The Golden State Warriors did what pretty much everyone thought they would do: They are representing the West in the NBA Finals for a fifth straight year, giving them a chance to win three consecutive titles and put their names alongside the four other franchises to pull off a three-peat: Minneapolis Lakers (1952 to 1954), Boston Celtics (1959 to 1966), Chicago Bulls (1991 to 1993 and again from 1996 to 1998) and Los Angeles Lakers (2000 to 2002).
The biggest question mark for Golden State is the health of superstar Kevin Durant. The two-time NBA Finals MVP has missed the past five games since getting hurt in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets and has already been ruled out for Thursday’s Game 1. Durant is traveling with the team to Toronto for the first two games of the NBA Finals against the Raptors, signaling he could be ready to return in time for Game 2.
Losing a player like Durant would normally be a death knell for a team’s playoff chances but the Warriors are a superteam with two-time MVP Stephen Curry, 2016-17 defensive player of the year Draymond Green and two-time all-NBA team member Klay Thompson on the roster. And while they may not be able to rely on Durant breaking down defenses in isolation, they have gone back to what made them successful before Durant’s arrival: the Curry-Green pick-and-roll.
Before Durant’s injury, Curry ran the pick-and-roll 63 times in 10 games, with the Warriors scoring a total of 41 points. In the six games since, Curry has run 66 pick-and-roll plays with the team scoring 74 points.
Curry’s ability as a shooter is where it all begins. If his defender fights through a screen and Green’s defender drops down low to the post, Curry, who boats a career 62-percent true shooting rate, can either pull up from behind the three-point line or take an open midrange jumper. If the defense switches a less-agile defender onto Curry, he’s able to attack the rim in isolation. If the opposition tries to trap the pick-and-roll, Green will find the open man.
To their credit, the Raptors are one of the best at defending the pick-and-roll. They allowed less than a point per possession during the regular season and playoffs combined (0.9, second only to the Utah Jazz, per Synergy Sports) and Toronto Coach Nick Nurse has a bevy of defensive talent that could match up well against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
For example, Kawhi Leonard, a two-time defensive player of the year, Marc Gasol, the 2012-13 defensive player of the year, and Pascal Siakam could defend Green and anyone else aside from Curry and Thompson. Those two would likely draw Kyle Lowry and Danny Green on defense, with Lowry switching on Green if the need arises. Lowry held Green to two points on 20 possessions in December, forcing three turnovers and only allowing one assist.
Toronto has other options. The team could play Serge Ibaka at center rather than Gasol, giving the Raptors a more agile player to defend Curry in isolation. The Cleveland Cavaliers did something similar with Tristan Thompson in the 2016 NBA Finals, fueling a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to win Cleveland’s first and only NBA championship. The Raptors could try to trap Curry — forcing him to make a decision that isn’t shooting the ball — and allow Golden State’s other shooters to beat them, similar to what they did against the Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. However, Thompson is a better shooter than the Bucks’ Eric Bledsoe. Forcing Green to be a shooter and not a facilitator could work, too, since Green is 50 for 174 in 2018-19, regular season and playoffs, on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge for us,” Ibaka told ESPN. “But we are here for a reason.
“We proved we are a good defensive team, and now it’s a new challenge for us and we are going to figure it out and go out here and play.”
The oddsmakers are skeptical. Toronto is a one-point favorite at some outlets for Game 1 but most have the Warriors as money line favorites (-300 at the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas and -270 at Sportsbook.ag) to win it all in 2019, most likely in six games.