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The Five Decisions That Will Define the 2019 NBA Finals

How will Toronto limit Steph Curry? And will Kyle Lowry be able to keep up his recent run of form? We break down some of the keys to the Warriors-Raptors title clash.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If it seems to you like there’s a ton riding on the outcome of the 2019 NBA Finals, you’re not alone. The Warriors enter their fifth straight championship round seeking their third straight title, and their fourth in five years—an achievement that would etch into eternity a stretch of dominance unparalleled in the modern NBA. The Raptors, on the other hand, come in seeking their first championship—the ring that would unmistakably announce that Toronto has established itself as an organization and a city to be reckoned with.

Oh, and there’s also the small matter of both franchises’ employing a superstar small forward with a player option for next season. While many expect Kevin Durant to leave the Bay Area no matter how this series shakes out, no matter what his manager tells The Wall Street Journal, it’s entirely possible that the way things break over the next couple of weeks could help determine whether Kawhi Leonard wears a different uniform in the fall ... which, in turn, could go a long way toward determining whether the Raptors remain elite or start moving toward a tear-down. So, yeah: safe to say there’s a lot more on the line here than just a big gold trophy.

But first: that big gold trophy! Raptors-Warriors offers a slew of compelling on-court matchups and story lines to monitor, and the fact that there’s relatively little to glean from their two head-to-head meetings this season—both of which Toronto won, but both of which came before Christmas, with numerous injuries to key players—means we’re about to see something fresh. As we get set for tipoff of Game 1 on Thursday, here’s a handful of questions to consider, starting with one about a recently reinvigorated two-time MVP ...

1. How will the Raptors defend Stephen Curry?

It is the single biggest question facing any team that takes on the Warriors. As J. Kyle Mann detailed earlier this postseason, Curry distorts defenses differently than any player before him. You can’t really stop Steph when he’s locked into a groove; all you can do is hope to limit the fallout.

The Raptors did that effectively back in December, holding Curry to 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting en route to an impressive 20-point blowout win despite Leonard’s missing the contest. With Kawhi out of the lineup, Toronto coach Nick Nurse opted to start a two-point-guard lineup, with sixth man Fred VanVleet joining Kyle Lowry in the backcourt. VanVleet drew the bulk of the Curry assignment, and he performed well; Steph scored just four points on 1-for-6 shooting in 39 total possessions with VanVleet guarding him, according to NBA.com’s defensive matchup data.

VanVleet sought to make up for his 3-inch height disadvantage by applying pressure on Curry whenever and wherever possible—picking him up full-court, chasing him all over the floor, navigating off-ball screens, and doing his level best to deny the sharpshooting Warriors point guard any airspace to rise and fire. Even so, though, a rewatch reveals that Steph did get a few clean looks that he normally knocks down; he just missed them. Maybe it was just an off night. But maybe the misses came thanks to an overall body of defensive work that left him struggling to find his rhythm.

Curry’s sure as hell not struggling with that as he enters this series. He’s coming off a dominant run in the Western Conference finals sweep of the Blazers. The Raptors’ chances of toppling the two-time-defending champs start with the most improved defensive team in the playoffs’ finding a way to derail the sport’s deadliest shooter. One possible answer: Take a page out of the Spurs’ book.

For years, Gregg Popovich’s teams have tried to curb Curry by having his man pick him up high on the floor and work to force him left, away from his dominant right hand. They’ve had the defender guarding Curry’s screener play up, too, to take away the cushion that would invite an open pull-up 3. The goal: push Curry inside the arc, and into a contested midrange shot. (If this sounds familiar, it might be because you watched the Bucks and later the Jazz run a similar scheme on James Harden this season.)

With Lowry, VanVleet, longtime Spurs stalwart Danny Green, and Norman Powell, the Raptors have the smarts and the bodies to sell out on running Curry off the 3-point line. But you can’t always have your preferred defender on the job; at some point, another Raptor will get cross-matched onto Curry. The trick then will be not only sticking with the game plan, but also sticking with Curry, even if he gives up the ball. Lose him for a second, and he’ll make you pay:

Durant’s being out for at least Game 1, and possibly not even traveling to Toronto, frees up Leonard for a different defensive assignment, but I wouldn’t expect him to start on Curry, given the presence of several other quality backcourt defenders in Toronto’s rotation. (A lower-intensity cover—like, say, Andre Iguodala—seems like a good call for Leonard, especially after he looked hobbled at times in the second half of the Bucks series.) But if his more like-sized options fail to tamp down Curry’s scoring, Nurse could turn to Leonard to offer a different look. While the two didn’t share the court for a second during the regular season, Kawhi has checked Curry some in the past, during his days with the Spurs. Sometimes, it’s gone well …

... and sometimes, it hasn’t:

Regardless, expect Leonard to see at least some time on Steph, especially when Golden State cranks up the high screen-and-roll game late in close games. Toronto has options in the fight against Curry. Whether it’s got any answers, though, very much remains to be seen.

2. Who will start out guarding Kawhi Leonard?

In Leonard’s lone regular-season appearance against Golden State, it was Durant. And as was the case when the two locked up in the first half of Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals, Kawhi seemed awfully comfortable going at the taller, longer KD:

Durant’s not going to be available out of the gate, though, so somebody else is going to have to step into the matchup. (Or, more likely, a few somebodies.) Iguodala, the most decorated and experienced perimeter defender of the bunch, will likely get first crack; he gives up an inch and about 15 pounds to Leonard, but he’s got the strength and length to stand the chance of muscling up Kawhi on his drives and post-ups without giving up too much ground, and the hands to be able to disrupt Leonard’s dribble if he gets too loose with his handle on his way to the rim.

Whoever draws the initial assignment matters only so much, though. Back in November, the Raptors looked to get Leonard on the move early against Durant, putting him through quick pitches and dribble handoffs into screens to force switches so that he could attack a mismatch against a less capable defender, like Damian Jones, Jonas Jerebko, or Jordan Bell. It paid dividends: Kawhi had 22 on 9-for-12 shooting in the first half. Later, Kerr tried Klay Thompson on Leonard for a spell, perhaps liking the combination of Thompson’s on-ball skills and moving Durant’s size off the ball to put a longer help defender in Leonard’s path on the second level of the defense. But Leonard’s size and strength allows him to overpower Klay; if he can get his shoulders past Thompson (or most other defenders, really), he’s going to get just about wherever he wants to go.

Golden State’s best approach might be to veer away from its signature switching and toward more sudden spikes of defensive intensity. The Warriors have more frequently looked to dial up traps this postseason, bringing multiple defenders to the ball and ratcheting up the pressure on opponents’ top creators—Lou Williams, Harden, Damian Lillard—in hopes of making them play in traffic or, hopefully, give up the ball entirely. The key to such an approach, beyond active hands for the trappers: Draymond Green, lurking behind the play, able to effectively zone up and defend multiple release-valve options at the same time.

The idea is enticing: Force Leonard (who, despite logging 16 assists over his final two games against Milwaukee, is still closer to an average playmaker than an elite one) to move the ball, and make another Raptor beat a rotating defense. In practice, though, things could get dicey. Toronto can go to inverted pick-and-rolls with Lowry screening for Leonard and acting as his direct outlet, putting the Raptors’ best pure facilitator in position to attack downhill in a four-on-three situation. When Gasol is on the floor, he too would be a perfect option to take the ball on the short roll and spray it around the court over the top of scrambling defenders.

If Toronto can move the ball faster than the help defenders can move their bodies, the Raptors’ shooters will get chances to punish Golden State’s aggression; before long, Pascal Siakam and Danny Green might join VanVleet in the ranks of Raptors who went from frigid to fiery in short order. If the Warriors elect to keep their helpers at home, preferring to shut off the 3-point line and live with midrange mayhem, Leonard could continue his rampage through the postseason, becoming one of only a half-dozen players ever to score 35 or more points 10 times in a single playoff run. Neither seems particularly palatable, but against this version of Kawhi, you’re going to give up something. It’s just a matter of how much punishment you’re able to take without giving up everything.

3. How will the chess match at center shake out?

When these two teams met during the regular season, Serge Ibaka started both games at the 5 for Toronto, while Jones and Kevon Looney split starting duties for Golden State. At that point, DeMarcus Cousins had yet to make his debut for the Warriors, and Marc Gasol was still a member of the Grizzlies. Now, Gasol is the Raptors’ first-choice big man, having smothered Nikola Vucevic in Round 1, helped limit Joel Embiid in Round 2, and made just enough of those pick-and-pop 3s and high-post passes in Round 3 to help bust the vaunted Bucks defense. And Cousins, after missing the past six weeks with a torn left quadriceps muscle, has now been upgraded to questionable for Thursday’s Game 1, as he continues to work on his conditioning and timing; Kerr might not put him right back into the starting lineup, but it wouldn’t be surprising for a coach who loves to use his centers liberally to turn back to Cousins as soon as he can.

If Cousins is able to make it back into the fold for the first Finals appearance of his career, how much of an impact can he really be expected to have after such a long layoff? How effective would he be against Gasol, a similarly sized behemoth with the smarts and length to crowd him into tough shots? (They never faced off this season, but in 2017-18, with Cousins in New Orleans and Gasol in Memphis, the Spaniard held Cousins to 30 points on 6-for-20 shooting on 103 total defensive possessions over three games, according to Second Spectrum’s matchup data.) And with Gasol increasingly being used as a floor-spacer and ball-mover to take advantage of opposing centers who prefer to plant in the paint, would Cousins prove too detrimental a defender to play for long stretches against a pass-happy Raptors offense?

That latter question cuts both ways, though. As good as Gasol has been on the defensive end in these playoffs, the Warriors have long led the league in putting plodding big men out to pasture. He’ll have a role as long as Kerr sticks with a traditional big—Cousins, if healthy; or Looney; or Andrew Bogut—and will probably be able to stay afloat against the athletically gifted but inexperienced and imprecise Jordan Bell. When Golden State inevitably downsizes with Draymond-at-center lineups, though, will Gasol be able to hold up in a faster-paced setting and manage his matchups in the midst of all the havoc the Warriors can wreak when they crank up the tempo?

If he can’t, then Ibaka will become an immense figure in this series. He fared well against Golden State during the regular season, averaging 20 points on 51.7 percent shooting and eight rebounds in 32.8 minutes per game in Toronto’s two wins, and has had big moments in the postseason, wielding his athleticism as a blunt-force weapon as he stepped up in games 4 and 7 against the Sixers, and in Game 4 against Milwaukee. Whether he can bring that physicality—on the offensive glass, as a finisher, as a shot-swatting weak-side help defender—to bear against a Golden State front line anchored by a slimmed-down and charged-up version of Draymond could become a major pivot point in the Finals.

If Ibaka struggles against Golden State’s small-ball lineups, Nurse could look to downsize, too, deploying his most versatile two-way frontcourt piece—the 6-foot-9, 230-pound, defend-every-position-and-run-pick-and-roll Siakam—at center. Siakam-at-5 lineups worked beautifully this season, outscoring opponents by 18.4 points per 100 possessions in just more than 400 total possessions of floor time, according to Cleaning the Glass. But there’s a catch: More than half of those possessions came with OG Anunoby at power forward, giving Toronto another big wing (6-foot-8, 232 pounds, 7-foot-6 wingspan) who can defend multiple positions and crash the boards even while staying “small.” Anunoby has missed the entire postseason after undergoing an emergency appendectomy last month; Nurse said Monday he’s about 10 days away, which could put him on track for a potential return in Game 4, but expecting him to hit the ground running might be a bit much to ask after six weeks on the shelf.

It seems, then, that any Siakam-at-5 lineups would have to lean heavily on VanVleet and Powell—both of whom were brutalized by Philadelphia’s size in Round 2 before breaking through against the Bucks in the conference finals. Is something like Siakam-Kawhi–Danny Green/Powell–VanVleet-Lowry too small to hold up against the Warriors? Heavy VanVleet-Lowry minutes seem like an invitation for Thompson to erupt. He went just 16-for-37 from the field and 3-for-14 from 3 against the Raptors during the regular season, but both meetings came during his first-half slump, before he started scorching the nets again; a steady diet of smaller defenders seems like something Klay will eventually devour.

The starrier battles lie elsewhere, but no single position in this series carries as much potential for chaos as the center spot. Whichever team can seize control of the terms of engagement at the 5 will have a leg up.

4. Can Kyle Lowry control the tempo?

The 33-year-old lead guard is enjoying a well-deserved moment in the sun, earning praise from all corners after averaging 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game in the conference finals. Lowry shot 46.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per contest, had only one game with more than two turnovers, and outclassed counterpart Eric Bledsoe on his way to a Finals berth that exorcised a ton of old ghosts from the early years of his tenure in Toronto.

As much as his shot-making mattered against Philadelphia and Milwaukee, though, it was Lowry’s gift for seizing opportunities that helped the Raptors make the most out of their trips against a pair of tough defenses. He’s great at pushing the ball to help Toronto get out on the break; 18.1 percent of the Raptors’ offensive possessions this postseason have come in transition, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data, second only to the Giannis-led Bucks among playoff teams. While those possessions don’t necessarily lead to fast-break baskets—the Raptors scored more efficiently than any other team in transition during the regular season, but they’re just 11th out of 16 playoff teams in points scored per transition possession—they do get Toronto into its sets early in the shot clock.

The quicker the Raptors get started, the more chances they’ll get to poke and prod in search of cracks that can be turned into craters. Against a Warriors team that hemmed and hawed on defense for much of the season, but has looked reborn with a fire-and-brimstone Draymond at the controls in the playoffs, Lowry will have to double down on that game governance.

He’ll have to hunt the hit-ahead passes to teammates running the floor to get set up in the paint early. He’ll have to see the chance for a quick drive into a back-tracking defender, and to launch into an even quicker shooting motion once contact is made. He’ll have to pull the same relocation tricks that Steph and Klay do, forcing the Warriors to focus every second, and making them pay when they blink.

He’ll have to make sure Toronto gets good looks at every chance, to give the defense its best chance; the Raptors allow a playoff-best 0.94 points per possession after a made shot, when they can set their defense, compared to 1.09 points per possession after a missed shot and 1.30 points per possession after a turnover, according to Inpredictable. Oh, and he’ll have to make either or both of the Splash Brothers uncomfortable when they’ve got the ball.

For years, Lowry was often—and often unfairly—derided as one of the primary reasons the Raptors, for all their regular-season success, could never get over the hump in the playoffs. If his performance in this postseason hasn’t put all that to bed, another round of it ought to do the trick. All he’s got to do is find a way to be the dominant backcourt force in a battle against a two-time MVP and a future Hall of Famer. Piece of cake.

5. Which Pascal Siakam will we see?

You can make a convincing case that Siakam was the Raptors’ most consistent player this season. Leonard produced more, but he missed 22 games. Lowry set the table better than ever, but he also missed 17 games and shot just 41 percent from the floor. Siakam, meanwhile, played 80 games, led the team in minutes, was second in total points and rebounds, and slotted seamlessly into virtually any role Nurse laid out for him. An energy-and-hustle reserve a season ago, the 25-year-old blossomed into Toronto’s no. 2 scoring option and an elite multiposition defender, seemingly overnight.

During the postseason, though, Siakam has struggled to consistently puncture defenses game-planning to stop him. Philly’s tactical shift to put the massive Joel Embiid on Siakam, walling off his whirling drives to the rim and making him prove he could make open 3s from the top of the floor, seemed to shake the Cameroonian’s confidence. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez cast similarly long shadows in the conference finals, holding Siakam in check and forcing Lowry to look for his own offense more to pick up the slack.

Well, against the Warriors, there’s no time for indecision. As one of the Raptors’ most gifted one-on-one creators and open-court athletes, Siakam has to shake off two rounds’ worth of scuffling—just 42.3 percent from the field against Philly and Milwaukee, and only 26.2 percent from 3-point range on 4.7 attempts per game—and get dangerous again. How will he manage that if Kerr puts Draymond on Siakam, allowing the quarterback of his defense to hang back in help position to load up on Kawhi’s isolations or Lowry working in the pick-and-roll?

Will he get active as an off-ball screener, trying to pop Toronto’s complementary marksmen for open catch-and-shoot looks? Can he hit enough 3s to make Golden State take an extra step or two out on him, reopening the slashing game that made such a major difference for Toronto all season? If Green steps out to check him, can he beat the former Defensive Player of the Year off the bounce and to the rim, or will his drives get stonewalled by Green’s muscle and acute sense of on-court geometry, short-circuiting Toronto’s possessions and giving the Warriors the chance to rip off big runs?

If the answer to most of those questions is “no,” then the Raptors’ chances of scoring enough to hang with the no. 1 offensive team in the league during both the regular season and playoffs might be slim. But if, once or twice, he can flash the kind of form that produced this performance

… then Toronto might just have what it needs to dethrone the champs after all. Siakam’s been a bellwether for the Raptors all season, and he’s a swing piece for the franchise. This is his opportunity to show how far he’s come, and just how far he might be able to go. Chances like this don’t come around all that often. I can’t wait to see what he, and the rest of the Raptors, will do with it.