Every so often the best team doesn’t win the NBA championship; sometimes it’s the healthiest. A few examples come to mind, such as the 1988-89 Lakers who lost Byron Scott to a hamstring injury caused by Pat Riley’s pre-Finals boot camp and then Magic Johnson similarly one game into the series with the Pistons, who swept. Then the 2015 Cavaliers, already without Kevin Love, saw Kyrie Irving lost with a fractured kneecap suffered in Game 1.
Maybe those two teams would’ve won, maybe not. It’s one of those basketball mysteries that’ll go unsolved.
Well, what the Warriors are trying to do is become the best team to win in spite of their health, specifically with Kevin Durant, who’s expected to play against the Raptors although precisely when, and to what extent, and how effectively, all remain unclear right now.
The Warriors romped quite impressively if not mildly surprisingly the last five full games without Durant in the final two rounds of the West playoffs, and while that bodes well for their confidence, at some point, conventional thinking says they will need Durant. Will he be around to bail them out when the ball doesn’t fall for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson?
Should Durant be the Durant who sizzled in the first round and through much of round two, this series might be short on suspense. And if DeMarcus Cousins returns? Well. The Warriors for the first time in five years don’t have to go through LeBron James to win a title, and while Kawhi Leonard is a former Finals MVP and rolling for the Raptors right now, he (or most any other human) isn’t on the King’s post-season level.
This has been a satisfying season for the Raptors’ franchise, which finally experienced a post-season breakthrough (thanks partly by LeBron’s defection). Yet: Kawhi would need to be a close imitation of LeBron to keep a national audience fixated and the Raptors close enough to prevent the Warriors from taking another summer champagne bath before summer officially begins.
Three things to watch
1. Will Kawhi Leonard survive Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala?
It’s one thing to see a solid defender in your path, as Kawhi did with Giannis Antetekounmpo. But what happens when the Warriors can throw Green and then Iguodala and perhaps Klay Thompson and maybe Kevin Durant, all of whom bring different looks? This could prove problematic for Toronto and frustrating for Kawhi, especially if Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and company don’t rise up.
2. Can Kyle Lowry keep up with Stephen Curry defensively?
This will be quite the challenge for Lowry, to place handcuffs on a guard who averaged 35 points in five games (four vs. Blazers, one Rockets) without Kevin Durant and bring the same energy on the other end to ease the load from Kawhi Leonard. Lowry didn’t check a big-time scorer in any of the three rounds: DJ Augustin, JJ Redick, Eric Bledsoe.
3. Will any readjusting be necessary if and when Kevin Durant returns?
This is one of the more confounding debates raging outside the Warriors’ organization. There shouldn’t be any discomfort with Durant back in the fold unless you weigh the last four weeks over the previous two seasons. Besides, he’s surrounded by the most unselfish teammates he’ll likely ever have, starting with Curry.
The number to know
6.2 -- Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors have outscored their opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. That's their worst mark through the first three rounds over this stretch of five straight trips to The Finals.
Over the previous four years, the Warriors lowest point differential through three rounds was plus-6.4 in 2016, the year they lost in The Finals. Time will tell if the lower point differential is an indication that the Warriors are beatable (again). What we do know now is that, statistically, they just haven't been as good as they were the last two years.
All six of their conference semifinal games against the Houston Rockets were within five points in the last five minutes. And though they swept Portland in the conference finals, they trailed for 51 percent of the minutes in that series and by at least 17 points in each of the last three games.
It's on defense where the Warriors haven't been as strong this year. In each of the previous four years, they allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than the postseason average through the first three rounds (5.3 fewer than the average in 2015, 1.6 fewer in '16, 8.7 fewer in '17, and 6.5 fewer in '18). In these playoffs, they've allowed 110.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark which ranks ninth among the 16 teams and is 1.8 points per 100 possessions more than the average (108.4).
Of course, the Warriors' offense, despite the absence of Kevin Durant for the last five games, has never been better. Over 16 games, the Warriors have scored 116.4 points per 100 possessions, 8.0 more than the league average. And ridiculously efficient offense just might be enough for a third straight championship.
-- John Schuhmann
The Raptors rolled the dice last summer to get Kawhi Leonard and even if they lose this series and he leaves through free agency, it was a gamble well worth taking if only because they’re in the NBA Finals. Canada will be forever grateful. Still, in spite of that, and also Kawhi’s sizzling playoff run, Toronto is at a disadvantage everywhere except fan support. A fully-loaded Warriors team wins easily. A team with Kevin Durant missing a pair of games wins a little less easily. Warriors in 5.
Game 1: Thur, May 30, Golden State at Toronto | 9 ET (ABC)
Game 2: Sun, June 2, Golden State at Toronto | 8 ET (ABC)
Game 3: Wed, June 5, Toronto at Golden State | 9 ET (ABC)
Game 4: Fri, June 7, Toronto at Golden State | 9 ET (ABC)
*Game 5: Mon, June 10, Golden State at Toronto | 9 ET (ABC)
*Game 6: Thur, June 13, Toronto at Golden State | 9 ET (ABC)
*Game 7: Sun, June 16, Golden State at Toronto | 8 ET (ABC)
* – If Necessary