NBA Finals Preview

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NBA Finals Preview

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The NBA Finals start this Thursday, the matchup finally set as the Warriors will be taking on the Raptors. First things first, the Raptors pose a real threat to Golden State, this will not be like the last two years where the Warriors could just cruise through. Oh, another change from the last two years? The Warriors won’t have Kevin Durant for the first game (at least?) and the Raptors have home court advantage. That doesn’t mean the Raptors should be favored, because without KD so far this postseason, the Warriors are undefeated. The path to victory for either team will depend on a few key factors, let’s take a look.

1)    Who are the Warriors/Raptors going to start and who’s guarding who?

I think Steve Kerr might be trolling us. Let me explain. The Warriors have four guys that are

clear starters with Durant out in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green. When those four players, the core Warriors from the original championship team, are on the floor, Golden State has a net rating of +2.9.

The fifth guy has changed throughout the playoffs, as the Warriors have switched between Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut, and Damian Jones. This is where the trolling comes in.

Before the Conference Finals against Portland, Damian Jones hadn’t played a minute of basketball since December 3rd. After 58 regular season games and 12 playoff games of sitting on the bench, Steve Kerr finally turned to him against the Trail Blazers. In games one and two, he played just over 3 minutes, compiling 3 points and a single rebound.

And then, for some reason I will never understand, Kerr starts him in Game 3. In 3 minutes of action, he commits three fouls, doesn’t score a point or get a rebound and the Warriors are outscored by five in those 3 minutes. He gets yanked and hasn’t seen a minute since. My conclusion? Steve Kerr is trolling us. Let’s be real here, he could mess around against Portland who…was shorthanded and stood no chance against the Warriors. Kerr won’t be messing around against Toronto.

The fifth guy when the Warriors close games should be Kevon Looney. When he goes out there with the other four Warriors (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green), the lineup has a +5.7 net rating in these playoffs. When you just put Curry, Iguodala, and Green out there with Looey, the rating spikes up to an astonishing +24.5 pts per 100. He’s a perfect fit in this lineup, needing very few touches to be effective as a rebounder and defender. However, he probably won’t start because Kerr likes his impact off the bench, so expect to see Bogut for a few minutes to start the game.

The Raptors should keep the same starting lineup they had for the Milwaukee series, with Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol. That lineup has a net rating of 12.1 and is their most used lineup so far this year.

When you’re looking at how each team is going to matchup, it depends on a lot of varying factors. For the Warriors, they’re going to want to hide Curry as much as possible on defense, making sure he doesn’t get forced to guard Kawhi or Siakam for multiple possessions off switches. This is how the Cavaliers won the 2016 Finals, they just relentlessly ran pick and rolls to force the Warriors to switch Curry onto either LeBron or Kyrie Irving, simultaneously exposing a weak point of the Warriors and tiring out the offensive superstar.

Now, other teams have tried doing this too, to lesser degrees of success. Curry has improved as a defender and the Warriors work extremely hard to avoid those switches. Look at this play here, Curry flashes himself into Harden’s line of sight, allowing Thompson to get back into position without the two having to switch.

So assuming the Warriors go with a Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green, Looney lineup to close games and the Raptors counter with Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam, and Gasol, the matchups should look something like this. The Warriors should put Thompson on Lowry, Curry on Green, Iguodala on Leonard, Green on Siakam, and Looney on Gasol. This allows them to switch any pick and rolls with Lowry and Leonard. Iguodala has always been the first guy the Warriors throw against star forwards, think of LeBron in the Finals, Durant back when he was on the Thunder, or even Leonard on the Spurs. Iggy drew those matchups all the time.

Since Siakam isn’t a huge shooting threat, Draymond can play the role of a rover that he does so well, putting him in position to disrupt drives to the hoop as a help defender.

On the other side, the Raptors should put Kawhi on Curry, Danny Green on Klay Thompson, Lowry on Iguodala, Siakam on Draymond Green, and Gasol on Looney. Putting Kawhi and Siakam on Curry and Green allows for some interesting combinations on the Curry Green pick and roll (more on that in a bit) and allows for some limitations on Curry’s game. The apparent mismatch here is Lowry on Iguodala, but Lowry’s stout base and thick lower body should allow him to contain any post-ups the taller Iguodala would try. Gasol is a dominant defender inside, winning Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) in the past, and putting him inside should allow for some rim protection.

2)    Can Marc Gasol stay on the floor?

After being acquired at the trade deadline from Memphis, Marc Gasol has been an integral part of the Raptors game plan. He’s been a stabilizing force for them and has improved their team in multiple ways.

There’s also a very real chance he will not be able to play in crunchtime during this series.

When the Warriors put Looney or another traditional center on the floor, Gasol should be able to hang. However, when Golden State goes small and puts a wing in there instead, Gasol could be played off the floor, unable to match the speed of the game.

That would be a huge loss for Toronto, because Gasol has become important for them on both ends of the court. In the playoffs, the Raptors net rating drops a point a half when he comes off the floor.

Some good news for Raptors fans, Gasol has been able to play big minutes so far in these playoffs against Orlando and Milwaukee. The Magic played a more traditional center in Nikola Vucevic, who Gasol absolutely destroyed, but the Bucks played a stretch-five in Brook Lopez who gave Gasol fits.

When both Gasol and Lopez shared the floor, the Bucks outscored the Raptors by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, but when Lopez sat and Gasol played, Toronto was able to outscore Milwaukee by 6.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s a full 11 point swing that shows exactly how much trouble a stretch five could give Gasol.

Some more good news, Draymond Green isn’t Brook Lopez. Green is nowhere near the shooter Lopez is, as his value comes more in his abilities as a passer and excellent defender. It’ll be interesting to see if Gasol will stay on the court when the Warriors downsize, or if he’ll be replaced in the lineup by a wing like Norman Powell.

 3)    How are the Raptors going to defend the Curry Green P&R

Once Kevin Durant went down in Game 5 against Houston, the Warriors went back to their bread and butter. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green playing a two-man game that terrorized teams for years and has an in-built chemistry that is just sensational. When those two share the court together, regardless of any other teammates, they outscore teams by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. Just watch this possession right here.

The Trail Blazers trap Curry right here, a common defense, but he dishes it off to Draymond, who now has a 4 on 3 to navigate. His genius shines through, dropping off a beautiful pass to Livingston for an easy bucket.

If you don’t trap and just play the pick and roll straight up, well then Stephen Curry is going to steal your soul.

Quick aside here about Draymond Green who is an extremely underappreciated basketball player. His shooting has left him but when teams just leave him alone, he immediately moves and sets a screen for his guards, generating an easy look they’ll knock down. Defensively, he’s the best player in the league. He won’t win DPOY because he didn’t try at all in the regular season but in the playoffs, he’s been exceptional. Nobody in the league has the ability and effort to read and react like he can. When he steps on the court, the Warriors outscore teams by 11.6 points per 100 possessions, a truly ridiculous number that displays his impact.

So if you’re the Raptors, how do you stop this juggernaut of an attack? To be honest, you can’t, you can only hope to limit it in any way possible. There’s no way to entirely stop this.

If you put Kawhi on Curry and Siakam on Draymond, you’ve got two lengthy, quick, and intelligent defenders on those two players. When Curry gets the screen, use the length of those two players to try and take away any possible shooting or passing angle he has and allow Leonard to get back into position. The second Leonard is able to get back into position, Siakam has to sprint all the way back to wherever Draymond is to cover him. If Curry gets the pass to Draymond, creating the 4 on 3, the Toronto rotations have to be perfect to avoid anyone getting open. For the last four games of the Milwaukee series, the Toronto rotations were perfect, as all five players on the court moved in unison, closing up gaps before they even arose. It won’t be easy, but if any team was equipped with both the personnel and the scheme versatility to control the Curry Green P&R, it’s the Raptors.

4) Who’s going to be 2016 Harrison Barnes (shot 35% from field in Finals)

The 2016 Harrison Barnes award goes to any player who is unable to make shots. It’s named that way because in the 2016 Finals, Harrison Barnes was left open… a lot. He was left open a lot because… he missed a lot of shots. It goes to the role player who should be able to shoot well but is absolutely unable to, costing his team to the point he becomes a pariah and unplayable. So with that being said, who are the candidates for the 2016 Harrison Barnes award.

Danny Green: Green has just been bad so far this playoffs. In the Milwaukee series, he shot 17.4% from behind the arc. That’s not good folks, especially for a career 40% shooter. He’s a starter, but if he keeps missing, those minutes will be going to Norman Powell or Fred VanVleet (another candidate).

Andre Iguodala: Whenever a team needs to leave someone open against the Warriors, it’s normally Iguodala or Draymond Green. Because he’s so involved in the pick and roll, Draymond’s weakness is mitigated, but teams aggressively help off Iguodala, meaning that he has to hit shots, especially with Durant out. So far this playoffs, he’s done that, making 37% of his three-pointers. For the regular season however, he shot just 33% and could slump.

Pascal Siakam: Siakam has always been an inconsistent shooter, but in the regular season he made 37% of his three-pointers. That number dropped to 29% in the playoffs, including a series against the Bucks in which he shot just 25% from behind the arc. Worse than that, he seemed afraid to take even mid-range shots, passing them up for contested layups or passing to players who had worse opportunities than him.

Marc Gasol: Gasol is interesting because his problem isn’t an inability to make shots, it’s a hesitation to take them at all. He gets a ton of open threes, and he needs to have the confidence to take and then make them when he’s left alone because right now, he’s shooting 40% from three.

5)  What happens when KD comes back?

Let’s get this out of the way, the Warriors aren’t better without Durant. He gives them a margin for error they don’t have otherwise. When their offense, which is so predicated on everyone moving 150mph at all times and cutting, driving, and passing in rhythm, gets bogged down by teams that lower the pace and have great defenders, dumping him the ball on the block and telling him to go to work gives them a great fallback option.

They are a lot more fun without him, at least aesthetically, and it makes it an interesting question if/when he comes back. Does their chemistry get messed up as they try to feed him the ball and if he isn’t 100%, can he be effective enough to not screw up their offensive flow. They’ve been great without him so far, but it could be a potential issue if he comes back and isn’t at his full set of abilities. It’ll definitely be interesting to see.

 

Prediction: Warriors in 7

I can’t. I really want to. I really want to say that Kawhi and Lowry will lead the Raptors to their first ever title, and in the postgame celebration Kawhi will finally crack half a smile and declare that he’s resigning with Toronto.

But I can’t pick against the Warriors. They have the experience factor. They’re a slightly better team, especially if Curry is unlocked. They have someone in Iguodala who can actually pose some semblance of resistance to Kawhi.

If Toronto wants to have any chance, they have to win the first two at home. With at least one, and most likely both, without KD, the Raptors have to take advantage. I just don’t see it happening, especially in the last series happening at Oracle Arena. I just can’t see Curry, Thompson, and Green losing four times in seven games. They are too talented, too smart, and too experienced, a combination that should lead them to their fourth title in five years.

*All stats come from Basketball Reference and NBA.com. All videos from NBA.com

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