The 2019 NBA Finals are here! For anyone who has been trapped on a deserted island for the last year, you won’t be surprised to see the Golden State Warriors in the finals for the fifth straight season but what may surprise you is that they open these Finals on the road vs the Toronto Raptors. Whether it’s because of Kawhi Leonard (it’s because of Kawhi Leonard) or Drake selling his soul to the devil, yes, Kyle Lowry is in the NBA Finals. In this article, I will go through what we can expect to see from both offenses and defenses this series and I’ll provide my prediction at the end. Let’s get started.
It’s rare the NBA Finals carry some injury uncertainty, but we have that with the Warriors as Kevin Durant has already been ruled out in Game 1 and DeMarcus Cousins is questionable. Unsurprisingly, Andre Iguodala is listed as available to play. These injuries matter when it comes to the Warriors as both Boogie and Durant carry a ton of usage.
The sample size for the Warriors without Durant during the regular season is small as he only missed three games. In those three games, the Warriors were less efficient, with a 5.4% decrease in true shooting percentage and an offensive rating down 9.7 points. Individually, during the regular season, Steph Curry’s true shooting percentage decreased by 6.4% with Klay Thompson’s down 1.93%. Both Curry and Thompson saw large usage bumps with Curry at 8.61% and Klay at 10.57%.
The Playoffs, however, have been a different story. Both Curry and Klay have increased their efficiency with Durant off the court while maintaining a high usage. Curry’s bumps are the most noticeable with an 8.14% increase in true shooting to go along with his 9.25% usage bump. Klay’s true shooting improved by 1.63% with an 8.36% usage bump. What does this mean? Well, higher usage with more efficient scoring typically leads to better basketball.
Those metrics include DeMarcus Cousins as part of the Warriors lineup and I expect Cousins to play in Game 1. I don’t expect Boogie to play more than 20 minutes though. During the regular season with Durant and Cousins both off the floor, Curry’s usage was 39.38 while Klay’s was 37.04. During the playoffs, Curry sits at 34.94 with Klay at 27.9. The usage drop is not a concern because Steph Curry’s true shooting is 12.1% higher with both off the court.
The reason for the usage drop is Draymond Green, who is playing the best basketball of his life this postseason, averaging 13.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 8.2 assists, with a 6.1% increase in efficiency and a 7.1% usage bump. Without KD and Boogie on the floor, Draymond Green is the facilitator and leads the NBA this postseason in passes per game (around 6+ more than Jokic). Expect Green to continue to look to get his shooters open while also being aggressive and attacking the rim. The big thing with Green is while teams are letting him take wide open 3s, he’s at least taking and hitting them at a higher clip. I view that as a key in this series. If Dray is hitting 3s and the Raptors start respecting that, it’ll be easier for Curry and Klay to run off of screens.
With the way Draymond and Curry are playing, I don’t expect the return of DeMarcus Cousins to affect them. Who it will likely affect is Klay Thompson, and it’s entirely dependent on the Warriors rotation. During the regular season, the Warriors start of second and fourth quarter rotations were Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, and the bench, AKA the let Boogie eat time. I worry that Boogie’s return throws Klay off of his rhythm just a touch.
I fully expect Kevin Durant to play at some point this series and I don’t think it will throw off the balance of the Warriors offense. Sure, the Warriors have better floor spacing when Kevin Durant doesn’t play but as important as floor spacing is, it becomes slightly overrated when Kawhi Leonard is able to hound Curry and get through every screen. As good as they are, they need Durant in this series so they can attack with whoever Kawhi isn’t guarding. It’s funny that it’s come to the point that saying Kevin Durant playing for the Warriors is a good thing might trigger a debate.
Toronto has a weapon, and I don’t mean the Drake curse; Kawhi Leonard. Quantifying how good Kawhi Leonard is defensively doesn’t even do it justice but just for fun: Kawhi’s opponents’ +/- is -8.1 and opponents are averaging just 10 shots against him per game, hitting at a 42.7% clip. Don’t focus on the efficiency, focus on the volume. Kawhi is smothering whoever he’s guarding.
One thing the Raptors can’t get away with against the Warriors is what they did against the Bucks, going with a modified zone. The Warriors are just too talented of a shooting team. The key for the Raptors on defense is Kawhi being able to get through the countless screens they set for Steph Curry while Durant remains out. I fully expect Kawhi to matchup on Steph until Durant returns, with the possibility they keep Kawhi on Steph and put Siakam on Durant.
The Raptors actually match up well defensively against the Warriors as they’re built to go big, small, or position-less. If Boogie plays, Toronto has an answer in Marc Gasol. If the Warriors go with their death-lineup (when KD is available: Curry, Klay, Iggy, KD, Draymond) Toronto can go with Lowry, Green/VanVleet, Powell, Kawhi, Siakam. Ibaka is also playable against the Warriors death-lineup. We saw less and less of Danny Green in Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals and more of Powell and VanVleet. I expect that trend to regress slightly with Danny Green being an experienced defender on Klay or Steph. I don’t think Green plays more than 30 minutes, but I expect more than the 12-16 he was getting.
The Raptors have been the second-best defensive team in the playoffs with a defensive rating of 102.4, slightly behind the Bucks and 8+ better than the Warriors – a big reason for that is their defensive versatility. Toronto’s defense will make this series competitive.
Although they were able to slow the pace slightly down against the Bucks, the Raptors surprised me in the ECF’s by running with Milwaukee. The majority of people will say that is a mistake to make vs the Warriors, and typically it is, as that’s how the Warriors go on 11-0 runs in under two minutes. However, I like the idea of Toronto running a bit early. I do think we will see Toronto run with Golden State before slowing down and grinding with Kawhi over and over late. Fast-pace is the best way to get over playoff jitters, especially at home.
The Raptors offense is slightly dependent on what they decide to do with their defensive matchups. Against the Sixers, Nick Nurse deployed a new-look HUGE lineup of Lowry/VanVleet, Kawhi, Siakam, Ibaka, and Gasol. He explored that early against Milwaukee but smartly got rid of it rather quickly. I wouldn’t be shocked if Nurse ran that line out early in Game 1, but I’d expect similar results. The lineup I expect to see the most is Lowry, Green/FVV, Powell, Kawhi, Siakam/Gasol. Green, FVV, and Gasol will interchange with the mainstays of Lowry, Kawhi, and Siakam.
The player most affected by when and if Toronto decides to slow it down and work Kawhi is Pascal Siakam, who is at his best when he’s running in transition and is virtually unguardable with his quick low-post spin. I think we see Siakam be aggressive early with Toronto pushing the pace at home before becoming less involved in the offense later in the game.
Marc Gasol is the X-factor for me. In year’s past, the Memphis Grizzlies were the team that zagged with size while everyone zigged with speed and shooting. The Grizzlies weren’t a threat, but they were a pain for the Warriors in the past. Boogie Cousins potentially playing negates some of Gasol’s low/high-post prowess; however, I’m curious if the Raptors will zag and look to get Gasol more involved on offense if the Warriors go small. Gasol and Siakam are mismatches for guys like Looney, Bell, and Jerebko.
To summarize, I expect Toronto to run early, especially at home, and slow the game down with Kawhi, using high screens and potentially some low-post Marc Gasol. I’m curious to see if the Raptors take a page out of the Rockets playbook and look to try and force Steph Curry into one-on-one isolations with Kawhi Leonard. It’s easier said than done and while I’d argue Kawhi is the better player, he isn’t the pick-and-roll force James Harden is.
The Warriors defense is the least significant factor in this series in my eyes and I mean that in a good way. We know the Warriors are elite defensively when they have to be. It’s insignificant because they don’t always have to be. That’s just the nature of the way the Warriors play the game. Their pace and offense are what lead them while they focus defensively on four-to-seven key stops.
In games Durant does not play, we can expect Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson to shadow Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard with Steph Curry hiding on someone like Danny Green, Norman Powell, and/or Fred VanVleet. I wouldn’t be shocked if Draymond took some reps on Kawhi but ultimately, I’d expect him on Siakam and Gasol. Boogie will have to match up with Gasol or Ibaka in his 18-22 minutes I expect him to play. If Boogie does not play in Game 1, we can expect to see the Warriors deploy the three-headed monster of Looney, Bell, and Bogut at center with Jerebko seeing 8-10 minutes.
The way Toronto plays on offense means the Warriors won’t be forced to switch too often into mismatches they don’t want; however, I do think we will see them try and pick on Steph Curry at times. I don’t think that is the end of the world for Golden State as whoever Curry will be guarding (Lowry, FVV, Green, Powell) will struggle to force Iggy or Klay to call for the switch from Curry. Lowry would be the most effective, but again, I think Kerr tries to hide Curry on Green.
The Warriors are amazing but I do feel as if the Raptors are getting slightly disrespected here. Toronto is really good – good enough where I think they would have also swept the Blazers. Kawhi is a top three player in the NBA and the Raptors have home-court. With Toronto rocking, I think the Raptors win Game 1. I also think they will be up 2-1 in this series at some point. If Durant has not returned by then, I’d fully expect him to return in Game 4 – but I think we see him in Game 2 or 3.
People will panic, and Paul Pierce will claim the Warriors are dead, but down 2-1, I’d expect Golden State to win the next three. The return of Kevin Durant changes everything, as, between him and Steph Curry, there is a mismatch that Toronto will struggle to contain. Whoever Kawhi doesn’t guard the majority of the time after Game 3 is my prediction for Finals MVP. I think Curry (the favorite) wins it. The majority say Warriors in 5, so saying Warriors in 6 isn’t that bold of a statement, but I expect Toronto to make Golden State sweat because of their defensive versatility, playoff experience, and Kawhi Leonard.
Enjoy the series!
Game Predictions (just for fun):
Raptors 107 – Warriors 101
Raptors 99 – Warriors 111
Warriors 96 – Raptors 99
Warriors 117 – Raptors 101
Raptors 118 – Warriors 122 (Overtime!)
Warriors 106 – Raptors 102
Stefano Vaccarino is the NBA Product Manager for The Quant Edge. Formerly known as Rotodamus NBA on Twitter, Stefano provides consistently accurate NBA insights and predictions. His perception of the game and understanding of analytics allows him to identify profitable NBA situations.