For the fifth straight year the Warriors will appear in the NBA Finals, tying an NBA record, but this will be the first time they will play outside of Cleveland.
And while they have been opposite LeBron James their past four trips, this Toronto Raptors team is probably the toughest team they’ll have faced in the Finals.
Return of the Klaw
The last time the Warriors faced off against Kawhi Leonard it set the wheels in motion that would change the entire direction of both the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors franchises.
Everyone knows the story, the second-seeded Spurs were up 25 before a Zaza Pachulia closeout that sent Leonard out of the series and ultimately out of a Spurs uniform.
Now he returns in a different uniform, with a different supporting cast and a rested body thanks to his highly managed regular season workload. It has allowed him to go all out in the playoffs, as he showed last round when he averaged 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists playing over 41 minutes per game.
Leonard hasn’t shot the ball all that well, but he’s been able to supplement his 44 percent shooting by getting to the line over 10 times per contest. And if there’s a weakness that this Warriors team has shown in earlier series, it’s not fouling.
Lou Williams baited the Warriors into sending him to the line almost seven times a game in the first round and James Harden stretched out the second round shooting 10.2 free throws a game. It’s not a coincidence that those were the series that pushed the Warriors beyond four games.
And while no one compares Leonard and Harden in terms of pure scoring ability, their isolation, foul-drawing style is very similar. Which could either benefit the Warriors since they have already weathered that style or give them their biggest challenge.
Return of Klay?
Along with Draymond Green, Klay Thompson has been the key to the Warriors defensive effort through these playoffs. But while his defense has been on-point, his offense has been lagging a little behind.
He’s been held under 20 points in nine of the 16 games this postseason and shot just 37.8 percent in the Western Conference Finals.
That’s not great for the Warriors secondary scorer especially with Kevin Durant sidelined. Without the Durant safety blanket, Thompson has been largely keyed on schematically.
Because of that, Thompson has tried to create more for himself off-the-dribble, which has led to predictably mixed results. The majority of his shots this postseason have come in tight coverage according to NBA.com, which is classified as a defender within 2-4 feet.
He shoots them at a 42 percent frequency, which is over seven shots a game, but is shooting just 39 percent on them and a paltry 27 percent on 3’s with tight defense. The numbers are bad, but he’s also knocked them in when they matter most.
With the way the Warriors offense is humming right now, they don’t need him to be the insane 30-point quarter Thompson, they just need him to be the consistent scorer he’s proven to be throughout his career.
Injury returns … maybe
The Warriors enter the Finals on a roll, and yet they were missing three key pieces in the Western Conference Finals.
Joining DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant on the sidelines was Andre Iguodala, and although it looks as if he’ll be good to go for the Finals, he probably won’t be at 100 percent.
Same goes for Cousins, whose return looks pretty imminent as he’s listed as questionable for Game 1.
It seems almost unfathomable for the big man to play in his first NBA Finals when he tore his quad early in Game 2 of the first round, but intense rehab has gotten him back on the doorstep of a return. Something the Warriors could really use considering their lack of depth.
But for Durant, the path doesn’t seem as clear for a return. He’s still not doing on court work and has already been ruled out for Game 1.
Even the words used by the team shows a difference between Cousins and Durant. Cousins is “anticipated that he will play in the Finals,” whereas for Durant they are “hopeful that he could return at some point.”
He is traveling with the team to Toronto, which is a good sign. But it’s hard to envision him being anywhere close to 100 percent when or if he returns.
The Warriors need all-hands on deck for this series, but it’s still a question if that is going to be possible.
Matchup to Watch
Draymond Green vs Pascal Siakam
The pair of do-it-all forwards likely won’t guard each other too much as both teams like to cross match and switch, but the Warriors need Green to outplay his counterpart.
Both will likely be left open on the outside, as both have struggled with the 3-point shot this postseason. Siakam is shooting 28 percent for the playoffs, while Green is even worse at 21 percent.
But it’s the other things that they both do that are the most impactful.
Green is nearly averaging a triple-double for the playoffs while playing some of the best defensive basketball the NBA has ever seen. And Siakam always seems to come up with big rebounds, while averaging almost 20 points per game.
If Green can keep the scoring column close, that would be a big win for the Warriors and would almost assure another title. But it really may come down to who hits the most 3’s between the two.
Key Warriors Reserve
Looney has been the best center on the Warriors not named Draymond. While his playoff stats don’t wow you, 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds, he turned it on last round.
He boosted those averages to 10 points and 6.5 rebounds, while shooting a ridiculous 77 percent from the field. He’s also the best player at contesting shots without fouling, which will come in handy against Leonard.
The Raptors also don’t really play a traditional center. Yes, they start Marc Gasol, but he mainly operates on the perimeter or the high post.
And that means Looney will draw most of the backup minutes. He’s shown the ability to switch out on the perimeter with ease and has formed a nice little lob target for Green offensively.
Steve Kerr has already said Jordan Bell will play in the Finals, but it’ll be Looney for the majority of the time, and will probably close games with no Durant.
If there’s one thing Looney has shown in his playoff career, it’s how consistent he is, and the Warriors will need that same consistency with all their injury issues.
Warriors in six to give Oracle Arena the sendoff it deserves.