The Toronto Raptors will experience the NBA’s version of whiplash when they open the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. After spending the last 13 games going to war against teams with a ton of size but limited outside shooting in the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors now face a Warriors team built around the perimeter and superstar point guard Steph Curry, who commands defensive attention as soon as he crosses halfcourt.
Gone are the days where Toronto could focus on building a wall around the rim and doing everything they can to sell out to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid in the paint. Instead, they’re going to have to play a radically different defensive scheme against Curry and the Warriors.
Whether he’s shooting 30 percent or 60 percent, the entire Golden State offense revolves around Curry. His gravity as a shooter, both on and off the ball, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen from a guard and warps defenses in ways that were previously thought nearly impossible. For the Raptors, designing their defensive scheme starts with containing Curry as well as possible. Toronto possesses a few quality options, both in the player who checks Curry initially and how they’ll handle on- and off-ball screens, as well as his incessant movement without the basketball.
Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet will get the initial assignment and should get the lion’s share of the minutes defending Curry. Neither player is as fleet of foot as their mark, but both will be able to dirty up the game and make things physical. Toronto can afford a bit of extra foul trouble in exchange for the increased physicality, which will manifest itself in a lot of holding off the ball and picking Curry up in the backcourt while he brings up the ball offensively. Tiring and frustrating Curry could pay dividends for a Toronto team that will have to make the series ugly in order to win.
One of the more interesting questions coming into the series is how frequently does Nick Nurse have Kawhi Leonard guard Curry. It wasn’t necessarily a single-handed effort, but switching Leonard onto Antetokounmpo in Game 3 of the Conference Finals was what clicked the Toronto defense into place and allowed them to rack up four straight wins, so it’s fair to wonder whether using Leonard once again against the opponent’s best offensive player is a worthwhile endeavor.
With Kevin Durant sidelined for at least Game 1, Leonard’s on-ball defense may be partially wasted on a player like Andre Iguodala, who is a rather small portion of Golden State’s offense, anyway. Leonard could chase Klay Thompson around screens, but Danny Green should be more than capable of matching up with his shoot-first Warriors counterpart.
The best matchup for Leonard, however, isn’t Curry; it’s his partner-in-pick-and-roll, Draymond Green. Using Leonard as Green’s defender involves him directly in the Warriors’ most dangerous offensive attack and puts the other pieces of Toronto’s defense into place. While Pascal Siakam was a relatively inadequate option guarding Antetokounmpo in the first two games of the Conference Finals, he shined as Eric Bledsoe’s “defender,” essentially leaving Bledsoe to do whatever he wanted from beyond the three-point line in the name of cleaning up messes at the rim and anywhere else his teammates needed. Putting Leonard on Green not only brings the best out of Leonard, but it will bring the best out of Siakam, who can “defend” Iguodala and help everywhere else.
Inserting Leonard into Golden State’s famous Curry-Green pick-and-rolls also allows the Raptors to do something few teams are willing to do: switch that ball screen and live with the results. Green isn’t going to punish Lowry or VanVleet in the post or on the glass, as both are strong enough to ward him off. While it’s perhaps unwise to use Leonard in an every-possession capacity against Curry, he is fully capable of switching onto the all-world point guard and sticking with him through his on- and off-ball movements.
Issues will arise if/when Durant returns, as Leonard will have to defend him. Siakam will revert back to Green, which puts him front and center in the Curry-Green pick-and-rolls that have devastated Houston and Portland in the last two rounds. The Warriors run less of that with Durant in the lineup, but it’ll still be a focus for Toronto’s defensive preparation. Siakam should be able to hold up well enough in an isolation against Curry, but it’s when Curry gives the ball up and starts running through multiple off-ball screens that Siakam risks getting lost. Toronto’s off-ball switching is going to have to be nearly perfect to alleviate any concern Siakam has getting through screens.
Defending Curry and the Warriors is so incredibly different from anything Toronto has had to do in these playoffs that it’s worth wondering whether they’ll be ready from the beginning of Game 1. If they have issues in the first two games, there will be an immediate negative reaction — particularly because those two games are at home — but we’ve now seen three straight series from the Raptors in which they were down early, made the correct adjustments, and stormed back to win.
Against Orlando, they lost the first game before rallying off four straight wins in dominating fashion. Against Philadelphia, they lost Games 2 and 3 before winning four out of five and winning the series in seven. Against Milwaukee, they were down 2-0 before putting Leonard on Antetokounmpo and taking four straight games to reach their first NBA Finals.
It would be nothing new for the Raptors to take an early punch and keep fighting, though doing so with homecourt advantage and against perhaps the greatest team in NBA history would be less than ideal. Throw in the Durant wrinkle — Golden State might be a very different team in Game 3 and beyond than they are in Games 1 and 2 — and some of what Toronto learns in the first two games of the series may not apply as fully across the rest of the games.