NBA Finals Hot Take: there’s no doubt this team will win.
After two games, the talking heads have done a complete 180; look for the series to flip back and forth a couple more times.
After Game 1, people questioned the Warriors and praised the Raptors for their fantastic defense and Pascal Siakam’s jump to star status in the Finals. The reality is, Golden State scored 109 points, and the Warriors played terrible defense allowing 118 points, as Siakam, Gasol and VanVleet combined to shoot 25 for 35 (71.4%).
My thought was that Toronto played their best game, and were fortunate they kept hitting difficult shots to prevent Golden State from retaking the lead. The idea of “slowing” down the Warriors by holding them to 109 points is sheer insanity.
Over the last five playoff runs, when Golden State scores 108 points or more, they are 56–6 (90.3%). Conversely, when Golden State holds opponents 108 points or less, they are 58–9 (86.5%). When the Warriors score between 100 and 107 points, they are a good team, at 14–6. The only real chance to beat the Warriors is to hold them under 100 points, as their record drops to 5–12.
The only team to win a series during this time was the LeBron-led Cavs in 2016, where they held the Warriors under 108 points in five of the seven games, winning four of them.
In Game 2, Golden State made some fantastic adjustments in their defense, and got big performances from the bench players in Iguodala, Livingston, Cook and Bogut.
But the biggest surprise was the play of Cousins, who started and played one of the greatest unselfish games of his career. He neutralized Gasol with 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks to go with 11 points. Watching him guard the pick and roll, make the right rotation, and get back to provide rim protection was miraculous. Perhaps the chance to win a title, or his respect for his superstar teammates did the job in getting him to buy into a role where he played like Draymond Green. I don’t know if he can maintain his effort and discipline throughout the series, but he completely changed the balance between the two teams. Whether Steve Kerr did this out of desperation, or just made took a chance, it was a brilliant adjustment.
The Warriors needed every drop of effort they got from the Splash Brothers, with Thompson hitting 4 of 6 from deep.
The game (and maybe the series) turned around in the 3rd quarter as the Raptors went cold (0 of 7) and had 6 turnovers during an 18–0 run by the Warriors.
The Warriors once again suffered a number of injuries. Kevon Looney got hit by Kawhi Leonard on a drive in the first half and looked like he was wearing a wire in a bad Hong Kong kung fu movie. Forget about basketball, I’ve never seen someone fly backwards and land on their stomach in a football game. Looney never returned to the game. Iguodala twisted his ankle, then hit his head against Gasol’s shoulder and looked like he was knocked out. He eventually came back in the game and made a couple of huge three point shots in addition to his wonderful defense. Klay Thompson came down from a jump shot and his feet slipped and he ended up doing a rough form of the splits. It remains to be seen how much he can contribute throughout the series.
The Raptors’ shooting fell off a cliff in the second half, as Siakam, Gasol and VanVleet combined to shoot 14 for 44 (31.8%). They dominated the boards, with 15 offensive rebounds and a 23–0 advantage in second-chance points, a complete turnaround from Game 1, where the Warriors won the rebound battle and had 20 second-chance points.
This shapes up to be one of the most surprising NBA Finals in recent history. The Warriors are playing fast and using a 12-man rotation, hoping to break down the Raptors defense with their constant movement. They used three different centers, which allowed them to play at a pace and intensity that matched Toronto’s big men. Draymond Green had another amazing game on both ends of the floor with 17/10/9 and a ton of great defensive plays.
Based on the Warriors’ ability to score, the odds would seem to be heavily in their favor. But there are so many unknowns in this series, it’s impossible to predict these key match ups:
- Siakam vs Green: this battle will probably predict the winner of each game going forward. In Game 1, Siakam was +22 in points in a game the Raptors won by 9; in Game 2, Green was +5 in points in a game the Warriors won by 5. Siakam is the Raptors’ second best player, and needs to outscore Green by at least 10 points if the Raptors are going to have a chance. Curry and Thompson are going to cancel out Leonard and Lowry.
- Bench guards: VanVleet, Powell and even McCaw have to shoot really well for Toronto to win, while their Warrior counterpart only have to defend really well for Golden State to win. In Game 1, the Raptors bench guys hit two huge 3-pointers that maintained Toronto’s lead toward the end of the game. Without those shots, the Warriors could have retaken the lead in the 4th quarter and applied enough pressure that Toronto might have cracked. In Game 2, VanVleet and Powell shot 3 for 15 in the second half. In the two games, Toronto’s bench guards outscored their counterparts by 17 points (+8 and +9), but their offense breaks down without the outside threat of the guards.
- Battle of the Bigs: does anyone have even the slightest clue how well Gasol, and Ibaka, or Golden State’s (fill in the blank: Looney, Cousins, Bogut or Bell) will play? In Game 1, Toronto’s bigs scored 25 points, shooting over 50% from the field. In Game 2, Golden State found a $100 bill in their dry cleaning as Bogut scored on three alley oops, Cousins bullied inside to score and draw fouls to combine for 17 points. Toronto’s was +6 in the first game; Golden State was +4 in the second game. Kerr made the adjustment, substituting Bogut for Bell in Game 2, but there’s no guarantee that Cousins and Bogut will continue to play at tonight’s level.
- Kahwi Leonard: does anyone have any idea of the severity of Kawhi Leonard’s injuries? He looked like he was playing on one leg against Milwaukee in Game 6 and had a 27/17/7 with 4 stocks (steals & blocks) masterpiece. Against the Warriors he’s still scoring, thanks to making 26 of 28 free throws, but his shooting is way down (only .382 FG% and .333 3P%) from his historic 50-39-88 shooting averages throughout the playoffs.
- Warrior injuries: will Klay Thompson be able to play effectively in future games? Can Iguodala finish the series playing 30 minutes per game? Will Looney be able to play in Game 3? Will Kevin Durant be able to play at all? Curry was able to overcome some illness in Game 2, and should be okay in future games, but the health of the Warriors’ core players makes it impossible to predict how the series will go, and makes them incredibly vulnerable to any new injuries.
I picked the Warriors to win in 6 before the series started, but almost any result seems possible in this series, given all the injury variables. The only thing that seems inevitable is the pressure of “must win” games on the team appearing in their first NBA Finals. I could see the Raptors going up 3–1 if Klay and Durant can’t play in the next two games. I could also see the Raptors crack on the road and go down 3–1. And I can see the Warriors winning a Game 7 in Toronto. About the only thing I don’t see is the Raptors winning a Game 6 in Oakland.