The BBNBA might not be well-represented during the upcoming 2019 NBA Finals, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t going to be an insane series with plenty of in-game storylines.
While we wait on the status of DeMarcus Cousins and his availability, fans of former Kentucky Wildcats will have to satisfy their basketball craving with the elite level talents of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard (and maybe Kevin Durant?). It’s tragic how spoiled we are. Hopefully Jodie Meeks can steal some minutes here and there, too (Meeks has appeared in 13 of the Raptors 18 playoffs games averaging only five minutes per game. He did not play in Game 5 or 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in which Toronto won both).
So this BBNBA Finals preview is going to be a lot of non-BBNBA related topics. Let’s get right into it starting with some injury updates.
DeMarcus Cousins’ torn quad
As of Thursday morning, the latest on Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins is that he is “pain-free”, according to head coach Steve Kerr, and he is listed as active for Game 1.
Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins will be active to play for Game 1 of the NBA Finals after suffering a torn quad in the first round.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) May 30, 2019
“He’s done an incredible job of rebounding, rehabbing,” Kerr said. “Now here he is, he’s scrimmaged a couple times this week. He’s pain-free. So it’s really more a matter of rhythm and timing and conditioning, all those things.”
Cousins hasn’t played since tearing his quadriceps during Game 3 of the Western Conference first round against the Los Angeles Clippers. The injury was thought to have ended any hopes of him playing in the postseason, but Cousins looks to be on the verge of a return.
But the real issue here will be if Cousins does play. Golden State has waltzed to the NBA Finals without him – and five games without Durant – by playing through Curry. They don’t necessarily desire a big man who needs the ball in his hands, especially one coming off yet another devastating injury. The risk of trying too hard to reincorporate Cousins could derail everything the Warriors have built over the last month. Obviously bringing Cousins back would be a massive bonus on paper, but matching up against Marc Gasol won’t be ideal, either. Even at 34 years old, Gasol is still a viable defender on the block and an excellent playmaker. He’ll feast on the opportunity to work Cousins in pick-and-rolls, testing that quad every trip down the floor. Playing Cousins when the Raptors go small doesn’t sound like fun at all. He’ll be gassed after two minutes of chasing Pascal Siakam around the baseline.
Cousins was incredibly turnover prone during the 30 games he played this season following a torn Achilles. I don’t think the Warriors can afford to run a bunch of test trials to see just how good that leg feels. If Cousins doesn’t contribute immediately, he might not find much time after that.
Kevin Durant’s calf strain
Durant – unlike Cousins – hasn’t returned to practice ever since straining his calf in Game 5 against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals. Durant has already been ruled out for Game 1 and his return is still up in the air. But unlike Cousins, Durant being out is a much bigger deal.
The former MVP was the best player in the playoffs up until his injury. He made averaging 34 points per game look like he was playing against Junior Varsity squads. He morphs Golden State from simply the favorites to world beaters. The Warriors don’t need Kevin Durant to win the Finals, but they’ll absolutely take him. Despite all of the negative media attention and KD-to-NY rumors, his return would shift the entire trajectory of this series in Golden State’s favor. He’s traveling to Toronto with the team, so he could theoretically still play in Game 2, but as of right now I’m going to work under the assumption that he’ll be out a good chunk of this series. The longer he’s out, the longer I think this series goes.
The Raptors will be playing in the franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals after taking down the Milwaukee Bucks in six games during the Eastern Conference Finals. Led by Kawhi Leonard, who was the NBA Finals MVP back in 2014 when he was coming into his own with the Spurs, Toronto has a bonafide superstar. One that can match up just as well – if not better – with anyone on the Warriors roster. During his playoff run this season, Leonard has averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists through 18 games on shooting splits of 50.7/38.8/87.5 (FG%/3PT/FT%). He’s the one player that the Raptors can rely on every single night to play to the best of his ability.
Leonard has been unstoppable. With Durant out and LeBron James at home eating tacos, Leonard is the best basketball player in the world right now. He struck a dagger into the heart of Philadelphia and sent the supposed MVP packing in his home arena. If there is one thing I will all but guarantee, it’s that Leonard will win at least one for the Raptors game by himself. The longer Durant is out, the more flexibility Leonard will have on offense. He should average upwards of 30 points per game.
But outside of Leonard is a loaded bench that all made major contributions when their team needed them the most. Players such as Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka have all had bursts of productivity that have saved this team time and time again. VanVleet’s seven triples in Game 5. Powell scoring 19 points in Game 3 then another 18 in Game 4. Gasol posted 16 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists in Game 3. It’s been a collective effort that starts with Leonard and goes all the way down to the eighth-man.
The only player for Toronto who has struggled is Danny Green. The former Spur has played poorly on both ends of the court throughout the playoffs and the Raptors are going to need his versatility to defend Steph Curry/Klay Thompson. Green shot worse than 19 percent from the field against the Bucks and made only four of his 23 attempts from the beyond the arc. But let’s also not forget that Green is the best three-point shooter in NBA Finals history dating back to his days in San Antonio alongside Leonard. He’s a career 52 percent three-point shooter in the Finals and made a then NBA Finals record of 27 three-pointers back in 2014 against the LeBron James-led Miami Heat. He’s 31 years old now, but he has history and familiarity on his side. If Green were to pick a time to channel his inner 26-year old, Thursday night is the perfect opportunity.
The key for Toronto is going to be its ability to score enough points to keep up with the bucket getting Warriors. Golden State leads all teams in the postseason averaging over 117 points per game. Even without Durant, the Warriors have been lighting teams up – averaging over 115 points in the five playoff games they’ve played without him. The Raptors, on the other hand, have topped out at slightly under 105 points per game this postseason. It’s the stout defense holding teams to fewer than 100 points per playoff game that allowed Toronto to suffocate the NBA’s highest-scoring regular season offense (Toronto held Milwaukee to 106 points per game, compared to the 118 they averaged during the regular season).
But against the Warriors, don’t plan on consistently holding them to under 100, no matter how well the defense is playing. There is no sound gameplan to defend Golden State other than mixing it up as often as possible and keeping them on their toes. Becoming fixated on one scheme – even if it’s effective – will ultimately blow up in the face of the Raptors. Draymond Green has read defenses in these playoffs better than nearly anyone. Figuring out who among Kyle Lowry and Danny Green (or even worse, VanVleet) is the best matchup to guard Curry/Thompson is going to be a constant battle.
With Durant out, Leonard can guard more of Thompson and Curry throughout the game. Toronto – outside of Gasol – has switchable players across the board. Siakam, and to a lesser extent, Ibaka, have the capability to guard positions 3 through 5. When Golden State goes small and plays Draymond Green at center, Toronto’s bigs will have switch every single time. How they react to those switches could be a deciding factor of the series.
Golden State Warriors
There isn’t much to be said about the Warriors that hasn’t already been said. They come into the Finals with two straight championships and three in the past four years. They are a borderline dynasty with supreme confidence entering a familiar atmosphere. Only Leonard, Green, and Ibaka for Toronto have tasted the NBA Finals. The entire Warriors roster plans their future summers around playing June basketball.
Steph Curry has absolutely scorched the opponent with Durant out in the playoffs. In four games against the Trail Blazers and one against the Rockets, Curry poured in nearly 36 points per game while shooting 41.7 percent from deep (and that’s taking nearly 15 threes per game). No Durant means more Curry and I’m not sure Toronto would prefer it that way. Thompson is also averaging 22.6 points in those same five games while shooting 40 percent on nine threes per game. And when teams trap those two, it opens up drop off passes to Green who then has access to easy driving lanes, which he has executed perfectly all postseason.
The “resurrection” of Green during this playoff run has been a welcome sight for the Warriors. The 28-year old ramped up his effort once the postseason kicked off and his playmaking has launched this team back into the position of favorites. He’s damn near averaging a triple-double. When teams blitz Curry or Thompson, it opens up 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 opportunities for Green to drive downhill against a gapping (and still recovering) defense.
Andre Iguodala and Thompson will likely guard Leonard throughout the series while Curry is hidden on whoever is deemed the most ineffective at the time – likely one of VanVleet, Powell, Danny Green. Defending Gasol will be the biggest challenge. Milwaukee’s gameplan was to just let him shoot instead of allowing him to make plays with his passing, although Gasol ended up shooting 41.4 percent from deep. Odds are Golden State will try to bait him into the same thing, especially when Cousins isn’t on the floor. The Warriors will need to keep Gasol from penetrating and working in the pick-and-rolls where he’s been most effective in the playoffs. Slotting an active Draymond Green on Gasol could be the simple way to prevent that. 6-foot-9 Kevon Looney has provided some great minutes for Golden State as of late, too.
The potential long-term absences of Cousins and especially Durant are massive losses for Golden State. Durant has been the team’s “break in case of emergency” guy all season long. He was the best player in the playoffs before the calf injury. Losing him gives Toronto a much bigger chance than if he were in. But even without Durant, the Warriors still swept the Portland Trail Blazers last round. Curry’s shooting is otherworldly right now and Draymond Green has masked any and every hole the Warriors might expose.
My gut says this series goes six games with Golden State taking home its third straight championship. I’m almost tempted to pick the Warriors in five if I knew more about Durant’s return. As I said earlier, I expect Leonard to find a way to win a game by himself. Toronto has homecourt advantage. The likelihood of a sweep is minimal even with a healthy Durant.
This is a Finals with plenty of storylines. Durant and Leonard’s upcoming free agency. The potential end of the Warriors era. Toronto’s first-ever Finals appearance. Drake, I’m sure. This isn’t going to be another four-game sweep of a broken Cleveland Cavaliers squad. The Raptors do have a chance to win this thing – although low, in my estimation – and it’s going to be up to Kawhi Leonard to lead them.
Warriors in 6