Perhaps we should have seen this coming.
Since 2013, every single NBA Finals has featured two of these three players, one on either team: LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kawhi Leonard. When LeBron’s Lakers failed to make the playoffs, we should have rightly assumed that Steph would face Kawhi for the title, right?
Perhaps you did see it coming. After all, nearly everyone predicted the Golden State Warriors to make it through the Western Conference gauntlet. Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins is the first 100% All-Star lineup in NBA history. More than that, it looks like one of those teams you might put together in one of those viral you-have-$15-to-create-a-squad-to-save-the-galaxy memes that make their way around the Internet every so often.
But putting together the best five-man unit ever has consequences: depth is a concern for these Warriors. And as Durant and Andre Iguodala fell to calf strains, and DeMarcus Cousins fell to a torn quadriceps, they’ve had to come to rely on their depth during these playoffs.
The results of this have been up and down. First-round pick Kevon Looney has stood out as a legitimate value add due to his rebounding energy and defensive efforts, and Jordan Bell’s done some nice things. But Shaun Livingston looks creakier than ever, former Ute and No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut now finds his primary value in setting sneaky illegal screens, Jonas Jerebko is a surprise when he looks anything but overmatched, and the rest (Alfonzo McKinnie, Quinn Cook, Jacob Evans) are recent G-Leaguers.
But the Warriors have made easy work of the Rockets and Blazers since Durant’s injury, going 5-0 since. And why? The incredible pick-and-roll combination of Curry and Green, which has picked the rest of the West apart since its inception in 2015 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Defenses must choose between letting Curry shoot or drive — spoiler: he’s scoring either way — or letting Green facilitate, and he’s perhaps the best big man ever at making those decisions out of screen plays.
NBA FINALS SCHEDULE
All times MDT
Thursday: Golden State at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Sunday: Golden State at Toronto, 6 p.m.
June 5: Toronto at Golden State, 7 p.m.
June 7: Toronto at Golden State, 7 p.m.
June 10: Golden State at Toronto, 7 p.m.*
June 13: Toronto at Golden State, 7 p.m.*
June 16: Golden State at Toronto, 6 p.m.*
* If necessary
And this is where the unique qualities of the Raptors come in: perhaps more than any team in the NBA, they have the personnel to counter the Warriors’ pet play. Does Toronto coach Nick Nurse have Leonard guard Curry, enveloping the smaller MVP whole? Breakout sensation Pascal Siakam is long and athletic, allowing him to trap and recover with remarkable fluidity. Danny Green has struggled in these playoffs, but if he can find his shot again, he’ll be another valuable defensive piece, perhaps against Thompson. Serge Ibaka could be a formidable defensive help man. This could well be the stoutest defense the Warriors have faced in their playoff history.
On the other end of the floor, it’s been all about Leonard for the Raptors, as he’s averaging 31 points per game during the playoffs. The Warriors will presumably put Green or Iguodala on “The Claw,” but he figures to still be able to score — he’s that good. Pascal Siakam’s spinning drives and energetic scores have been the Raptors’ second-biggest threat, and they’ve been getting knockdown shooting from Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet. If those shots continue to go down, Toronto’s offense will work, and Golden State won’t be able to help too significantly on Leonard and Siakam.
Here’s the X-factor: does Durant return, and if so, when? If he does, Golden State’s offensive threats outnumber Toronto’s defenders, and the Warriors should be able to have the advantage. Durant’s at least out for Game 1, but he is traveling with the team to Toronto, leaving the door open for a return in Game 2. But how effective would he be?
For now, it’s a contrast in styles. It’s Curry, with his exuberance so effective it changed the NBA forever, against Leonard, with his domineering ascetic rigor. It’s the Warriors, a team everyone thought would be here, versus the Raptors, a team that never has been before.
It is, in other words, a wildly compelling NBA Finals. At least until Durant arrives.
Steph Curry vs. Kyle Lowry
Here are Steph Curry’s point totals since Kevin Durant went out with injury: 33, 36, 37, 36, 37. In every way, he’s been brilliant in re-establishing the Warriors’ identity as a pass, cut, and shoot team, the style they blew away the NBA with before 2017. Lowry has been a solid contributor these playoffs, especially against Milwaukee. He’s one of the headiest and scrappiest PGs in the league. Advantage: Warriors
Klay Thompson vs. Danny Green
Thompson stepped up when the Warriors need him most, in Games 5 and 6 vs. the Houston Rockets with matching 27-point efforts. While his performances in the conference finals weren’t so efficient, he still figures to significantly outshoot Danny Green, who has found himself in a dreadful shooting slump at the worst time. If he continues to struggle, Fred Van Vleet will get these minutes, but FVV lacks Green’s defensive bite. Advantage: Warriors
Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard
When will Kevin Durant return? He’s definitely out for Game 1, but he traveled with the team to keep the possibility open of playing in Game 2. Iguodala will start here when he can’t play. But Kawhi Leonard’s scintillating performances this postseason have NBA executives around the league questioning whether he’s the game’s best player right now. For the last 6 weeks, he certainly has been. Advantage: Raptors
Draymond Green vs. Pascal Siakam
The two new NBA styles of power forward in one matchup. On one hand, you have Green, leading the Warriors in assists while making an incredible impact defensively. On the other, you have Siakam, all length, all energy, making one impact play after another. Siakam’s the better scorer, but both of these players are devastatingly effective. Green gets the advantage due to experience, but don’t take your eyes off either. Advantage: Warriors
Kevon Looney vs. Marc Gasol
The Warriors have started either Jordan Bell or Andrew Bogut here, but but the two together haven’t played as many minutes as Looney, who is making a difference through rebounding and defense. DeMarcus Cousins figures to return — he’s questionable for Game 1 — but how much he plays is a huge question mark. Meanwhile, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have proven to be an effective tandem. While Gasol’s started all 18 playoff games, Ibaka might earn more minutes against the speedy Warriors. Advantage: Raptors
The Warriors’ best bench player, Andre Iguodala, figures to be in the starting lineup for as long as Kevin Durant is out. Shaun Livingston can’t play many minutes, and isn’t the positive he used to be. But the Raptors bench features the fiery Fred Van Vleet, a notable scoring threat, as well as Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell. Former Warrior Patrick McCaw even has a place off the bench for Toronto, albeit a small one. Advantage: Raptors
Toronto coach Nick Nurse is a G-League success story, making his name as a brilliant tactician before being hired this year. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr has been a success in every job he’s had: coach of the Warriors, sure, but also as a sharpshooter with the Bulls, GM of the Steve Nash Suns, and even as a broadcaster. Nurse is great, but it’s hard to argue with Kerr’s record. Advantage: Warriors
After four consecutive Warriors-Cavaliers finals, this matchup feels like a fresh chance to examine some legacies. What will it mean for Durant’s legacy if the Warriors succeed without him? On the other hand, if the Warriors struggle without Durant, where does that put Curry all-time? Meanwhile, a title earned by Leonard would put him among the exclusive handful of players who undoubtedly dragged their team to the mountaintop.
Ultimately, the Raptors’ swarming, unforgiving defense will give the Warriors their sternest test ever. But I have equal faith in the capabilities of the Warriors to overcome that test, especially if Durant returns near 100%. Meanwhile, the Raptors’ offense has a brilliant No. 1, but untested secondary scorers in Siakam and Lowry. Gasol, Ibaka, Van Vleet, and even Green could be difference makers, but are inconsistent.
In the end, so much of the matchup relies on the unknowables: the timing and effectiveness of Durant and Cousins' return, Iguodala's play after injury, and the shooting form of the Raptors' perimeter players. But given the Raptors' home court advantage and overall talent level, it's safe to say it will be a closer Finals than the last two. Still, the Warriors are one of the best teams we've ever seen, and they may be significantly changed this offseason. They'll have every incentive to come out of this with one more legacy-bolstering ring.
Warriors in six.