The Golden State Warriors have defined the NBA’s present. The league’s tyrannical overlords, the Warriors have been to the NBA Finals for five straight years. They are looking to win their fourth title since 2015. Steph Curry’s distance shooting has revolutionized the modern NBA. Before the season, they were the unanimous pick for NBA Champion; the mere idea of another team unseating them was unfathomable.
And here we are, with the Toronto Raptors one game away from shattering the Warriors’ guise of invulnerability.
To change the status quo, the Toronto Raptors have assimilated elements of the past, the pre-Warriors NBA. They’ve unearthed long-forgotten fossils, like finding a dusty manuscript entitled ‘how to win games in the NBA in 2009’. And by gum it’s working.
The Raptors have not scored particularly well during this playoff run, or at least not consistently. They haven’t even shot well, connecting on only 44.3 percent of shots, a far cry from their shooting during the regular season. It hasn’t mattered.
Toronto has pushed their opponents out of the limelight in four consecutive series with their defensive perfection. All three of Orlando, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, and so far Golden State as well, have had their offenses strangled in similar manners. The Raptors’ defense acts like a Boa Constrictor, tightening and tightening until there’s no oxygen left to their victims. Over the playoffs, they have had a defensive rating of 102.2 in the first quarter, 102.6 in the second, 108.5 in the third, and and 100.4 in the fourth. Toronto’s defensive focus is similar to another team of days gone past: the Memphis Grizzlies circa 2010-2015, the Grit and Grind era.
The Grit and Grind Grizzlies’ defensive style was not fancy. They subscribed to the Mike Tyson brand of strategy: if you can beat me, then beat me. Opponents rarely could. The Grizzlies had defensive stoppers at every position, valuing strength over versatility. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol were immoveable rocks; if you collided with them 100 times during a game, the Grizzlies knew they weren’t going to be the ones to break down.
Even Kevin Durant admitted to worrying about Allen’s one-on-one defense during Memphis’ five-game beatdown of Oklahoma City during the second round of the 2012-13 playoffs. Allen got in your head and ate you from the inside out. Toronto employs defenders cut from that cloth.
The Raptors have taken that ethos and modernized it. If you can beat defenders like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, or Pascal Siakam, then feel free to do so. Have a great time. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are the rovers, happy to provide help all over the floor and rotate with perfection when required. Though still immeasurably strong, the Raptors are fleeter of foot than their Grizzly counterparts and far more adaptable.
If Leonard’s mindset has infected his teammates, helped them be cool under pressure, not celebrating until the job is done, then Gasol’s defense is the definitive element for Toronto on that end.
Gasol isn’t the singular defensive stopper that is Kawhi Leonard, but he is perhaps even more involved in every play. Gasol is often the one trapping and flying into double-teams, and he’s so brilliant in his positioning and awareness that he always seems to be in the right place despite his slow feet. He is stronger than Hercules, and he enforced his will on Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid to start the playoffs. He was so impressive in his help defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo that the star admitted to seeing Gasol in his nightmares.
“Now, every day in my head, I’m seeing Gasol double-team me,” Antetokounmpo told Eric Nehm of the Athletic. “You think I’m joking, but I’m not. I’m not seeing anybody else. I don’t care who’s guarding me. Give me a name. Thaddeus Young. All I’m seeing is Kawhi, Gasol coming because I know that.”
Gasol’s brilliance has continued into the Warriors’ series, where he remains a defensive force despite the new opponents’ offensive uniqueness. The Grit and Grind strength, focus, and tenacity is embodied in Gasol’s gigantic bear paws, but now Gasol is mauling opponents while wearing a Toronto Raptors jersey.
The Grit and Grind Grizzlies only got to face the Warriors once in the playoffs, in 2015. They held the Warriors to 97.8 points per game. Games two and three were the Warriors’ second- and third-worst scoring nights, efficiency-wise, of the playoffs. And yet the Grizzlies lost in six, largely because they themselves scored fewer than 90 per game. Gasol led the team in scoring, at 19.2 per, yet he and Mike Conley both shot below 40 percent from the field.
The Grizzlies never fought deeper into the playoffs than the Western Conference Finals, in 2013. They were a perennial playoff threat who never made it all the way. The Raptors bore that label until this year, when the additions of Gasol, Leonard, and Green have changed the Raptors’ stripes.
The Raptors may approximate the defense of yesterday’s Grizzlies, but the two offenses are nothing alike. Toronto’s is better by a wide margin. They haven’t been consistent in the playoffs, but they’ve been quite good with brief flashes of brilliance. Gasol doesn’t need to score, and he’s averaged only 13.0 points per game in the Finals. He can focus his energy entirely on defense.
Kawhi Leonard, on the other hand, has scored 30.8 points per game. He offers the defense of Tony Allen and the offense of a LeBron James or Michael Jordan, a weapon which the Grizzlies were never able to toss at opponents. Leonard is the difference between these Raptors and those Grizzlies. His scoring allows veterans like Gasol and Lowry to fade into secondary and tertiary scoring roles. His shooting creates space for Pascal Siakam to work in the post. He is the sun around which the entire solar system orbits.
Leonard’s defense is also the mightiest tool in the Raptors’ box. It seems likely that the Warriors will field Kevin Durant for the first time in the series tonight. The Warriors did not employ him when they beat the Grizzlies in 2015. Because of Leonard, the Raptors aren’t afraid now that the Warriors employ Durant in 2019. The Raptors have a readymade Durant-stopper.
The Raptors are doing something that the Warriors never did. The Dubs reinvented the wheel, winning championships while bombing away from deep, redefining how to win a basketball game. The modern era is what it is because of Steph Curry and the Warriors. The Raptors have taken those lessons and advanced them. They boast far more shooters on the roster than the Warriors. They are even attempting more 3s per game. But the Raptors have learned from history, too. They play a defense that is in some ways reminiscent of basketball that we thought the Warriors had killed, with size and strength at every position. Toronto does not downsize. The Raptors are bigger, and the Raptors are stronger, and they have gone where the Grizzlies never could.
The Raptors have invoked the past and brought it into the present. As a result, they are one game away from redefining the future.