“You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” – First book of Samuel, 17:33 (New International Version)
The words Saul said to David echo true for the odds most are giving the Toronto Raptors in this 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Like Goliath with his armour and javelin, the Warriors are armed to the teeth with star power who have proven they know how to get the job done, having won three of the last four NBA championships and this being the fifth straight trip to the Finals.
The Raptors on the other hand, despite this six-season run of success that’s culminated in this championship series appearance, have been known as more of a gimmicky afterthought with an extremely meme-able mascot for the better part of the last 24 years.
There’s just no way the franchise from Canada is going to somehow upset the Golden Dynasty.
But to quote the Muhammad Ali, “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion.”
So taking away all the historical biases that are at play coming into this series and dealing specifically with the facts, a pathway to a Raptors victory can be found.
Here’s a look at how Toronto can shock the world and sling a dinosaur-sized stone into the collective foreheads of the mighty Warriors to win its first-ever NBA championship.
If you’re a Raptors fan looking for just one thing to have confidence in heading into this series, look no further than the Raptors’ defence.
The Raptors’ 102.4 defensive rating is the second-best among all 16 playoff teams and is astoundingly nearly a full eights points per 100 possessions better than Golden State’s 110.2.
As the old adage goes, defence wins championships and as the Raptors have progressed through this post-season it’s become very clear that they possess a championship-calibre defence.
This has been Toronto’s identity for the last month-and-a-half and for all that’s made of opposing star power the Raptors have had to go against (i.e. Nikola Vucevic, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo), when the time has come, they’ve managed to put the clamps down and mitigate these kinds of players’ impact with terrifying ease for stretches in series.
So why would things change against Golden State?
Take a look at these two charts above, the left shows how the Warriors have performed over 16 post-season games so far and the two they played against the Raptors in the regular season.
Small sample sizes these both may be (particularly the chart against Toronto), there’s still information to glean from this as you can visually see a lot more red and neutral against the Raptors than any Western Conference foe the Dubs have faced in the post-season.
More specifically, during these playoffs, Golden State is shooting an excellent 48.7 per cent from the field and 37 per cent from deep, but against the Raptors they connected on 48.1 per cent of their shots and only 30.4 per cent of their looks from outside.
Granted, thing have changed since the regular season, but the Raptors beat the Warriors in both their meetings this season, including an impressive showing at Oracle Arena on Dec. 12 that saw Toronto crush Golden State 113-93 and hold the Dubs to only 23.1 per cent shooting from deep without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup.
It’s not a perfect sample because of how different the Raptors were then compared to now, but a blueprint for how the Raptors can slow down the Warriors and their top-rated offence this post-season (116.4 points per 100 possessions).
Starting with the most dangerous player on the Warriors, Stephen Curry, it will be absolutely paramount for the Raptors to get up into Curry’s grill and not only be a little physical with him but more importantly make him think twice about just launching a three.
In the clip above, you can see Fred VanVleet picking up Curry from full-court and hounding him all the way across the time line and then sticking with him as Curry tries to move without the ball, not allowing him to take a three, before Curry ultimately puts the ball on the floor and turns it over.
This is an ideal example of everything going right in defending Curry, but even if things don’t go this way all the time, simply cutting down on time for him to think and make a decision will do wonders for the Raptors, especially because they have multiple players who can do this.
As that clip denotes, VanVleet is one of them, but so is Kyle Lowry and Leonard and even Danny Green if he’s required to switch onto Curry — there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off.
With that said, Curry won’t be Green’s main concern in this series. Instead, he’ll likely be tasked with shutting down the Dubs’ second biggest three-point threat in Klay Thompson.
Like looking into a mirror of a better version of himself, Thompson is a three-and-D player much like Green, just taken to its most optimized level. It doesn’t matter if Thompson is more talented, however, because since they are the same kind of player, Green has an acute understanding of what Thompson wants to do and understands how to counter it, as this clip below demonstrates:
Notice how Thompson tries to lull Green into the oncoming screen that will set him up, something that almost works but doesn’t entirely as Green is able to quickly pick up what’s happening and fight over the screen to get a decent contest on what would’ve been a wide-open triple.
Obviously, Thompson is talented enough to hit that look if given another crack at it so this wasn’t the optimal defensive outcome, but it worked nonetheless. Ideally, though, the Raptors want to try to run Thompson (and to a lesser extent, Curry) off the line and take a mid-range jumper or try to get all the way to the basket where Toronto bigs like Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam have given fits to those trying to attack the basket all post-season long.
A way the Warriors can counter the pack-the-paint defence Raptors coach Nick Nurse has been employing with his big men is to try to draw them out with Draymond Green, a man who is, perhaps, the Dubs’ most important player given his emotional engine.
Like everyone else on Golden State’s roster, Green can shoot threes but his most important skill is as a playmaker. Capable of picking teams apart with passes, Green can be the best player on the floor without ever taking a shot.
This could be a problem for the Raptors as they don’t really want the likes of Gasol or Ibaka venturing too far away from the basket, and with Green’s shooting ability and quickness advantage in addition to his point guard-like passing skills he will be a tough cover for Toronto’s frontcourt.
Luckily, the Raptors don’t exactly need a frontcourt player to try to keep him in check, though.
Looking again at that Dec. 12 game, there were some funky matchups with Leonard being out, and one of them included having Nurse put Lowry onto Green.
A horrible idea at first glance, but when you consider the fact Lowry is strong enough to hold his own in the post against him, is quicker so he can stay with any Green drives or make a good contest and also has an advanced understanding of passing lanes, that mismatch doesn’t look like one anymore.
It may have been a matchup Nurse was forced to go to in a mid-season bout of emergency, but it just may have unlocked a means to throw a wrench in to the Dubs’ engine.
Of course, worrying about the likes of Curry and Thompson is all relatively moot should one Kevin Durant be healthy enough to play in the Finals.
Golden State’s best player, he had been on a tear offensively in the playoffs before he got hurt, averaging 34.2 points on 51.3-per cent shooting.
Even in his lone matchup against the Raptors with Leonard this season on Nov. 29, he went off for 51 points, with 21 alone coming with Leonard defending him.
With that said, amid that flamethrower game, Durant did have one moment of vulnerability in the second quarter when he was only 2-for-6 from the field.
The hardest part about trying to stop Durant is the fact that, with his length and shooting mechanics, he can rise and fire from anywhere essentially uncontested. However, one glimmer of hope the Raptors have beyond just banking on Leonard raising his level defensively against Durant is in Siakam’s equally spider-like length that can actually not just bug Durant’s jumper, but block it.
Built to beat the Warriors:
As you may have already noticed, a lot of the points made to stop the Warriors’ stars comes down to Toronto’s flexibility defensively.
Versatility is a great thing to have on defence and the Raptors have it in spades. As such, even though the Warriors’ spread offence can be a nightmare to deal with because of the all the star power, Toronto is essentially built to stop it.
Drag the Dubs into the mud
This is a product of the defensive identity the Raptors have taken on, but it’s worth noting that the Raptors dropped their pace from 100.55 possessions per game in the regular season to a much slower 96.05 possessions per contest.
This is important because it speaks to a deliberate style of basketball that’s helped the Raptors and hurt their opponents in the post-season.
The Orlando Magic averaged 98.69 possessions in the regular season but only 95.70 against Toronto. For the Philadelphia 76ers it was much the same with a 102.64 average compared to just 95.50 versus Toronto, as it was for the Milwaukee Bucks’ 103.61 to 96.67.
In each case, the Raptors took speedy teams that want to play in transition and dragged them into a half-court game where a player like Leonard can have much greater impact.
The Warriors averaged 101.78 possessions per game in the regular season and have been averaging 99.24 in the playoffs. If the Raptors can slow them down even more by playing the same level of defence we’ve seen from them all playoffs long and working the shot clock a little more on their own offensive possessions, they could find themselves in a one- or two-possession game with five minutes to go, something that should favour the Raptors because of the next and final point.
The Raptors have the best player in the series
Before you do anything, look at these three GIFs:
Now ask yourself, who’s better than Leonard right now?
Going back to that last point, should the Raptors effectively turn the game into a final-few-possessions duel, is there honestly anyone other prime Michael Jordan himself you want with the ball in hands?
Leonard has been the Raptors’ do-everything superstar this post-season, and if it keeps up in the Finals he’ll deliver a championship to Toronto.