How the Raptors can dethrone the Warriors

Credit: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

Toronto’s road to the NBA Finals involved achieving a number of feats that were unheard of. Kawhi’s Game 7 buzzer beater against the 76ers was the first ever Game 7 game winning shot in playoffs history. On top of that, the Raptors won the Eastern Conference Finals by beating the Bucks four times in a row, where the Bucks had yet to lose three games in row all season and postseason, let alone four. To win their first ever NBA Championship, Toronto will have to do something that the league has yet to achieve, defeat the KD-era Warriors in a seven game series. Granted, Durant is injured and his timetable to return to the floor is undisclosed, but nevertheless, the Raptors will still have to pull out all stops to beat the back-to-back champs. The Warriors are running hot off a six game win streak and have turned back the clock with their high pick and roll sets and double or triple off-ball screen and cuts. However, the Raptors are well equipped to catch-up against the Warriors with or without KD, and they can dethrone the back-to-back champs by considering the following factors.

Defensive Scheme

The Raptors had an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 108.4 during the regular season, 6th in the NBA. They improved that on through the playoffs with 96.3, 105.1 and 107.2 defensive ratings in each of their respective playoff series. Their success on defense through the regular season and especially in the playoffs has been due to a combination of defensive talent, hard-nosed team basketball and in-series adjustments. They’ll need to rely on these aspects in the Finals too.

Toronto’s led by the 2013-14 NBA Finals MVP and 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard and joining him in the back-court are two strong defenders in their own right in Kyle Lowry and Danny Green. In the front-court they have a rim protector in Serge Ibaka and the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Talent-wise that’s a great defensive core, and when you add Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell and OG Anunoby, the Raptors have great length and instincts to disrupt the Warriors’ pace and space offense.

As a team, the Raptors have shown all post-season that they play for each other and work hard on the defensive end. They switched endlessly against the 76ers, walled up on Giannis and closed out the three point line against the Bucks, all of which are important team defense qualities to stopping Golden State’s offensive weapons.

Most critical to their success is the chess match between the Raptors defense and Warriors offense. Without KD on the court, the Warriors offense is centered on Steph Curry and Draymond Green. Curry’s high-level ball handling, propensity to shoot the three and creative finishes at the rim, causes the popular opinion for Kawhi, to primarily guard Curry. However, this may not be the most effective defensive matchup for the Raptors as a whole. In the last five games, the Warriors up-tempo offense has been dominated by fast break runs and creative play making of Draymond Green. This is an indication that Kawhi could be most effective for the team by defending Draymond.

With Kawhi’s defensive talents and instincts, he has the ability to stifle Draymond before fast break runs past half court, and force the Warriors to slow the ball down. The Warriors are the most dangerous when playing at a high-pace and creating space by driving and passing into open areas of the court. Stopping Draymond Green from controlling the pace and tempo is a first step in slowing them down. Kawhi defending Draymond in half court sets allows the Raptors and Kawhi to have more flexibility when the Warriors run the Draymond-Curry high pick and roll sets. Kawhi can prevent Draymond from making plays close to the rim and can switch onto Curry during high screen and roll plays, preventing the threes or layups Curry typically gets open for. In double or triple off-ball screen sets, Kawhi is in a unique position to prevent Draymond’s passes and to quarterback defensive efforts and play help defense when multiple screen actions free up the Warrior’s players.

If KD returns to the line-up, this will certainly be more difficult to defend. As he’s shown all post-season, Nick Nurse will have to make adjustments to have Kawhi defend the Warriors most dangerous one-on-one player, KD. He will also have to find someone with similar length and mobility to Kawhi, maybe Siakam or Danny Green, to defend and stifle Draymond. The return of OG Anunoby will throw more bodies at the Warriors’ wings. Lowry and the supporting cast have the ability and toughness to fight or switch screens and continuously be in the faces of the Splash Brothers. By preventing Draymond’s play making and slowing KD down with arguably the best defender in the NBA, the Raptors have a chance to prevent the Warriors’ high scoring runs.

Bench and Substitution Patterns

A quick side by side comparison of the bench players shows that the Raptors have a more talented bench and can capitalize on bench play vs the Warriors, where the Warriors have dug deep, most prominently in the sweep of the Trailblazers.

Marc Gasol / Serge IbakaShaun Livingston
Fred VanVleetQuinn Cook
OG AnunobyJordan Bell
Norman PowellAlex McKinnie
Jodie MeeksJonas Jerebko

The Raptors bench, particularly Fred VanVleet (all credit to his baby son, whose birth has seemingly snapped him out of his funk), showed up in a major way against the Bucks, and if the Raptors can rely on the bench unit against Golden State as much as they did against the Bucks, the Warriors explosive offense can be countered to a degree, be being effective in closing large deficits, maintaining leads or matching shot for shot. The short-handed Warriors will be forced to play their stars longer minutes. While players can benefit from longer rests between games during the playoffs, longer minutes can cause star players to fatigue during the late stages of a game, or cause mistakes by way of fouls or mental errors, the Raptors deep bench can help mitigate these situations.

One of the most important questions is the starting scheme and substitution patterns between Gasol and Ibaka. Gasol has better defensive instincts and offensive talent, however Ibaka is more athletic and mobile to help with switching on the Warriors shooters. Nick Nurse will have to be more aggressive in the management of the substitution between Ibaka and Gasol instead of reacting to fouls and the Warrior’s plays. The pending return of Cousins may tilt the starting needle to Gasol, and may create more clear roles for the two players, in which case.may simplify things for the Raptors, so don’t think the return of Cousins is necessarily a positive for the Warriors: the Raptors have the resources to deal with it.

The return of Anunoby during the finals will give Nick Nurse another wing weapon for defense and three point shots. Particularly, if KD returns, Anunoby will be able to help with small ball lineups and more flexible switching strategies.

Nick Nurse will also have to pre-empt the crazy scoring runs of the Warriors’ third quarters, by bringing in enough concentration, energy and intensity from his players. Nurse will have to be prepared to keep Kawhi and the best performing players on the floor during such stretches to make sure that the ball is being looked after, and defensive possessions are hard fought. At some stage, the strategy may even have to extend to the beginning of the fourth quarter. Using a few early timeouts during such scoring runs may be effective in breaking up the scoring bursts.

Home Court Advantage

The Warriors have shown over the last three seasons that home court advantage doesn’t seem to affect their chances too much. However, Toronto and Jurassic Park could play as major factors in the series. The fact that the Warriors have to travel internationally and go through the additional layer of security can give a small edge to the Raptors. The Raptors travel in and out of the United States on a constant basis, whereas the Warriors only ever visit Canada once a year. The additional security and travel arrangements could disrupt their mojo.

Toronto fans will also be in the midst of their first ever Finals appearance and will be absolutely rabid come Games 1 and 2 of the Finals. After witnessing all the action and wins of the postseason so far, the Raptors faithful have so much to believe in and everything to cheer for. There will be an impact of the Raptors fans on Golden State come Game 1.

Home court advantage is so important for the Raptors’ bench, who showed up in a big way against the 76ers and Bucks at home. With their deeper bench talent, familiar home court feel and fan support, the Raptors’ bench can really be disruptive.

Ball Handling Duties

The Warriors defensive philosophy, particularly in the 5 game win streak without KD, has been aggressive trapping and pressure of the ball handler. Due to this, the Raptors will have to look for ways to share ball handling duties and keep the Warriors defense on their toes. Luckily they have Lowry and Kawhi as primary ball handlers, who have a per game turnover rate of 2.8 and 2 per game respectively, which means that the ball is typically in safe hands. Add Siakam’s emergence as a ball handler and rim attacker, and Gasol’s play making ability from the elbow, and the Raptors are well equipped with sufficient ball handlers to share the ball and not allow the Warriors to aggressively pressure and trap individual players. Lowry and Siakam will have to keep being aggressive in penetrating the paint so that they can help create space for Kawhi and the Raptor’s shooters.

From the bench, it’s imperative that VanVleet isn’t forced to shoulder the ball-handling load all by himself, otherwise he could get trapped and turn the ball over. The Raptors have got to have another player by him to assist when the Warriors begin to trap. In this regard, Jeremy Lin, while not having seen too much action in the playoffs so far, might be able to help with securing the ball and ensuring that the Raptors have effective offensive possessions.

And last, but certainly not least…

Kawhi Leonard

Ever since the injury, courtesy of Zaza Pachulia, we’ll never get to see if Gregg Popovich, Kawhi and the Spurs could have beaten the KD-era Warriors in that 2017 first round matchup. This is a chance at revenge for Kawhi and arguably a better supporting cast than the one he had with the Spurs. (Sadly without Pop, just imagine what he could do with this Raptors team.) Kawhi’s efficient, consistent and confident play will permeate through the rest of the Raptors players, as it did in both the Philly and Milwaukee series. This feeling of revenge and confidence in winning will be major mental forces for a franchise in its first ever NBA Finals. Kawhi and Danny Green have both been to the Finals and won, Ibaka has played in the Finals previously and Gasol has come so close in the past. Their experiences will help the younger Raptors players focus and play in the moment. As the Raptors coach and players have repeated multiple times, “we are not satisfied”.

With the game on the line on either offense or defense, the Raptors have Kawhi who can make the huge defensive play just as well as he can make the big buckets. These Warriors could very well be KD-less if we don’t hear the about his status in the week to come, making Kawhi the clear best wing player in the series.  Even with KD on the court, Kawhi has a case to be the best wing player on the court. He’s having the most efficient postseason run ever with 31.8 PPG, 54% EFG% and a 30+ PER. Not only that, but he has a couple of legacy defining moments this postseason, drawing parallels with MJ.

Kawhi’s four-bounce Game 7 clincher against Philly is reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s last ever shot in a Bulls uniform, over the outstretched arms of Byron Russell, Kawhi over the outstretched arms of Embiid. Kawhi’s intense defense on Giannis across the final four games of the Eastern Conference Finals mirrors the defense Jordan played on Gary Payton in the 1996 Finals, ultimately limiting their respective assignments to just a handful of baskets. The championship and narrative is Kawhi’s for the taking. If anyone can drag the Raptors over the finish line and build a new legacy, it’s Kawhi Leonard. He might very well have the last laugh.