The NBA Finals resumes Friday night as the Toronto Raptors visit the Golden State Warriors in Game Four, with ABC’s live coverage beginning at 6 p.m. pacific time. After defeating the Warriors on Wednesday night, the Raptors now lead 2-1 and can take a huge advantage going in to game five if they win Friday. On the flip side, the Warriors have a shot to even the series at home before heading back to Toronto for what will be an absolutely critical Game Five on Monday night.
Like every NBA championship round, these Finals are unique in its own way, but after three games, these Finals look eerily similar to the 2015 Finals. While Kerr and the Warriors found a way to win that Finals (and two of the next three), it’s unclear if they have the same magic to turn it around this time while dealing with a depleted lineup. Kevin Durant is recovering from a calf strain and hasn’t played in a month, Klay Thompson missed the end of game two and all of game three with a strained hamstring, and Kevon Looney is out for the remainder of the series. On top of all of that, Iguodala is limping through a leg injury, and DeMarcus Cousins is still getting back in a rhythm after missing the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Warriors don’t just look off, but they are playing like they are missing something, or more specifically – someone.
The popular narrative going in to these Finals was that the Warriors might actually be better without Durant, which is just not realistic. He’s arguably the best player in the game today, and yet the roster is usually so well stocked that he is somehow also their x-factor game to game, something we have never seen from a team’s best player and leading scorer. Given how much the Warriors have struggled through three games to consistently produce points and get stops, it’s plain to see they are definitely missing his production on both ends of the court.
If both teams were at full strength, it would be difficult to imagine the Warriors struggling in this series as they have a collection of talent not seen on one roster in quite some time.
As it stands today, the Warriors have a few injury concerns forcing them in to an uphill battle if they want to keep pace with and defeat a physical Raptors team stocked with healthy veteran two-way players.
If you’re a Toronto fan, the good news is that you don’t have to win on the road the rest of the way (but it wouldn’t hurt), and if you’re a Warriors fan, you know you haven’t even taken your best shot yet and are in a manageable position. Either way, the next two games are absolutely critical for both teams. The Raptors have the chance to put the Warriors on the ropes, and the Warriors have the chance to square things and in the best case scenario, go in to game six with the series lead. So what we can expect to see from both teams, what players will be on the court, how will both teams adjust, and who will win the series?
Here is this week’s NBA Finals themed lightning round:
1. Assuming both play at some point, what can we expect from a banged up Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant?
Klay is expected to return in game four, and while he could be limited by a strained hamstring, I don’t expect to see any drop in hustle from him, but his shot and his defense could be impacted if he’s not fully recovered. What they need to worry about is if the injury is re-aggravated, does this team have anyone that can step in for him? After watching Curry drop 47 on Toronto on Wednesday and still lose by double digits, my thought is no. Durant has already been ruled out for game four, and at this point we have to wonder if Durant’s injury is more serious than originally reported, as he has now been out since May 8th. If he isn’t healthy now and the team isn’t willing to commit to a return date, then it’s entirely possible he could miss the rest of the Finals. If he does somehow get cleared to play in one of the final three games, he will take some time to get back to game speed, and might look off in his first game back. He could be more of a liability if he isn’t 100% and the team is needing a complete game out of him to win, especially if Klay is out again. Either player is irreplaceable by anyone currently on the roster, and I don’t like the Warriors’ chances if they don’t have at least one of them available.
2. Kawhi Leonard is playing hurt, but still putting up stellar numbers. If Durant returns, can Leonard handle being his primary defender?
For the Raptors, the only piece of good news about Durant returning to the court is this – how can he possibly be 100%, in game shape, and at NBA speed? It takes even the best players a game or two to get re-acclimated to the NBA game, so I have my doubts that Durant can simply be plugged in to a lineup and away they go, getting his usual 29 points (per game average this postseason). I think there will be some signs of life, but his first game back will probably be sloppy at best, and really bad at worst. Leonard may not be at full strength, but at least he’s still acclimated to the style of play in this series, and can adjust as needed. If there is a silver lining to Leonard having a sore leg, it’s that Durant is likely to have one too. So while we may not get the showdown we expected between these two superstars at full strength, we should still get one hell of a show if they are ever on the court at the same time in these Finals.
3. As we get closer to the conclusion of these Finals, what can each team do to give themselves an advantage?
For the Warriors, they have got to find a way to get someone other than Curry or Thompson going consistently (read: scoring 20 or more points), no matter who is in the lineup. In game three, Curry was able to hit quite a few contested shots, but his supporting cast did not step up. Curry is just as able to go cold as he can get red-hot (see: game two first half vs second half), so if the team is having to rely on him to carry the load, it may not work out game to game. Klay Thompson was the team’s second leading scorer in games one (21) and two (25), in addition to harassing Leonard all over the court on defense. But one of those games resulted in a loss, and the other one very easily could have been a loss as well. Even as Curry unloaded 47 points in game three, he was the only starter with at least 18 points, and with Thompson out, Leonard had more breathing room to find his groove. Golden State will make adjustments, but so far they haven’t had an answer for what Toronto is showing them, without having to rescue themselves with one of their famous third quarter rallies anyway. For the Raptors, they haven’t been forced to make Leonard take over, and until Golden State presents them with a gameplan that forces their hand, they should keep sharing the ball and letting the open man shoot. There have been spots where the Raptors have gone ice cold for minutes at a time, but Golden State has only capitalized on it once, and it took a near five minute stretch of missed shots and a lot of missed assignments on defense to make it happen. The Warriors can’t expect that many misses from good shooters or bad defense from quality defenders to become a trend. So far the officiating hasn’t created an issue for either team, with the Warriors averaging just 4 more free throws per game than the Raptors. While the Raptors are new to this stage, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have been to this level twice before, winning once. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are new to this stage, but Gasol has played well in all three games, and Lowry looked like he finally found his shot in game three. Unless any key player on either side takes a major step back or gets injured, this series should bring a great ending to the 2019 season.
4. The Warriors never faced a game seven or trailed in a playoff series this year, going 12-4 in getting to the Finals. What makes the Raptors different from other teams the Warriors have faced in the playoffs?
Not only do the Raptors play very physical team defense, but they have three starters (Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, Danny Green) and one reserve (Serge Ibaka) that have been named to NBA All-Defensive teams at some point in their career, and Leonard was named to this year’s second team. Gasol (2013) and Leonard (2015-16) have also been named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
As good as the Cavaliers were the last four years, they only had one player (LeBron James) that was an accomplished defender, which is the same issue the Rockets had this year. If you’re going to beat this Warriors team, you have to have the defensive ability to stop them occasionally, or to at least slow their runs when they go on one. Just being able to score is never going to be enough, you have to play defense. Something many teams don’t take in to account is that as good as this Warriors team is at roasting opponents with scoring, they also play outstanding team defense. Two of their starters (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) and two reserves (Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala) have been named to NBA All-Defensive teams at some point in their career, and Green has been named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2017). What sets the Raptors apart from other teams the Warriors have faced is that they may not be a very similar build to the Warriors, but they do have a loaded back court and a loaded front court, a deep bench, and none of their players present a true liability on offense or defense. That’s what a championship level basketball team looks like, and if you’re going to beat the Warriors, you had better be one.
5. What is your adjusted series prediction?
My original prediction was that the Raptors would win games one, three, five, and seven, winning the series on their home court with Kawhi Leonard being crowned Finals MVP. While the individual game flow and the injuries have not gone the way I pictured it, the outcome so far has gone as predicted so I will stick with it. Raptors in seven.
If the Warriors somehow get back a near-healthy Thompson and/or Durant it totally changes things, but I’ll stick with my prediction either way. I don’t see the short handed Warriors being able to win three of the next four games, but I think Kerr and Curry and Green have enough to work with that they can at least force a game seven if they have either Thompson or Durant available.