Warriors led 85-80 when Klay Thompson injured his knee and was not able to return to action the rest of the way. The Warriors were still up 88-86 at the end of the third quarter and they still were ahead with less than five minutes to go in regulation. Stephen Curry, the Warriors' two-time regular season MVP who has yet to win a Finals MVP, scored just four points in the decisive fourth quarter. He missed an open three pointer with eight seconds to go that could have extended the series to a seventh game; Curry is now 0-8 during his playoff career on go-ahead field goal attempts in the final 20 seconds of a playoff game. I am not sure that a statistic like that is particularly meaningful but--for someone who is touted not just as a great player but as potentially a top 10 or top 15 player of all-time--it is significant that he has played in five NBA Finals and never clearly been the best player on the court in any of those series. I cannot think of an all-time great who made that many Finals and always took a back seat to one or more players.

In game six, it could be plausibly argued that Curry was the third most effective point guard: he finished with 21 points on 6-17 field goal shooting while passing for seven assists and committing three turnovers, which does not compare favorably with the numbers posted by Lowry or VanVleet. When a series starts with commentators floating the (ludicrous) notion that the Warriors might be better off without Durant because they have Curry and that series ends with Curry struggling to outplay Lowry and VanVleet, that is not a good line on the "I am a top 15 player of all-time" resume. Curry, like most players of his size, can be worn down over the course of a game, a season or a series. He is a great player, but he is not Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Kevin Durant--or Kawhi Leonard.

Thompson was Golden State's best player during game six. He finished with 30 points while shooting 8-12 from the field (including 4-6 from three point range) and 10-10 from the free throw line. Former All-Star/former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala added 22 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, and Draymond Green had 11 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists, though he also committed eight turnovers and engaged in multiple outbursts that could have--and should have--resulted in a technical foul that would have triggered an automatic suspension for game seven (if there had been a game seven). One got the sense that these referees were not going to call a technical foul on Green no matter what he did unless he reverted to his former ways of hitting or kicking opponents below the belt. Green knew that he had a license to be a whining, complaining jerk and he took full advantage of it--but at a cost to his team, as several of his extended rants took place at the expense of getting back on defense, which is a problem in an elimination game decided by just four points.

There has been a lot of talk about the injuries that the Warriors suffered during the 2019 playoffs but let's remember that the Warriors' dynasty was built more than a little bit on the bodies of All-Stars who were stricken with injuries and not able to play against Golden State--including Leonard himself in the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The injuries also exposed the reality that the Warriors have an embarrassment of riches. After Kevin Durant went down, the Warriors still had a two-time regular season MVP, four current or former All-Stars (one of whom has won a Finals MVP), a former Lottery pick who comes off of the bench and other talented, if not yet decorated, players. The Warriors' ability to remain competitive is not mysterious or magical or the result of "gravity"; this team is a legitimate championship contender even without its best player, which is why the Warriors were a dynasty during the two playoff runs that their best player dominated.

On a personal level, I feel great sympathy and empathy for Durant (who may miss all of next season after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon) and for Thompson (who reportedly suffered a torn ACL). I also respect the way that DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala and Kevon Looney played through injuries--but, on a team level, I don't feel any more or less sympathy for the Warriors than I did for all of the injury-depleted teams that they beat in the playoffs during the past five years. Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game.

It is also a bit odd that so much is said about the Warriors' injuries but little is made of the obvious fact that Leonard has been hobbled for quite some time and that VanVleet played the last two games of this series minus at least one tooth after an inadvertent Shaun Livingston elbow performed involuntary reconstruction (or deconstruction) of Van Vleet's face. I am sure that other Raptors are banged up as well. Granted, no Raptor suffered an injury as serious as Durant's injury (or Thompson's injury if the early reports about his ACL are accurate), but the Raptors did not talk about injuries, did not make excuses and rarely complained about foul calls. They just hooped, and kept hooping, until the knocked off the champs. Golden State suffered a lot of injuries, and some very serious injuries, but the media coverage would make you think that every other team is blessed with perfect health.

The Raptors are a refreshing champion in an odd time in NBA history. The Raptors have no Lottery picks and they did not tank. Can you imagine if one of the executives who the media often praises to the sky had been running Toronto? The Raptors would most likely not be champions now with a different President/GM. Masai Ujiri cannot be praised enough for how boldly and how shrewdly he put this team together. He figured out that the Raptors were good but not good enough; in the new NBA that often means tearing everything down and tanking but instead Ujiri just added the right pieces, including a big, physical center (Marc Gasol) in an era when small ball supposedly is king. Yes, Ujiri was fortunate that Leonard became available but don't forget how down everyone was on Leonard a year ago; Ujiri ignored the noise coming out of San Antonio about Leonard, and he did not concern himself with whether or not Leonard may re-sign with the team this summer. Ujiri also hired a coach, Nick Nurse, who many people had never heard of but whose career Ujiri had been following for years.

The Raptors are a worthy champion, and I hope that they receive the praise and acclaim that they deserve before the media turns its focus to free agency, the draft, the implications of the Durant and Thompson injuries and whatever other topics media members think are more important than acknowledging greatness.

I don't know what is going to happen in free agency this summer and, frankly, on the night that the NBA title is decided I really don't care. There will be more than enough time to think about that, and to discuss whatever happens. What matters tonight is that Kawhi Leonard led a tough-minded Toronto team to a championship, thereby elevating his place in basketball history and also making sure that this Raptors squad will always be remembered.

Let's hope that all of the injured players make speedy and complete recoveries, and that the 2019-20 NBA season turns out to be a great one.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM

16 comments

16 Comments:

At Friday, June 14, 2019 3:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Warriors definitely suffered more bad luck than any other Finals team in history with these injuries. Also, you aren't a fan of basketball if you don't empathize with Durant and Klay losing a year of their prime. Raptors are a worthy champ as they took advantage of every break and never cracked.

David how would you rate Kawhi vs Julius Erving?

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 6:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teams have suffered injuries to key players in the finals in the past too. But it has never been so devastating -- there is a big big difference between, on one hand, a pulled harmstring, tweaked ankle, or something else of the sort that sometimes you can even play through and even if you can't, you are out for a month or two the most, and Achilles and ACL tears on the other.

Not only is there no playing through those injuries, but the players in question are now out for all of next season too.

The fact that Kawhi was hobbled isn't really relevant in comparison. So was Klay, who actually missed a game in the finals, while Kawhi was still out there playing, and playing quite well. Meanwhile they lost Klay up by 5, with him being red hot, and with the momentum on their side.

This is definitely the worst to even happen to a team, probably not even restricting it to the finals alone.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 6:57:00 AM, Blogger jackson888 said...

David,

3 of curry's attempts were 3 quarter-court heaves... accepting hard double-teams and passing to let others make plays is good basketball... isn't curry being walled off the whole game? Hard-double teams wherein both opponents aggressively corral curry whenever a pick and roll action is involved... box and 1...

When a pg splits a double-team action, I see that as the pg making a play himself. When a pg accepts a double-team and passes out of it, i see that as the pg trusting another teammate to make a play. I don't think either is better than the other.

I probably have 12 player jerseys (measure of NBA fandom). 3 Kobe, 1 Nash, 1 westbrook, 1 curry, 1 Garnett, 1 magic, 1 olajuwon, and so on...

I agree with u that Durant is a better player than curry. For the simple fact that Durant is not a liability on the defensive end most of the time while curry can be targeted. And curry just cannot go down the block and shoot over the opponent. And curry's effectiveness is ref-dependent; when refs allow opponents to grab and bump him, he becomes ineffective.

But I just cannot agree that curry is not a good playoff performer. Jordan's explanation in a previous thread is accurate. If we r evaluating the greats, we really have to nitpick. So I agree with u in that sense. I just don't agree that curry might have been the 3rd best of in this series. I also give credit for iggy' s finals mvp to curry for creating open shots by accepting double-teams.

Sometime down the road, maybe u and Nick can bury the hatchet. It is wrong for him to come to your house and disrespect you (sarcastic tone in his posts). But David, if I remember correctly, u wrote an article with sarcastic tone, too. This being your blog, he have the right to do so. He might have been mimicking your tone then. Maybe he got carried away? But the guy does research to buttress his arguments, and has been 1 of ur loyal readers for a long time also.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 8:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

What happened to the Warriors in this particular Finals from an injury standpoint is awful--particularly for Durant and Thompson not just as basketball players but as people who suffered serious and possibly career-altering injuries--but in the overall context of a five year run as contenders the Warriors had better injury fortune, both in terms of their frequency/severity of injuries and the frequency/severity of injuries of their opponents, than most franchises have ever enjoyed. Remember that Irving, Love and Leonard missed all or part of series that their teams could very well have beaten the Warriors. The Warriors could easily have one title now instead of three were it not for help from the "injury gods."

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 8:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Regarding Leonard versus Erving, Erving has a much greater overall body of work at this point, plus a higher peak value (I would take 1976 Erving over not just Leonard but possibly over any player in pro basketball history). From a skill set standpoint, Erving was a better rebounder, better passer and a more consistently dominant scorer. Leonard is a better defender, he is a little bigger and he seems to be significantly stronger, though that could also be a byproduct of an era that features better nutrition and more intense workout programs. Leonard is also a better free throw shooter and a better long range shooter, though it should be noted that long range shooting was not a big part of pro basketball during Erving's career (even in the ABA; teams shoot far more three pointers now than ABA teams ever did).

The larger question here is whether or not Leonard is a Pantheon level player. He played at that level in the 2019 playoffs but I would not put him there yet from a career standpoint. He has the talent to reach that level but part of being in the Pantheon is maintaining that level for an extended period of time.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 8:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson:

I never said that Curry is not a good playoff performer. I said that he is not as good as Durant (or Bryant or James or Leonard).

In this series, Leonard was clearly the best player. Curry had his moments, and he had one scoring explosion but overall Leonard had a greater impact and Leonard had an impact at both ends of the court. Curry averaged 30.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 6.0 apg with shooting splits of .414/.343/.947. Thompson averaged 26.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.4 apg with shooting splits of .541/.585/.875--and due to injury he missed an entire game, plus the fourth quarter of game six. It could be argued that Thompson had more impact than Curry. Draymond Green averaged 12.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 9.3 apg with shooting splits of .433/.263/.857. Considering Green's two-way impact, it could be argued that he had as much impact as Curry during this series. Curry was somewhere between distant second and fourth place in this series. Last night, with the series up for grabs in the fourth quarter, Curry was far from the best player on the court.

With Nick, there is no hatchet to bury. I asked him to move along from a topic that had been beaten into the ground. End of story.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 11:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I cannot think of an all-time great who made that many Finals and always took a back seat to one or more players." ... What about Pippen (6 Finals, back seat to Jordan in all of them)?

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 11:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a lot of people who credit the Box and 1 Defense as to why Curry didn't have a dominant impact on the game. Curry was double/triple teamed, he couldn't do much! Could that stop the likes of Kobe/LBJ/KD? I don't think so.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 12:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Curry was double/triple teamed, he couldn't do much! Could that stop the likes of Kobe/LBJ/KD? "

I think we should make an important distinction here.

There is playing not very well in the finals because you were limited by the opposition, and then there is playing not very well because you yourself did not perform to the best of your abilities.

The latter is what someone like LeBron, who has unmatched physical advantages and thus really cannot be stopped by the opposition no matter what they try when he is at his best, has repeatedly done in the playoffs.

But Curry's case is different - he is an undersized guard who cannot shoot over or muscle his way through double and triple teams, so he can be very effectively stopped through no fault of his own. It's just that size and brute strength matter a lot in this league and he is no LeBron. A team of LeBron/Kobe/MJ/etc. playing at their best together with scrubs often has a fighting chance, a team of Curry and scrubs does not.

Which is not to say that he has not had some real stinkers in the playoffs even relative to what he himself could have done in those particular cases, but people should not be conflating the two reasons for apparent underperforming. Yesterday, once you discount the full-court heaves at the buzzer, he was really 3-8 from 3 and 6-14 in total. Had that been 4-8 and 8-14, which is perfectly reasonable to expect, they win the game, but the big problem is why a player of that caliber takes only 14 shots in such an important game. And that was because the Raptors did not allow him to do more.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 2:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

True--but no one ever tried to argue that Pippen was better than Jordan and should be ranked among the top 15 players of all-time. Curry is a Top 50 player like Pippen and neither guy is just sneaking in at the bottom of the Top 50--but neither guy is in the top 15 or 20, either.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 2:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree. Gimmicky defenses and traps work a lot better against a 6-3 player than they do against players who are 6-6 or taller and are athletic freaks of nature.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 2:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I think that I agree with the point you are making but there is a simpler and more direct way to put it. Shaquille O'Neal was so dominant that even though he was not always in shape and did maximize his potential he still won four titles. LeBron James was so dominant that even though he quit a few times and threw away potential titles he still won three titles. In order to win three titles, Stephen Curry had to maximize his potential to a much greater extent than those guys, and he was never clearly the best/most valuable player during any of the Finals that his team won.

Dominant big guys are in one category, dominant 6-6 and bigger wings are in a similar category (particularly in the past 30 or so years) and very skillful guards who are 6-3 or shorter are in a different category. Jerry West was a stronger, faster and more athletic 6-3 guard than Curry--and probably nearly his equal as a shooter as well--and even he still needed Chamberlain, Goodrich and a good supporting cast to win a title. It is hard to conceive of a scenario in which a great 6-3 guard is more valuable than a great player who is 6-6 or bigger.

That is why the Durant-Curry "debate" quickly grew tiresome to my ears/eyes. That is elementary school stuff, and this site is focusing on post-doctorate level basketball analysis.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 3:40:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

David,

Typos in my earlier post... "I just don't agree that curry might have been the 3rd best pg in this series" and "This being your blog, you have the right to do so".

And I agree that curry is only a distant second best player in this series. I appreciate what he brings to the table, but the result speaks for itself.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 7:27:00 PM, Blogger JF said...

If you watch Curry's missed 3 at the very end of Game 6 (https://twitter.com/TSN_Sports/status/1139377780280266758), note the following:

After Curry shoots, he actually backpedals off of the court (out of play) and stays there passively. Meanwhile, a long rebound comes back in the direction from where he had shot it. Curry might have had a chance at the rebound -- if he'd been on the court and, especially, if he'd followed his miss. Instead, Kawhi gets his hands on the ball; but, due to the scrum, Kawhi can only muster a very high (out of control) dribble -- where the uncontrolled ball rises in the air and then actually falls back to the ground without anyone touching it. (No fault to Kawhi, who instead deserves great credit for his hustle.) The uncontrolled ball was bouncing very near to where Curry had taken his shot -- but he just passively stands there, essentially watching it, without making any effort to corral it. Curry could possibly have gotten the ball -- or gotten fouled going after it -- if he had simply made an effort. If he had recovered the ball, it would have been with more time on the clock (as opposed to when Draymond recovered it) and in a spot well within Curry's all-time-great shooting range. (Even if Curry had fouled a Raptor such as Leonard (i.e., essentially, the Warriors' worst-case scenario), it would have at least stopped the clock and guaranteed the Warriors a chance to tie the game (as the Warriors trailed by only 1 point at the time).)

To recap:

1. Curry could've had a play on the original rebound, if he hadn't been out of bounds when it came off the rim.

2. Curry could've had a play on the loose ball during Kawhi's out-of-control batting of the ball, if he hadn't been standing by watching passively.

3. In either scenario, Curry would have been in a strong position to have a good look at a 3-pointer and/or get fouled, thereby giving his team a real chance to win the game -- vastly better than what the Warriors ended up with (i.e., a rebound past half-court with only 0.9 on the clock, with no timeouts left -- forcing them to incur a technical foul for signaling for a timeout that they didn't have).

4. Instead, Curry (perhaps moping over his missed shot) passively took himself completely out of the play -- and remained out of the play -- when the stakes were at their utmost (i.e, the closing seconds of a deciding Finals Game 6 in his team's last game at Oracle, with a three-peat still in the realm of possibility).

I haven't heard anyone comment on this sequence of events. This should be contrasted with Kawhi's frequent hustle plays in this Series.

What do you think of this?

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 10:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JF:

I think that those are good observations.

I have noticed that Curry has developed a tendency to either pose after he launches a three pointer or to back pedal (as you observed on the final play of game six). I am not sure how long he has been doing this but it seems to me like he does this more and more frequently. A normal follow through is to land close to the spot from which you jumped, whereupon you either pursue a possible rebound or get back on defense (depending on the game situation). With all of the analytics that are available, I would be interested to know if Curry's shooting percentage is better when he has a normal follow through compared to when he poses or back pedals. I would be willing to bet that his shooting percentage is better when he has a normal follow through.

Regarding this specific play, it could be that Curry was tired or that he thought he had made the shot or that he misjudged the ensuing rebound opportunity--but you are right that he should pursued the ball, since this was Golden State's last chance to save the game and the series.

I would not read too much into just that one sequence but, as noted above, I think that some elements of that play are part of a larger issue with his follow through and I believe that his drifting away from a fundamentally sound follow through contributes to the shooting slumps that he has.

I saw nothing during the NBA Finals to change my mind about where Curry should be ranked on a list that includes Durant and Leonard: third.

With all of the talk about how well the Warriors did without Durant, what do you suppose would have happened if all other events had turned out the same but before the Finals the Raptors traded Leonard straight up for Curry? I think that there is an excellent chance that Golden State would win the series in that hypothetical scenario. The difference in value between 6-8 two way player and 6-3 offensive dynamo is not small (and, of course, the same is true for 7-foot scoring machine/above average defender, rebounder and passer versus 6-3 offensive dynamo).

 
At Friday, June 14, 2019 11:04:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...

David, you correctly foresaw the outcome of Game 6, when you replied to my previous guess that the series would go all seven games. I thought that Golden State would overwhelm Toronto, based on Klay Thompson's history of Game 6 heroics, the Warriors riding an emotional wave from the Durant re-injury and the last game ever in Oakland, and the Warriors' championship experience. I was happily wrong, because I cheered for Toronto in these Finals (but otherwise cheered the Warriors in their previous championship runs); the Raptors weathered Thompson's scoring fireworks, relentlessly attacked on both sides of the ball, and Kawhi fittingly sealed the deal by hitting the clinching free throws.

As I previously mentioned, Kawhi is the new Kobe; coincidentally, Leonard's 2019 Finals per-game numbers are very similar to Bryant's 2010 Finals performance against Boston. Both of these MVPs exhibited grit, plus all-around skill and will in their respective series.

Thompson continued his string of Game 6 show-stoppers last night. He's the best 2-guard in the league, and one of the best shooting guards ever. I truly hope that, like Durant, Thompson recovers well and continues playing at his high level for years to come.

Golden State has a great opportunity to re-invent themselves and the overall NBA game (which they've done during their dynasty), after the injuries to Durant and Thompson. Instead of a perimeter-oriented offensive scheme tailored to the Splash Brothers and KD, the Warriors should emphasize an old-school, inside-out offense with (if healthy) Cousins, Green, and Kevon Looney (who's given them decent minutes now) as more prominent (or even primary) scorers, then moving the ball out to Curry, Iguodala, and whichever wings / guards that they acquire or keep. Curry won't have to get beaten down during the regular season by spreading the wealth, and GS gets to develop their depth in time for the playoffs. The Warriors' reign atop the Western Conference is not yet over.

 

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