Raptors Cage

Sizing Up The Defending NBA Champions

Franchise History Made, and In the Making

The Toronto Raptors punched their ticket to the NBA Finals. Newsflash, you already knew that! After 24 years of existence as a team, with the memories of playoff heartbreak after heartbreak. Here you are Toronto. 4 wins away from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 4 wins away from becoming NBA Champions.

After jumping to an early 2-0 lead, many analysts and sportswriters in the industry called the series “over.” Shoutout to Paul Pierce and Stephen A. Smith. Since then, Nick Nurse and his staff made the adjustment, applying their swarming 3-2 zone keep Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the paint. The Raptors went on to win the next 4 straight. The Raptors solved the Bucks’ puzzle.

But now, the Raptors face a daunting challenge ahead. The defending NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors, are entering their fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. They are without question the early favourites to win the series. Even so, taking a look at these two teams, it could be a lot closer than many think.

Home Cooking in T.O.

Fortunately for the Raptors, they finished the season 58-24, one game ahead of the Warriors. Toronto will have home-court advantage in this series. They will host the first two games at Scotiabank Arena, and will have the right to host games 5, and 7 if necessary. The Raptors will take their 9-2 record at home this postseason to the finals, and finished with a 32-9 record at home during the regular season.

The mentality of the road team in every series is to steal one on the road. If the road team can get the split on the road, it greatly increases their chances. If the Raptors defend home-court, they have a shot at dethroning the champs.

A Recipe for Success?

The Raptors have shown they can compete with the Warriors, albeit in the regular season. This year the Raptors swept the season series against the Warriors 2 games to 0. There are complications in that stat however. For their first matchup, Steph Curry and Draymond Green were unavailable and the Warriors lost 128-131 in overtime. Kevin Durant dropped 51 points in the loss at Scotiabank Arena, and Kawhi Leonard had 37 in the victory.

In the next matchup at Oracle Arena, Kawhi Leonard was on load management while the Warriors had their complete lineup minus DeMarcus Cousins. Oddly enough the Raptors blew out the Warriors on their own court. The final score was 113-93, with Kyle Lowry leading the way with 23 points and 12 assists.

And everyone should understand a regular season series should have no implications on the upcoming series. Just ask the Bucks who won their season series over the Raptors. See how that went for them. Nonetheless the Raptors have shown the ability to compete with the Champs in the regular season. With the personnel the Raptors have now, do they have what it takes to complete their magical playoff run with a title?

Matching Up The Rosters

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry vs. Stephen Curry

One of the more intriguing matchups comes at the point. Kyle Lowry has had enough experience this postseason alone chasing shooters off ball-screens and off the three-point line. Assignments like Terrence Ross in round one, J.J. Redick in round two, and the various shooters the Bucks had in round three have led to this.

Now Lowry has to guard the best shooter of all-time. Seems like a huge step up in competition right? That’s definitely an understatement. Curry has redefined the game of basketball since his rise to superstardom. Now the three-point shot is the most important shot in the game, and Curry’s the best at shooting them.

If the Raptors are to exploit anyone on the Warrior’s defence, it’s most likely Curry. While Curry is a somewhat underrated defender, look for whoever’s switched on the Curry to attack with a drive to the basket. Lowry’s production, especially early has been a major key in Raptor wins this postseason.

Look for Lowry to aggressively attack the paint on drives if Curry’s the primary defender on him, while also involving Curry in a pick-and-roll where the Raptors can make the Warriors pay for having him on the court.

Shooting Guard: Danny Green vs. Klay Thompson

At the two-guard, two deadeye shooters. One has been a no-show thus far during the postseason for the most part. The other remains a deadly shooter who can go off for 20+ on any given night. Danny Green has been somewhat perplexing up to this point. Despite having good, wide-open looks, Green has been unable to capitalize on those attempts.

Green may have the chance to redeem himself in the championship round, as he’s shown capable in the past. Green famously lit the Miami Heat on fire in 2013, and was on his way to a Finals MVP performance if not for the heroics of Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.

The Warriors may become gutsy and put Steph Curry on Green during the series, should Danny continue to have shooting woes early in the series. This would be a mistake. Green just needs one shot to fall. One shot to bring his confidence back. If we’ve learned anything from Fred VanVleet in the East Finals, it just takes one to get going. Hopefully Danny Green gets one to fall.

The key to guarding Klay Thompson for the Raptors is to stay on him past the various screens, and contest his shots. Ideally the Raptors want Thompson to put the ball on the floor, where his finishing ability is far-less deadly compare to his jump shot. Thompson also isn’t that great of a playmaker, which the Raptors can exploit the passing lanes and feed their fast break.

Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant

The marquee matchup. The matchup to decide the best player in basketball. Both have made it to the pinnacle of basketball before, both NBA Champions. What’s interesting here is both players might not be 100% healthy in this series. Kawhi Leonard suffered an undisclosed injury in the East Finals, meanwhile Kevin Durant suffered a calf injury in the West Finals.

Leonard looks to be the healthier of the two, as he didn’t need to sit out any games in the East Finals. For Durant, his injury is reportedly worse than expected. Durant is set to miss at least game 1 currently, but expect him to comeback at some point.

So far Leonard has reminded the world of his game-changing defensive prowess. Shutting down Jimmy Butler in game 7 of the East Semis and slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo in the East Finals are his latest standout performances. And Kevin Durant is another challenge.

Durant is a far better shooter than Butler from deep, and he poses a similar frame to Antetokounmpo. If Steph Curry is the best shooter to ever live, Kevin Durant might be the best scorer we’ve ever seen in the association. The combination of size, shooting, and a tight handle to cap it all off, Durant is the perfect scoring machine.

Even so, the Raptors have arguably one of the best defenders the league has ever seen. Kawhi Leonard’s two-way play right now is being compared to the all-time greats. Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan. What happens when the league’s best scorer matches up with the league’s best defender? What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? You’re gonna have to tune in to find out.

Power Forward: Pascal Siakam vs. Draymond Green

The Power Forward spot sees two very similar players matching up in Pascal Siakam and Draymond Green. Both have similar play-styles, where they handle the basketball for their teams and are playmakers in the offence. Siakam is the better scorer between the two thus far in the playoffs, although Draymond has come alive since Kevin Durant went down to injury.

Draymond on paper seems to be the better defender, and he has the pedigree to show for. Look for Pascal to continue attacking the rim as he has all playoffs. Siakam must protect the ball on Draymond’s reaches to prevent Golden State from getting any fast break points off turnovers.

It’s key that Siakam matches Draymond’s energy on both ends of the court, and especially on the defensive glass. Rebounding has been an issue for the Raptors, and Draymond in particular has been better on the offensive glass in the West Finals. Besides the matchup at the small forward and point guard positions, this matchup seems like a key one that can tip the series in either team’s favour.

If Siakam and the Raptors can neutralize Draymond and his energy, the Raptors have a good chance to win an NBA Championship. When Draymond isn’t a threat to score, the Raptor defence can hone in on the Golden State shooters.

Center: Marc Gasol vs. DeMarcus Cousins

The Center position seems like the hardest matchup to compare. To be honest I haven’t seen much footage of Gasol guarding DeMarcus Cousins before. Going off Gasol’s performances in round 1 and 2 against Nikola Vučević and Joel Embiid, I assume Gasol will be able to contain Cousins.

It might not be a bad assumption considering Cousins is coming off a quad injury suffered earlier in the playoffs. The rebounds is the area where Gasol and the Raptor bigs need to improve on. A big part of defence is completing the stop by grabbing the rebound. Cousins has been a great rebounder previously in his career before joining the Warriors, so Gasol will need to step up there.

Hopefully Gasol will be able to convert some looks at the rim, as outside of Kevin Durant, there are not many imposing shot blockers in the lane that can contest Gasol in the paint.

Bench vs. Bench

The Raptors may have the early edge, considering the re-emergence of Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell in the East Finals. Aside from them and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors currently are a 8-man rotation team. OG Anunoby is still on the sidelines but could possibly return this series. If the Raptors have to go deeper into their bench, someone like Patrick McCaw could be given a shot to contribute in the game.

The Warriors pose some great bench players as well, with Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Quinn Cook, Jordan Bell, and Kevon Looney to name a lot of them. They’re deceptively deep, and pretty underrated for the most part. The defensive edge could lean in the Warriors favour given most of these player’s being defence-first type players.

The bench could be the tipping factor in this series akin to the Eastern Conference Finals. What boost can Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka provide for the Raptors? Will the defensive length and ability of Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, and Jordan Bell provide problems for the Toronto bench mob?

A Quick, Pre-mature 4 Keys to the Series

1. Which Version of Danny Green Will We See?

Danny Green absolutely needs to flip the switch this series. Even without his shooting for a majority of the postseason, the Raptors have made it to the Finals. Danny needs to convert on his open, and even tough contested shots if the Raptors have any chance of dethroning the defending NBA Champions.

He’s due for a breakout game any day now, and he now has the opportunity to do it on the biggest stage yet. Will we see the Danny Green that’s struggling to drain wide-open attempts? Will we see the Danny Green we’ve been accustomed to this past regular season? Or will we see the Danny Green that caught fire from distance to torch the Miami Heat in 2013? Come on Danny, Canada’s rooting for you to knock them down.

2. Can the Raptors figure out how to shut down the Warriors?

The Raptors defence has been their best attribute this postseason. It’s been their calling card. Containing and shutting down stars like Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. There’s no question they have elite defence.

Even so, the Warriors are a different beast. How do you guard a team that features two of the best shooters of all-time and one of the best pure scorers of all-time? Those are the questions Nick Nurse and the team have to address in the coming days, and in the series in general.

You’re not going to out shoot the Warriors. The key path to victory lies on the defensive end. One of the biggest championship clichés is “defence wins championships.” And it certainly helps they got some great defenders on the team, so that’s a start.

3. Who will put an Imprint on the Series?

Every NBA Finals has signature performances and signature plays by the best player in the series. Think of Michael Jordan’s shrug game and flu game. Magic Johnson’s skyhook to put his Lakers up 3-1 versus the Celtics in 1987. Who will put a stamp on this Finals round and lead their team to victory?

Kawhi Leonard has numerous amounts of signature moments already in this postseason alone, and he will look to cap it off in the most important round yet, with the biggest prize in basketball on the line. Kevin Durant looks to add to his legacy of Championships since joining Curry and the Warriors. Who will ultimately impose their will, and guide their team to the promise land?

4. Which Role Players will Step Up?

Like every championship cliché, one that could get overlooked is the importance of role players. This series will be decided by the production, or lack of production from either team’s role players. Toronto’s role players are even more important, given Golden State’s luxury of featuring 3 offensive superstars in Steph, Klay, and KD.

If the Raptors find a way to neutralize at least one or two of the big offensive juggernauts the Warriors have, then the Golden State role players and their production becomes even more important.

There’s a lot to take in between now and Thursday

Luckily for the Raptors they won’t have to answer these questions today. They’ll most likely start searching for answers on Monday. There’s enough time between now and game 1 on Thursday to figure some things out. And the Raptors will learn a lot more when they actually play the Warriors.

For now Raptors fans, enjoy the ride we’ve been on to get here. It’s been a wild 7 weeks. But when we reach game 1 tip-off at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday, it’s all about that moment, then and there. Be like Kawhi. Enjoy the moment for what it is. Have fun. Believe in your team. That’s what sports are all about. I’m really hoping the Raptors can pull off one last miracle. Whatever it takes.

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