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The Three Questions That Could Define Game 6

How will the loss of Kevin Durant shake up the tactical warfare in the NBA Finals? These are the biggest unknowns we’re pondering for both the Raptors and the Warriors.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was all but impossible, in the moments after Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, to feel good about what we’d just watched. The horrific sight of Kevin Durant trying to push off his right foot, sitting down on the court, and grabbing his right heel hung over everything that followed—especially for his Warriors teammates.

“It’s hard to even celebrate this win,” Klay Thompson said after the season-saving one-point victory.

It’s understandable if Thompson and the rest of the Golden State locker room are still in that same fog three days later, with the dust still settling from Durant’s Achilles rupture. But the Warriors won’t just abdicate their throne. The Raptors must go into Oracle Arena—a hallowed gym hosting its final NBA game, and one where Toronto has a 3-0 record as a visitor this season—and take it by force. If they can’t, they’ll have to take a very long flight back home to play the highest-stakes game the sport has to offer, stewing all the while in the knowledge that they will have squandered two chances to finish the job.

Can Toronto, now heavy favorites to hoist the O’Brien, close the door it left open in Game 5? Or can the Warriors rally without their fallen star one more time to force a winner-take-all Game 7? Here are three things to keep an eye on as we get set for Thursday’s Game 6.

Can the Warriors keep springing the Splash Brothers?

Golden State survived Game 5 thanks to a 36-point edge in scoring from beyond the 3-point arc, with the bulk of that damage—12 triples on 27 attempts—coming off the flamethrowing fingertips of Thompson and Stephen Curry. Given the paucity of bankable shooting available at the moment, it’s hard to see the Warriors repeating the feat on Thursday without a similarly scorching performance.

The bad news: This time, Durant won’t be around to step out of the phone booth and allow Steve Kerr to start his best and most offensively explosive lineup. The good news: The best shooters in the world don’t need much help, room, or time to lock into a groove. Thompson, in particular, has been in one since returning from the hamstring strain that sidelined him for Game 3. He’s 13-for-23 from deep over the past two games, showing no ill effects at all from that scary Game 2 injury, and looking awfully comfortable dropping bombs in close quarters, whether off the catch after flying off a screen or working off the bounce moving to either side:

Curry showed in Game 3 that he’s eminently capable of torching a defense intent on stopping him. While Kerr’s preferred offensive prescription often features the two-time MVP operating off the ball to force defenses into giving up clean looks elsewhere, the lack of supplementary shooting threats and shot creators without Durant suggests Golden State’s best chance of getting a good look is probably putting the ball in Steph’s hands and letting him go to work. Without the size and ability to shoot over most backcourt defenders, though, Curry could benefit from a little bit of extra help to find daylight.

The Warriors are averaging 1.12 points per possession this postseason when Curry acts as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data, tops among any player to finish at least 50 such plays in the playoffs. They’ve scored at roughly the same level in these Finals, as Kevin O’Connor noted after Game 5. The most effective version of that two-man game for Golden State, unsurprisingly, remains the Steph–Draymond Green variety, the time-tested dance between the Dubs’ prime mover and primal force, which has produced a whopping 1.36 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum statistics cited by ESPN’s Zach Lowe:

Sometimes, though, even Green’s screening can impede Curry’s flow, inviting traps and double-teams that can disrupt possessions and force the ball out of Steph’s hands. The Warriors would be wise to take advantage of opportunities to let Curry attack one-on-one, allowing him to avoid those late-sprung doubles and giving him more space to work against defenders who, while good-to-great on the ball (Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard), might not have the quicks to consistently keep up with him on an island, especially in transition.

Beat the first line of defense off the dribble, and Curry’s a good bet to either get to the rim himself or, should the defense collapse on him, spray the ball around to create more open looks for others. Again, the numbers match what your lyin’ eyes tell you: Curry’s scoring 1.19 points per possession finished in isolation this postseason, the highest number of any player to use at least 25 such plays in the playoffs:

The best way to keep Toronto from throwing more and more bodies at Steph when he’s got the ball is to surround him with more teammates capable of making the Raptors pay for ignoring them. That’s not easy to do with a roster packed with unreliable shooters and shaky ball handlers, but it might be possible if Kerr decides to give backup guard Quinn Cook a longer look when matchups allow for it.

Running the 6-foot-2 Cook alongside Curry and Thompson makes Golden State awfully small, which presents defensive complications; that could be why Kerr played the three together for only nine minutes during the regular season and for just 15 in the playoffs. It’s paid dividends on the offensive end, though: Warriors lineups featuring Curry, Thompson, and Cook together have scored 74 points in those 24 minutes, going 29-for-52 from the field and 12-for-28 from 3-point land with 21 assists, while outscoring opponents by 25 points.

Cook’s a legit shooter—39.7 percent from deep on 393 career regular- and postseason attempts—who forces defenders to at least pay some attention to him when he’s spacing the floor, which is more than the Raptors have been doing to the likes of Green, Andre Iguodala, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Jonas Jerebko in this series. And when Curry and Thompson have to deal with most of the attention instead of all of it, they can make things happen:

The Warriors need to be excellent on the offensive end to pull this off. Iguodala and Green have to be willing to take the shots Toronto gives them to keep the offense flowing; making at least a couple of them would be ideal, too. (Draymond’s two 3s in Game 5 were quietly huge.) If their shots are not falling, Golden State’s non-shooters have to make themselves useful as screeners away from the ball, popping loose to give Curry and Thompson some clean releases that they can use to fire freely. DeMarcus Cousins must be the vital and dangerous source of complementary offense he was in games 2 and 5 to help the Warriors stay afloat whenever Curry or Thompson are off the floor. Even then, it might not be enough. But as has been the case since the start of this run, Golden State’s best shot at staying alive rests with its all-time backcourt. If they’re going to go down, it’s a good bet that they’re going to go down shooting.

Which Pascal Siakam will we see?

It’s not quite as simple as saying that the Raptors are championship-caliber when Siakam scores effectively and vulnerable when he doesn’t, but it’s not super far off. In Toronto’s three wins in the Finals, the Cameroonian forward has averaged 23 points on 60/25/92 shooting splits. In two losses: 12 points on 33/0/40 shooting. It’s a more extreme version of a split that has persisted all postseason, one that has helped raise and lower the Raptors’ relative ceiling on a near-nightly basis.

You know what you’re getting from Kawhi Leonard; you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting from anyone else in a Raptors uniform in any given game, at least offensively. Lowry and VanVleet have had stellar outings, but smaller initiators can be muted by bigger, longer defenders. Danny Green, Finals icon though he may be, is as likely to miss seven 3s and give you a goose egg as he is to make seven 3s and give you a title. Marc Gasol has mostly shed the indecision that plagued him in earlier rounds—firing the ball when it comes his way or attacking off the catch against a backpedaling Boogie—but he’s alternated big scoring games (1, 3, 5) with quieter ones (2, 4) against Golden State.

None of those other Raptors have significant physical advantages over their opposition—the kind of athletic edge to dust a defender off the dribble, go up over the top for a clean look, or extend around a tough contest to create the angle to get the ball into scoring position. Siakam does. He’s a gazelle in transition, a whirling dervish facing up on the wing, a load in the post with a smaller defender on his back, and a chaos agent on the offensive glass. He was Toronto’s no. 2 offensive option all season, its mismatch-nightmare bellwether; when Siakam is attacking the basket and shooting with confidence, the Raptors can become unguardable for stretches.

It doesn’t seem great for Toronto, then, that Siakam hasn’t made a 3 since Game 1, and is shooting 39.7 percent from the field over the past four games:

It didn’t really register with me at the time—I was too focused on the insane shot-making, first by Leonard, and then by Curry and Thompson—but Siakam spent the final 9:02 of Game 5 on the bench. Raptors coach Nick Nurse opted to close small, playing Kawhi at power forward alongside either Gasol or Serge Ibaka, with Norman Powell and Danny Green sopping up the minutes at small forward alongside the Lowry-VanVleet backcourt. The alignment made some sense, especially with Kerr downsizing to Cook alongside Curry and Thompson, but it also indicates how minor a figure Siakam was for most of Game 5 that Nurse could look down his bench and think that the comparatively lightly used Powell presented a better late-game option than his most versatile defender. If Siakam turns in another quiet offensive game, the Warriors’ odds of sending the series back to Canada improve significantly.

How do both teams bounce back after an incredibly emotional 72 hours?

The weirdest thing about Game 5 was that, after Durant hobbled off the court and out of the series for good, it was the Raptors who seemed most rattled by the moment.

“Some of the guys on our bench were really shook up,” Nurse said after the game. “And I even know at halftime, when they came out and I don’t know what the official word is, but somebody on the bench said, ‘He tore something.’ And I know Kyle was on the bench, sitting there, and was shook up by that, and both Klay and Steph stopped and talked to Kyle there at halftime on our bench about it. So I think it’s always a little eerie feeling for everybody when something like that happens on a big stage like this.”

When Durant exited, Cousins—who at that point seemed ticketed for a DNP-CD—checked in for his first action of the game. His physicality and touch seemed to catch Toronto off guard, as he scored seven straight points to key a 13-4 run that put the Warriors up double figures.

The Raptors would come back, cutting the deficit to one in the final minute of the first half and later roaring into the lead thanks to Leonard’s fourth-quarter magic. But even with the specter of Durant’s uncertain health hanging over their heads, and with Kawhi’s knockout punch putting them on the ropes, the Warriors persevered to stay alive. Now, with three days to decompress and regroup, we will find out which team is best equipped to deal with the fallout of all that’s transpired since Monday night.

The Warriors saved their season but watched their teammate’s career flash before his eyes. The Raptors blew a golden opportunity to win the championship and now have to hold up as favorites to avoid the most stressful possible resolution to this dream postseason run. And both teams will do it feeling, in a much more immediate and unavoidable way than before, the unbearable weight of just how much one false step can change everything.

Golden State and Toronto each have plenty of veterans who’ve seen an awful lot in their careers—who have battled, won, and lost on the grandest stages the sport has to offer. Neither side figures to be shook by a big moment. But then, this moment feels different—bigger than most. Who’s going to blink first? A championship could depend on the answer.