Throughout their historic playoff run, the Toronto Raptors have faced 2 of the 5 most efficient defenses in the postseason. The Philadelphia 76ers, as they happen to be number 5, and the Milwaukee Bucks who rank as the top defense out of the 16 playoff teams. Starting on Thursday, Toronto will be matched up with the Golden State Warriors who have allowed opponents to score 4.2 points per 100 possessions more than the Sixers had, and 8.4 more than the Bucks, which ranks them as the 9th best defense these playoffs.
Simply put, on paper, this is the worst defense Toronto has faced since round one against the Orlando Magic. And, fortunately, that is something we should all be happy about. It has been no secret that Toronto has experienced some offensive struggles this postseason, especially against the Sixers, and has resulted in the “Kawhi Leonard is carrying” storyline many media outlets and fans have embraced.
Even against Milwaukee, despite some talents (most notably Fred VanVleet) stepping up, Danny Green couldn’t hit a shot to save his life, Pascal Siakam was not only scoring fewer points than usual but at a far less efficient level, Marc Gasol shot 0.8/3.5 on twos (but to be fair he was stellar from deep), while Serge Ibaka’s shooting numbers as a whole took a dip. Hell, even the teams rebounding on offense continued to be a problem and nearly cost us some games, such as the one that ultimately advanced us to the NBA Finals.
However, thankfully for the three aforementioned players, facing Golden State could make life a little easier on them. Let’s focus on the centres first. DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney, and maybe a bit of Draymond Green (perhaps Andrew Bogut if desperate), is what one would likely expect to see from the Warriors at the 5-spot. While we will touch on Draymond later on, I want to discuss Kevon Looney a bit. Due to his size and mobility, he will likely have the pleasure of going against Serge Ibaka most of the time (there could be some Siakam experimentation as well).
Regardless, Ibaka holds an advantage here. Although Looney’s wingspan is slightly larger than Serge’s, Ibaka is stronger, bigger, can rival his athleticism and energy. And, most importantly, he’s smarter with more polish too.
And, well, this is really promising for us. DeMarcus is a bit of a mixed bag as a defender. On the inside, he will be able to use his 15-pound advantage on Marc Gasol, but the couple inches Gasol has on him can balance that out to some extent. Although his post scoring is far from special, Cousins could be the easiest to score on out of all the players Marc has gone against. Throughout his career, he has had a poor defensive reputation. Even on the perimeter, due to his sloppy closeout game, Gasol can make a lot happen whether it originates from his shooting or passing.
Gasol is not the only Raptor who could benefit from this, though.
For someone like Siakam who often gets open corner shots (something Golden state may dare him to shoot for a bit due to recent struggles), he could take the shot with a good amount of space being available, or blow right by Cousins. This is due to his lack of mobility and speed which is something opponents can exploit. Another promising trait would be his weak lateral movement, which would give Pascal a better opportunity to use his explosiveness to attack the rim in a way he just couldn’t against Milwaukee or Philly.
The best part about Cousins on defence, though, is his pick and roll defence. This is something Toronto will likely attempt to exploit, a lot. Due to his absolute hopelessness there, we could see him switched onto a Pascal Siakam, or of course, a Kawhi Leonard. Speaking of Kawhi, not only will he benefit from all the aforementioned traits of DeMarcus, but the two players he will likely matchup with the most show relative promise for him.
Kevin Durant is no better a defender than Ben Simmons or Khris Middleton, just a little different. Whereas Simmons was a bothersome force on the perimeter, making it difficult for Kawhi to get inside and holding him to 29.2% from three on 24 attempts, he would get hurt whenever Kawhi got inside the perimeter. Durant, on the other hand, will be the opposite. While his perimeter defence may be the worst out of any primary matchup Kawhi has faced this postseason, his interior defence is probably the best.
Considering that about 73% of the shots Kawhi takes are inside, this is something that is just a little notable. But first, the way he moves on the perimeter should be easier, and if Leonard it to be like the average playoff player who shot over the reigning finals MVP from deep, his percentage will increase by 2.1%, thus raising his to approximately 1%. One could also argue that it will be easier for Kawhi to attack due to Durant’s perimeter defence (and also since Kevon Looney and DeMarcus Cousins will theoretically be protecting the paint).
However, Durant’s movement, length, strength, and commitment could be enough to bother Kawhi, compensate for Looney’s physical disadvantage as a rim protector, or Cousins lack of IQ and vertical movement. On the other hand, it is hard to see Kawhi become obsolete here (or anything close to that). Aside from the fact that he has been the best player this postseason, Durant’s primary matchups this postseason have shot approximately 54.5% in possessions guarded by him. It is worth mentioning that James Harden actually brings this number down. It is also worth noting that many of these players had disadvantages in skill and size (ala Patrick Beverley), yet still excelled inside the perimeter.
Aside from Durant, Andre Iguodala will likely be placed upon Kawhi too. Despite being an inch shorter, 15 pounds lighter with a noticeably shorter wingspan, he is known for stellar defence. Not only is he a truly admirable defender on the perimeter, but can hold his own inside. However, for Golden State, the best part of Iggy’s defensive efforts would likely be his ability to prevent players from getting to their hot spots, something Kawhi has excelled at this postseason.
Thankfully, for Toronto, there are two positives to this matchup. The first being that Kawhi can make anywhere his spot, and that he has proven capable of fighting through immense coverage to get wherever he wants. The second being that Iguodala has struggled against his opponents this postseason, as they tend to shoot better against him. And, to be fair, when you are guarding elite offensive talents like Harden, Lou Williams, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul most of the time, there are bound to be struggles.
And seeing that Kawhi is an elite offensive player, that could continue. Especially seeing that he is significantly larger and stronger than those players while possessing a high-level of agility.
Filling out the last spot of the frontcourt, we have Pascal Siakam, someone we briefly touched upon when discussing how he could take advantage of the Warriors centre situation. However, for the most part, he will have the absolute pleasure (sarcasm implied) of being guarded by Draymond Green. Now, not only is Draymond the best defender the Warriors have, by far, but he is one of the best defenders in the league.
Only two seasons removed of being acknowledged as the league’s defensive player of the year, he has continued to maintain that elite level of play and it has only elevated this postseason. Considering that Pascal has been roughly averaging 15 points on 39% shooting from the field and 23% shooting from deep since being diagnosed with a calf injury, this is not the most promising matchup on the court. Although he has shown he is getting closer to form recently (about 16 points on 43% and 29% over his last four), there is still a lot left to be desired.
Although Draymond is not the physical specimen Giannis is, giving Pascal an advantage in height and length (which could make it even easier for him to attack the basket), he weighs just as much and has proven strong enough to go against many bigs. The Michigan product is lighter on his feet than he looks, and due to great footwork, he should be capable of keeping up with Siakam in a half court offense. His anticipation should also allow for him to predict what Pascal will do next, and thanks to his method of jumping backward when contesting a shot he won’t be as easy to draw fouls on as he would be otherwise.
It is quite possible that Draymond (and the Warriors) will try to get Pascal to shoot threes, giving him open looks in order to cover up teammates of his who are more of a threat at the moment. Thanks to the horrendous shooting as of late from Siakam, this is a reasonable approach, especially considering that it will also allow Draymond to be a little more prepared and position to contest Spicy P on the drive which is a much more high percentage and comfortable shot for him.
If Siakam is looking anything close to his pre-calf-injury self, that is huge. That provides us with another high-level scorer and ball handler who was quickly getting better at making plays for others. Him being better than he was last round, at least, would be huge. In the event that he is not, with perimeter gravity waning and explosiveness being a little shot, his offensive value is nothing like it was in the regular season, and first 1.5 rounds. Perhaps this long break between rounds has served our most improved player well, and he is feeling much better.
In an ideal world, the same can be said for Danny Green. Yesterday a video was released of him knocking down threes in practice, and despite this being a mere practice, it is very encouraging. Just think of it this way: throughout the entirety of the postseason, he has shot 31% from deep, 29% in the past two rounds, and 17% in the lasts series alone (with a high number of attempts paired to all these percentages). Hell, he is 6/30 on shots that the league considers being legitimately open.
Regardless, Golden State can’t dare him the way they could potentially dare Pascal, or the way we’ll likely dare Draymond, as our Green has shot 43.6% on shots that are wide open. Plus, unlike those two, Green is someone that can heat up relatively easily and had the second-best three-point percentage in the league during the regular season (only behind Joe Harris, who, ironically also struggled in the playoffs). It’ll primarily be Klay Thompson’s job to make sure that he doesn’t get going. Now, the best case scenario for Green is that he won’t have to catch his rhythm in-game and he is already prepared to shoot like an average shooter since Klay Thompson is a pretty damn good defender.
Against Green, one could argue that in a way he will be given a relatively easy matchup. Unlike Klay or a player such as JJ Redick, Danny is not frantically sprinting around the court looking for his shot. Not to say that he does not move around, but due to his lesser movement Klay’s job becomes considerably easier than it was when guarding a Lillard or a, but on the other hand Danny, in a sense, exploits the weaker aspect of Klay’s defensive game.
While Klay is an excellent on-ball defender, so much so that Golden State has the confidence to put him on Damian Lillard and Chris Paul, he is prone to lapses when guarding a player who is moving off the ball, which is exactly what Danny would be. This makes it easier for Green to get in a comfortable position to get his shot off. With all that being said, this matchup is one that is hard to predict, but all-in-all it is positive enough where it is more than possible that Green could have the best series of his postseason.
It is also important to note that in rotations where Fred VanVleet, or maybe even Norman Powell are subbed in for Danny, Klay could be switched onto Kyle Lowry. This is because Kyle is a much more on-ball player who tends to use his speed and body to get him places (especially considering how much more aggressive he has been driving to the rim as of late). As previously stated, Klay’s on-ball defence is elite, and although you can say the same for Eric Bledsoe who guarded Lowry most of the last series, and who Lowry was great against, there is that seven-inch height difference.
This played a bit of a role in Kyle shooting 13/46 in round two against the Sixers, as wing Jimmy Butler has guarded him more than anyone else this postseason. Although Lowry seems more comfortable and confident in his scoring than he has seemed in a long while, the fact that he will not always be matched up with Klay will be nice. Stephen Curry is not as bad a defender as many make him out to be, but he is a reverse Klay, in a way. Elite off the ball, but not as good on it (still capable, though). In theory, it should be easier, or at least no more difficult for Lowry to create for himself when matched up with Stephen (especially considering that he is coming off a great series where he was guarded by an all-defensive first-teamer).
As for VanVleet, chances are he will be matched up with Steph for most of his playing time. A lot of his scoring as of late has come from deep, as his penetration ability often tends to be subpar. For Fred, I don’t see much of a difference in the way he is defended this series versus last, but I also find it hard to imagine he keeps shooting at this historically level. Although it is not impossible to sustain this, it will be as difficult as anything gets for Freddy. On the bright side, it is also hard to see him going back to his “slump streak,” and on top of that, returning to Danny, I can’t imagine he continues to be this bad.
Shaun Livingston will also likely see minutes against our two floor generals, as well as Norman Powell who will be using his athleticism and shooting ability to work against Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as well (simply put, when matched against Curry he can have an easier time getting to the rim and against Klay can look to be an effective catch and shoot player). Although his minutes, in general, will be relatively limited, his size can prove to be effective in short stints, just as Michael Carter-Williams was against Lowry.
Toronto’s offense matches up well against a Golden State defense that is worse than what they have experienced over their past 13 games. This is a series that will be defined by a lot of adjustments (I expect to see Pascal and Draymond playing the 5 at some points), and Toronto is surely capable of winning. However, this postseason, there is one big takeaway I would like to leave here: The Raptors defense is consistently stellar and reliable. The offense is unpredictable and sporadic. To beat Golden State, we will need more offensive firepower than we did in any other series.