Riding high off of a rousing 34-point victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors have another opportunity Saturday to make a bit of a statement about this new version of themselves. The defending champion Golden State Warriors are visiting, and there is no challenge greater than them. While the Cavaliers have likewise participated in three consecutive NBA Finals, the Warriors present a host of new, different, and far more difficult problems.
“They’re a high-powered offensive team. Defensively they switch a lot,” head coach Dwane Casey said at practice Friday, almost unable to pick one single challenge they pose. “They’ve probably got the best three shooters that’s ever played the game and it’s not even close. Well, it’s close, there’s been some great shooters in the league, but those are right now the best three shooters in the world, I’ll say that. So that’s the difference, I think. And consistency.”
Consistency may be the big difference between the two mini-proving grounds. Golden State has so many stars that even if one is out or having an off night or disinterested, they remain dangerous. The Cavaliers lacked some oomph, and the Raptors took full advantage, switching to strong effect, defending well in transition, and racking up 31 assists against Cleveland’s pick-and-roll corrals. The Warriors will be different, with more options to keep track of on defense and more of a need to beat them with 5-on-5 sets and the transition game since they won’t aggressively overload DeMar DeRozan and, if he plays, Kyle Lowry. They’ve also won 11 in a row on the road after beating Milwaukee on Friday.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a winnable game. The Raptors have played the Warriors tighter than most over the last two seasons, generally keeping games close enough that if they execute well down the stretch, they might be able to take it. Golden State is not infallible. And like the Raptors showed Thursday, their upside is pretty high if an opponent doesn’t bring it at the Air Canada Centre.
The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 4/5 and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: It’s hard to find questions to ask when the Warriors have been this good in this iteration for this long. Looking at the NBA landscape, with Houston’s ascension, the Spurs existing, and three teams in the East looking varying degrees of intriguing, is there anyone that really worries you? Are Warriors fans/podcasters/writers sort of focused on Cavaliers-Warriors IV already?
Andy Liu: Stephen Curry’s right ankle. The severe sprain in December almost took him out until 2018 and now he’s starting to re-aggravate it the same way that Warriors fans still suffer PTSD from. This one is minor, and everyone from the trainers and management are being extra cautious if only because this is the only way the rest of the league even has a chance against the Golden State Warriors. It wasn’t like the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off that miracle upset against a fully healthy Curry, even their ex-GM David Griffin has admitted to game-planning specifically to that weakness.
As for the Eastern Conference, the feel amongst not only the media but the players themselves are that they’ll play the Cleveland Cavaliers again but they are less worried than ever before. Part of this is their arrogance but the other is that they now have someone that can credibly guard (make of the fouls on Christmas what you will) LeBron James and that locks down every advantage the Cavs could possibly have. It would be nice to see someone new like the Raptors or Celtics but the more we see LeBron’s lack of intensity in matchups against them, the more you start to think it’s IV coming in June.
Blake Murphy: In less team-specific terms, are there specific styles or strengths an opponent might possess that can be troubling for Golden State? They’re so damn versatile defensively that it doesn’t seem likely. They do, however, turn the ball over a bit, don’t force many turnovers themselves, and are a middling defensive rebounding team. Could a team like the Raptors, adept at forcing turnovers, bait Golden State into a sloppier game for an edge?
Andy Liu: The Warriors struggle against athleticism. And the young Raptors like Pascal Siakim, OG Anuoby, Jakob Poetl, and even Norman Powell or Delon Wright can cause issues. They’re perhaps a couple years and a superstar away from making real noise. The downside of the Raptors is that the Warriors don’t change their strategy defensively against their best players, allowing everything else to fall in place rather easily. When the Warriors struggle, they are forced to make larger changes, something their coaching staff won’t do until it is nearly too late.
Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan aren’t players that the Warriors need to double or change anything too drastic to account for their strengths. And until the Raptors can see them take another leap, or lure an A-list free agent, just winning a few games against the Cavs and/or the Warriors feels like the ceiling.
Blake Murphy: I’m not sure how much you’ve watched of Delon Wright, but Raptors’ play-by-play man Matt Devlin has grown fond of comparing him to Shaun Livingston due to the length and general funkiness at the point guard spot. I’m not necessarily a big fan of the comp (or any comps), but if Wright were to look to Livingston as a template, what would stand out about Livingston’s game?
Andy Liu: Delon’s brother has spoken very highly, of course, of him in his time in the Bay Area. The main difference between Wright and Livingston are their wingspans, Livingston at 7 feet and Wright at “only” 6’6. The Warriors scouting departments aims to find wings that can guard several positions all the way even to the 5. If there is one thing that Wright can turn to, it’s the defensive versatility that makes the Warriors defense so underrated in their 3-year run so far.
Blake Murphy: Are you still in disbelief the Warriors were able to straight-up purchase Jordan Bell? What a solid move and what a tremendous fit.
Andy Liu: Jordan Bell has been quite easily the second-best center on roster behind David West but Steve Kerr loves to bench him for the tiniest of mistakes. Call it rookie hazing or whatever you want, he simply needs more playing time for a team of aging veterans that needs a burst of energy in most regular season games. As for the Chicago Bulls, there should be a rule at this point, like the Stepien Rule, that disallows them to do anything with the Warriors.
In terms of potential, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bell not only started NBA Finals games but played in crunchtime against LeBron James. Just take a look at how he switched and protected the rim in the Christmas Day game. Kerr knows how great he can be, but playing the Phil Jackson mind games is necessary in his mind given the growing pains and long season.
Blake Murphy: This will be the second night of a back-to-back and the third game in an Oakland-Milwaukee-Toronto four-day set. Is there any chance the Warriors rest players here? I know Toronto is a good team, but Steph Curry has missed two games in a row with an ankle sprain, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala have all been dealing with minor issues, and the Raptors could be shorthanded themselves.
Andy Liu: The Warriors have gone out of their way to rest players if they so much stub a toe on a dresser. Curry is dinged up and probably won’t play one of, if not both games against Milwaukee and Toronto. Draymond Green is fighting through various ailments as always so he is forever a candidate to sit. Kevin Durant just returned from a calf strain and likely won’t be pushed too much either. It’s gotten to the point of frustration for most fans wanting to see the stars but the Warriors are almost incentivized to keep resting to a fault because of their inability to lose despite the lack of active players.
The Raptors didn’t get much news on the Kyle Lowry front on Friday. He was able to shoot around at practice but is still pretty sore, and while he’s going to be called a game-time decision (he’s officially listed as questionable), the feeling from those at practice (I was at the G League Showcase, so this is second hand) was that it seemed unlikely he’d play. That’s a bigger loss against Golden State than most teams, since Lowry is the team’s best and highest-volume 3-point shooter, a necessary component against the Warriors attack.
It’s another opportunity for the team’s depth to step up, something every player, to a man, did against Cleveland.
“Our bench has been extremely ready as far as when you think about the youth that we have and how big our bench they play for us,” DeMar DeRozan said Friday. “They’ve been great. It makes our job a lot easier when we have games like last night where you don’t have to worry about going into the fourth quarter. So that’s big. When that second unit goes in your have the utmost confidence.”
The Raptors will also have Serge Ibaka back from his one-game suspension here, which should help at both ends of the floor. Ibaka’s been playing quite well of late.
PG: (Kyle Lowry), Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Mile
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: Kyle Lowry
905: Malcolm Miller, Bruno Caboclo, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown
Golden State come in pretty tired, with this game looming as a heavy schedule toll based on the analytics that measure such things. On the bright side for the Warriors, they may have Steph Curry back. Curry’s missed the last two games with a sprained right ankle, the same ankle that cost him nearly a month earlier in the year, but this one is considered much less serious. Reports earlier in the week were that Curry hoped to return Friday or Saturday, and since he didn’t do that Friday, he’s probably aiming for this one. The Warriors’ injury report lists him as questionable. Patrick McCaw started at point guard against Milwaukee instead of Shaun Livingston.
Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Omri Casspi have all been on the injury report for something or other in the last week or so, so don’t be surprised if there’s a rest day somewhere in the group on a third game in four nights and second night of a back-to-back.
PG: (Steph Curry), Shaun Livingston
SG: Klay Thompson, Nick Young, Patrick McCaw
SF: Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, (Omri Casspi)
PF: Draymond Green, David West, Kevon Looney
C: Zaza Pachulia, Jordan Bell, JaVale McGee
TBD: Steph Curry, Omri Casspit
Santa Cruz: Chris Boucher, Quinn Cook, Damian Jones
The Raptors are 4-point underdogs with a 225 over-under.