My colleagues at Raptors Republic have created some excellent content to preview the first NBA Finals in Toronto Raptors history. Listen to the preview podcast featuring Michael Pina here. And another featuring Kevin Arnovitz here. Read Adam McQueen’s finals preview here. Louis Zatzman’s previews here and here. And RR’s finals roundtable here.
Since there is already plenty of content previewing the finals, let’s look at some of the most under the radar storylines that I find interesting heading into game 1.
Golden State’s Defense
The American media is doing everything possible to discredit the Raptors for getting to the finals, blaming the Bucks for folding rather than crediting the Raptors for breaking them down. But the one narrative that angers me the most — most recently brought up on the most recent Bill Simmons Podcast — is that the Golden State defense is not only the best defense the Raptors will see this playoff run, but nothing previous even compares.
Guess what? The Milwaukee Bucks, despite losing four games to the Raptors, have the best defensive rating of the playoffs at 101.8. They also had the best defense in the regular season, posting a defensive rating of 104.9. The Philadelphia 76ers, who the Raptors defeated in seven games in the eastern conference semifinal, had the fifth-best defensive rating in the playoffs at 106.0. The Warriors — who played the 8th seed Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Portland Trail Blazers — have the ninth-best defensive rating of the playoffs and 11th best of the regular season at 110.2 and 108.5, respectively.
The Warriors have all the finals experience in the world, sure, but they don’t have the personnel to be a better defensive team than the Bucks, especially without Kevin Durant. It’s time to put some respect on the Raptors name for solving the Bucks and 76ers defenses and to understand that they are more than capable of solving the Warriors. In fact, this might be an opportunity for the Raptors offense to really shine: they started moving the ball very well towards the end of the Bucks series and shot 39.5 percent from three in the final four games. If Danny Green rediscovers his shot and the rest of the Raptors continue to shoot like they did against the Bucks, the Warriors defense could be in trouble.
This is the first series the Raptors have a real opportunity to control the boards. Philadelphia and Milwaukee’s rosters are full of big bodies who crash the boards. The Bucks and Sixers were the second and fourth best rebounding teams in the league, respectively, in the regular season and playoffs combined, posting rebounding rates of 52.0 percent and 51.8 percent. The Raptors struggled to rebound against those teams, who created second-chance opportunities with their size advantage.
Golden State, on the other hand, has the 12th best rebounding rate of regular season and playoffs at 50.4 percent. They don’t have many elite rebounders outside of Draymond Green, and with Durant out, they are even more susceptible to problems on the glass. The Warriors prefer to play small with Green at the five and often run opposing centers off the floor with that lineup. The best way for the Raptors’ big men like Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to stay on the floor is to dominate the boards and make the Warriors play with a traditional center like Looney, Bogut, or Cousins. Gasol and especially Ibaka have been better rebounding as of late, with help from Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, and they can take advantage of the Warriors lack of rebounding. If they do that and force enough turnovers with their long arms and swarming defense, they should win the possession battle and be in a better position to win.
Experience, Fatigue, Momentum
Experience, fatigue, and momentum are three of the hardest things to quantify in the NBA but are also commonly discussed phenomena. How much does Golden State’s finals experience matter? Will the Raptors be fatigued after playing so many games against such tough competition? Or is it Golden State that will run out of steam in their fifth straight finals? Does Golden State have the momentum after sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers, despite several days off? Or are the Raptors the more confident team after defeating two of the best teams in the East, including winning four straight against the best team in the league? Will Durant rejoining the Warriors disrupt the rhythm and chemistry they’re building without him.
Well, the answer to those questions and more will be answered throughout this series. Furthermore, this series might actually tell us a lot about how important these phenomena are in determining an NBA champion. Is finals experience really that different from playoff experience, which the Raptors have a lot of? What is more tiring: playing an extra 99 games in the past five seasons or slogging it out against two big, physical teams like the 76ers and Bucks more recently? Does momentum really matter? If it does, what exactly creates it and how is it sustained? What about rhythm, despite Durant being a top-5 NBA player?
The answers to these questions are technically unquantifiable, but — depending on your perspective — this series may give insight into some of them.
The NBA Finals are in Toronto. Enjoy it, Raptors fans.
Tipoff: 9:00 EST | TV: Sportsnet/ABC | Radio: TSN 1050 | Raptors are 1 point favourites, O/U is 213.5
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is questionable for game 1.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Miller, Patrick McCaw
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, Eric Moreland
DeMarcus Cousins (quad) is questionable for game 1, Kevin Durant (calf) is out but nearing return.
PG: Stephen Curry, Shaun Livingston, Quinn Cook
SG: Klay Thompson, Jacob Evans
SF: Andre Iguodala, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Draymond Green, Jonas Jerebko, Marcus Derrickson
C: Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut, Damian Jones