Are the Raptors satisfied?
The world isn’t giving the Raptors much of a chance to dethrone the Golden State Warriors, First of their name, Kings of the NBA, Slayers of Lebron, Winners of 3 titles in 4 years, and Fathers of Dragons (I would assume). It seems like the Warriors are inevitable and that the Raptors did well enough just to make the first finals appearance in franchise history. The sense is that the Raptors are playing with house money. They knocked off the 76ers with the most iconic game in franchise history and then they dispatched the likely NBA MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Whatever happens next is just an added bonus.
This narrative is usually just some media constructed BS. But it’s fair to ask whether this way of thinking has actually seeped into the mind of any Raptors’ players. These men are alpha competitors and they will never be content losing, but as Raptors coach Nick Nurse put it, the Warriors are “one of the greatest teams in history.” The Raptors, on the other hand, were somewhat of a surprise eastern conference champion. The expectations on the shoulders of each teams’ players are different. For the last 3 years, it has been championship or bust for the Warriors. But for the Raptors, as Kyle Lowry said, “it’s taken a long time just to get [to the finals].”
The Raptors exercised four years of demons when they advanced past the conference finals. I mean you can actually see the monkey jump off Kyle Lowry’s back in the above video. Is it unthinkable that the team has lost a bit of their edge? I believe it’s possible, however I don’t think it has to be a bad thing. Playing more loose may make the Raptors more dangerous. Less pressure could be good for a young player like Pascal Siakam, who has had his ups and downs the last 2 series.
If there’s one Raptor who doesn’t feel the slightest bit of contentment, it’s Kawhi Leonard. The rest of Raptors team has followed his lead all playoffs and they have demonstrated their resiliency. The team was doubted when they were down 2-1 on the road against the 76ers; then they were discounted when they fell behind 2-0 to the Bucks. Both times the Raptors walked away victorious. Golden State is going to punch Toronto in the mouth during this series. If the Raptors continue to display a dogged, chip-on-their-shoulder effort, then they’ll give the Warriors all they can handle. I expect the Raptors to come out as hungry as ever, ready to defend home court, and eager to show the that they aren’t satisfied just yet.
What Happens if Kevin Durant Returns?
Some people think it won’t matter. Others think it will actually hurt the team. I think that it’s going to sway the series. Without him, the Warriors will not win the championship. Despite an astonishing 31-1 record in the last 32 games with Curry and without Durant, the Warriors have a higher ceiling when Durant plays. And that potential needs to be realized to beat a Raptors team that is a tougher matchup than the worn down Trailblazers.
During the Portland series, the “are the Warriors better without Durant?” discussion took on new life. Many said that the revamped 2015 Warriors are a tougher guard than the Durant version of the Warriors. At times, it did seem like that, but this was in large part due to the Trailblazers playing atrocious defense. They ranked 16th in defensive rating during the regular season and 10th during the playoffs. The Raptors, on the other hand, boast the 5th and 2nd best ranks. And now that the Raptors have had a week to review film of Golden State’s new offense, I am willing to bet they come better prepared to face a Durant-less offense than any team in those 32 games.
A better defensive scheme and perhaps the NBA’s best defensive player with Kawhi mean that things aren’t going to come as easily to the Warriors. They need Durant to be that fail safe. When plays break down and the game becomes a grind, he becomes the most valuable Warrior. When the shooters are cold and the offense is stalling, they need Durant. As great as Curry has been, losing a 2 time NBA Finals MVP is going to catch up with the Warriors at some point.
Durant is one of the most gifted and efficient scorers in league history. Ya’ll know who he is. But he is also a tremendous defensive player. This fact was easy to forget last series when the Warriors faced the guard-heavy lineup of the Trailblazers. However this series, the Raptors’ front-court features big bodies like Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Siakam, and Kawhi. Durant’s defense and rebounding are going to be missed in this series if he is unable to play.
If Durant does return and he plays at a level similar to 2 weeks ago, then the Warriors will get the best of both worlds. They will add Durant to a team that just redeveloped the motion offense that allowed the Splash Brothers to get hot and the role players to gain confidence. That should be a scary thought for every person in Canada…and nearly every American outside of the Bay Area.
How healthy is Andre Iguodala?
Andre Iguodala doesn’t get as much recognition as his teammates, but each postseason, the veteran emerges as one of the most important players on the Warriors. Although he can add timely offense, he finds himself in the Warriors’ death lineup because of his stifling defense. For the past 4 NBA Finals, Andre Iguodala has been tasked as the primary defender for the best player in the world. It seems like he is poised to do it again this year, only this time around he faces the new man holding that title: Kawhi Leonard.
Making things more difficult for Iguodala is a calf injury that has limited him throughout these playoffs. He has sat out of most of the Warrior’s practices in order to heal and strengthen the calf. He believes he is going to be fine for the finals, but his effectiveness is uncertain. His reduced impact wasn’t too worrisome against the Rockets or Trailblazers, but to beat Kawhi and the Raptors, without Kevin Durant, Iguodala is going to have to turn back the clock for one more series. The Warriors feature stellar individual defenders in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but neither one should be expected to check Kawhi for long stretches. Klay lacks the strength and Green doesn’t have the speed necessary to keep Kawhi in check.
Just like with Lebron in years past, Iggy is not going to shut down Kawhi. Nobody can. But his strength and hand quickness can force Kawhi to exert a lot of energy on the offensive end, leaving him worn out on the defensive end and tired for the fourth quarters. Iguodala effects the game in many small ways and his impact does not always jump out on the boxscores. But if he isn’t healthy, you can expect it to show in the game’s final score.
Where oh where is Danny Green?
Without the shooting performances of Fred VanVleet, the Raptors may have never gotten to this point. In the last 3 games of the conference finals, Nick Nurse was quick to sub out Danny Green in favor of VanVleet. It worked.
But Nurse will bench Green for VanVleet against the Warriors at his own peril. Asking VanVleet or Lowry to consistently check Steph Curry is like asking them to catch a bunny. Neither one has the length or agility to chase that damn thing all over the court. And both will get worn down going through the barrage of screens the Warriors set each possession. However, Green’s size and strength afford him the kind of defensive prowess that can limit Curry.
Green has the defensive talent to be a difference maker in this series. To stay on the court and give the Raptors a shot at the upset, he has to find his regular season shooting form, when he shot 45.5% from 3-point range. Performances reminiscent of his 15.3% average during the Bucks series are going to doom the Raptors. Whether it’s having a baby or jumping into the ocean, Green needs to find a way to get his stroke back.
Green will be tasked with guarding each of the Splash Brothers in this series and he will get open looks when the Warriors engulf Kawhi. Green is going to have the chance to leave his imprint all over this game. He is my x-factor for the series. He has been here before and knows what it takes to dethrone the champions. If he gets it going, then watch out Golden State.