Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors did not have an easy path to the NBA Finals. It took seven games and a lucky bounce off the rim to eliminate the Sixers, only to face Giannis and the 1-seeded Bucks in the East Finals.
For the first time in franchise history, Toronto finds themselves in the final stage of postseason play, but their biggest challenge of all awaits them, and ultimately stands in the way between the Raptors and their ultimate goal: the Golden State Warriors. Even a Warriors team facing multiple injuries is favored in the series, and ESPN’s Zach Lowe explains why:
The inherent challenge of Golden State (with or without Durant) is that there is no one catch-all answer to defending them, or even to defending any one of their players over any single possession. Sometimes, you should switch. Sometimes, you should roam. Sometimes, you should trap. Sometimes, you should do all of those things in rapid succession.
A lot of those strategies are in direct conflict. Say you are a shot-blocker defending Green on one wing while Curry dribbles on the other. You should get ready to help at the rim on Curry’s drive, right? But wait! Green is setting an off-ball screen for Thompson. Your job is to switch such actions. How can you switch outside onto Thompson and help inside on Curry?
You can’t. If you’re switching you can’t help, and if you’re helping you can’t switch, and trying to figure out which to do depending on a dozen variables — who has the ball, how much time is left on the shot clock, what other Warriors are on the floor, whether Joe Lacob is taunting you — can plunge the smartest defenders into a haze.
Yes, the Raptors will need someone besides Kawhi to step up on offense if they want a chance to beat the Dubs. But to have a real shot, they will need to find a way to slow down the likes of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. So far, no single strategy has proved enough to stop them in a 7-game series. There are too many variables, too many ways for them to score.
With Kawhi and a multitude of defensive studs backing him, Toronto has a better chance than most to figure things out. Kevin Durant being absent helps their chances.
But the truth remains evident: the Raptors are the underdogs. And in order to complete a historic playoff run, they will have to pull off the impossible, starting on Thursday night in Air Canada Center.