Raptors Cage

Defending Golden State: A Breakdown

“Warriors in 6.” Aside from the obvious celebration of the Toronto Raptors making the finals, that’s all I’ve ever really seen since they eliminated the first seeded Milwaukee Bucks last Saturday night. Of course, this is to be expected. Golden State has not only made every single NBA Finals since 2015 with relatively similar star-studded rosters, but they have won all but one of them as well.

This dominance is one that has resulted in fans consistently crowning them as NBA champions before the season even starts, and that has yet to change. On the other hand, you have the optimists like me who are rather confident in how Toronto matches up on both ends of the floor against this behemoth, and that their fit and style is enough to overcome Golden State’s historically strong star-power.

Now, I have seen a number of people like me get shamed in a sense for having said optimism. Regardless, today I would like to take the time to explain why I feel relatively confident facing the Warriors and to begin, I am going to discuss the end of the court this team does best on, being offense, which is what today’s piece will be focused on.

The Golden State offense is centred around lifelong Warrior, Stephen Curry, despite how much people like to make it seem all about Kevin Durant. The gravity the two-time MVP possesses has some of the strongest pull of all time, rivalling and maybe even proving to be superior to that of a prime Shaquille O’Neal. His ability to hit the most difficult of shots at such an efficient level is a defense’s worst nightmare, something that head coaches have blatantly acknowledged.

Said gravity makes it significantly easier for a player like Durant to not only get easier chances to score but to be as dominant as he was this postseason before suffering from an injury. It also allows an elite passer and playmaker like Draymond Green to exploit the opposing defenses obsession with stopping Steph to find the perfect play or to give a great shooter in Klay Thompson an even greater chance to score. And, of course, if the defense is lenient on Curry, he gets to feast. Even if he wasn’t surrounded by three all-stars, his impact could transcend many offenses throughout history.

Simply put, Steph Curry is the offense, everyone else feeds off of his presence.

So what do the Raptors do about this? Well, let’s start off with the guy who many were pitting against Kawhi Leonard for best player of the playoffs. Durant was roughly averaging 34/5/5 on approximately 51/42/90 shooting splits to go with a .655 true shooting. Those are all-time numbers, right there. However, one could suggest Durant had relatively weak defenders on him. Whether it be due to the lack of relative size a Patrick Beverley has, or the generally unfortunate defensive reputation of a Danilo Gallinari.

Against the Houston Rockets, he did struggle against James Harden of all people, but with Harden being a rather good defender in the post these days (and only in the post, to be clear) it’s not ultimately surprising. Regardless, as generic and casual as it may sound, he has yet to go against the likes of a Kawhi Leonard. The new saviour of the Six has often been labeled as the best defender in the league (at least when committed), and he has been living up to that title throughout these playoffs.

Although it is a mere six games, look back to last round where he found himself challenged with Giannis Antetokounmpo, someone whose size, length, strength, athleticism, and intelligence have often made him appear to be unstoppable. When guarded by the 2019 all-defensive second teamer, he shot an alarmingly low 35.3% from the field. To put that in perspective, the 2019 MVP frontrunner shot 57.8% in the regular season and 52.2% in the playoff games leading up to the conference finals.

In all fairness to Giannis, he had more than just Kawhi defending him. Just like Toronto deployed against the Philadelphia 76ers in order to slow down Joel Embiid, there was a significant amount of help defense. And why wouldn’t there be? His physique is that of legend, and he actually knows how to use it to the fullest. Durant on the other hand, due to him not being as strong or freakish as the two aforementioned opponents, Kawhi, in theory, won’t need as much help defense.

Leonard built a reputation off defending scorers who excel in isolation, such as (and most notably) LeBron James. He will be able to match Durant in strength, and to some degree, size, considering his length is enough to go against Durant (especially in comparison to the likes of PJ Tucker). Not to say help defense will be an irrelevant concept here, but it likely won’t be needed as much which will allow the Toronto defenders to focus more on the other players on the court, which will be important.

Then there’s Klay Thompspn, someone who will have to face the likes of Danny Green and at some points, Norman Powell. Klay Thompson is of the JJ Reddick and Terrence Ross type. Players who are excellent at navigating screens and running around the court in order to keep the defense honest, the offense moving, and to get the best shot for them (which is any possible opening no matter how small). However, the difference between Thompson and the others is that he is the best (aside from Curry), and there is no doubt about that.

While Danny is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, he will surely have his work cut out for him in chasing Klay around the court, as this has shown to be something he has struggled with. Redick shot 5/9 from deep when guarded by Green, just imagine how he’ll do against Klay. As for Powell, 1/3 he held Redick to isn’t telling enough, but the ⅙ Ross shot on him, on top of Norm’s stamina, quickness, and defensive intensity which was very evident against Terrence in round one, there is some promise here.

Klay’s reputation is due to his outside offense, which often causes to overlook him as a threat on the inside. Thompson has shot 45.9% inside the arc and on 9.9 attempts. He is a competent cutter and capable of making the catch and shoots two-pointers as well, which makes it even more difficult to guard him. Although his ball handling is far from special, his ability to find a shot anywhere on the court is still elite, and something that can all-in-all become kryptonite for Toronto if he is not dealt with properly. And to do that, a lot of stamina, agility, effort, and intelligence will be needed.

Now, onto the man whose play has once again become appreciated by the public, Draymond Green. When it comes to scoring the ball, Green has been better than some might think, making 61.5% of his twos. However, don’t let that distract you from the fact that he has shot 21.3% from deep, and he’s not afraid to let it fly. As a matter of fact, 73.7% of his shot attempts from deep are what the NBA would classify as wide open, and he’s only made 17.9% of those shots.

What can be taken away from this is that we can expect Toronto to dare him to shoot, and considering he isn’t the best isolation scorer it’s not much to expect him to. However, aside from the lack of stretching, we saw from him in 2016, his offensive game is still deadly, really deadly, to the point where Golden State is comfortable letting him act as the traditional point guard in a handful of possessions. The primary reason for this would be his passing and playmaking ability, as it is legitimately some of the best across the entire league.

Due to his anticipation, vision, intelligence, and even physical traits like his speed, size, and footwork to make the best of everything. Even his scoring ability inside due to those traits plus his strength is enough to attract defenders, and he typically only goes for the best looks. If it isn’t available, chances are there’s someone for him to pass too, and he is more than capable of finding them. Even in transition, his outlet passes and quick-thinking can often pick apart the defense instantaneously.

With Pascal being the man who will likely see a lot of time defending Draymond, there is some mental comfort, though. Siakam is someone who can challenge Green’s speed and strength, and his length coupled with his intelligence is enough to at least bother Green’s vision, passing lanes, and shot attempts. In the opinion of many such as myself, the rising star was Toronto’s best defender this (regular) reason, and for good reason. He has all the tools to give Draymond trouble, and he’s smart enough to use them properly.

As a matter of fact, it is quite possible we could see Kyle Lowry switched onto Draymond. Aside from the obvious size advantage Green holds, one could argue Lowry would succeed here. Due to his infamous grit and grind, his elite intelligence, and his never-stopping motor, he can keep up with Dray and use everything he has to stop him but to also predict what he will do. Regardless, the size mismatch is not favorable which will likely lead to Lowry guarding another player most of the time.

Steph Curry is arguably the best player in the league, at least the best offensive talent. Yes, even 3 seasons removed from his last MVP campaign, and yes, even with the level of play we have seen from someone like James Harden. I have already dived into the idea of how his gravity impacts the team, but aside from that what else does he do? Well, to be frank, everything. He runs around navigating through players, deadly on the catch and shoot, scary with pull-ups, overlooked isolation ability, underrated cutter, better passer than most think, knows how to use his gravity to the fullest to open up activity, etcetera etcetera.

The thing about Curry is even if he’s shooting 3/27, you’re hellbent on ensuring he stays that way, as it is that he is capable of turning his performance around with what seems like ease. The best way to deal with him is to have players who can keep up with him in an intelligent way, and thankfully we do. Kyle Lowry is a relatively elite defender who is relentless, intelligent, and effective, while Fred VanVleet is quick, committed, and pesky.

To stop Curry (without focusing on him and no one else) is a dream that likely won’t become a reality, to make life easier on the team and give him a challenge is something doable. To be specific, these are two players that are capable of keeping up with Curry to some extent, and while he is known for making tough plays, enough can be done where the entire defense will eventually collapse on Steph at a consistent level. With all the other threats on the court, they need to be focused on, and while help defense will be important here, enough can be done where that’s all that will be needed.

Finally, that leaves us with our last matchup, being at centre. DeMarcus Cousins seems ready to play soon, which in a way is good for Golden State considering their only other big large enough to combat Gasol is Andrew Bogut. On the other hand, Cousins will be a far easier assignment than the likes of the versatile Nikola Vucevic, the dominant Joel Embiid, and the ever-impactful Brook Lopez. Due to inefficiency, coming back from injury, adapting to the playoffs once again, and just not being as good, Gasol doesn’t have as much work cut out here.

Even Ibaka should be happy. Despite Cousins still being a pretty big scoring threat while close to the basket, both are more than capable of keeping this version of Cousins working as hard as possible for every damn shot he takes. In the event that Cousins isn’t on the court, he will likely be replaced by Kevon Looney, someone who scares me more than Cousins. The reason for this is offensive rebounding. Due to size and mobility, it would not be surprising to see Serge’s minutes matched with Looney’s, and Gasol’s minutes matched with Cousins’.

Nonetheless, over his last several games, Looney is averaging 3.1 offensive boards which would be good for sixth in the league amongst playoff players. And that is more than a lucky stretch, too. In the regular season, he averaged 2.4 in a mere 18.5 minutes. That’s highly impressive, especially considering its a higher average than what Giannis and Jonas Valanciunas were able to put up, and we already know how talented he is at that.

Anyhow, we have been a top 5 team in defensive rebounding this postseason, which should allow for us to ensure that they don’t get going for the most part. Aside from his rebounding, on offense, Looney isn’t much, and shouldn’t be much of a worry. Like Cousins, he will prove to be a far easier matchup than what our big men have had to face in the three rounds that have led up to this historical moment. This could potentially also allow them to focus on providing help defense in a more team-friendly whenever it’s needed, because despite my talk on how it may not be a big thing on a player like Durant, remember, I’m not trying to say it’s irrelevant.

It’s important to note that aside from all these individual matchups, there will be a lot of switching involved, especially considering how switch-heavy the Raptor D is. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them force Durant on Lowry for the size mismatch the two-time finals MVP will likely take advantage of despite all of Lowry’s admirable work, or we may see Pascal switched up on Curry as he comes off a Draymond screen, leaving Lowry on Draymond, something we have already touched on. Some of these may even be intentional by Toronto, to experiment and adjust in an effort to see what works most effectively against this Goliath.

Luckily, this team is used to all of that and has even strived. They have the versatility, especially with highly-mobile centers such as Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, with guards like Lowry who are more than enthusiastic to give all they got in defending someone who dwarves them in every physical way possible. While I don’t think we will shut down the Warriors and dismantle their offense, you can’t do that. But think we provide them with the best challenge they’ve had all postseason, and are capable of limiting them to some extent. We are a far better defensive team than what they have faced so far, and the numbers and footage back that up. We did just as good as anyone could do against not only the Sixers but the best too.

In conclusion, it’s not the Raptors defense that concerns me when it comes to this series.

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