TORONTO — After four straight years of the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, basketball’s biggest event will not be a rematch, a grudge match or a battle of familiar foes. The Toronto Raptors are Eastern Conference champs for the first time in their 24-year history, and Golden State is finally facing a star forward not named LeBron James with the title on the line.
“This is more the rule,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday. “That was the exception. You’re not supposed to go to the Finals four straight years and you’re definitely not — if you’re lucky enough to do that, you’re not supposed to play the same team four straight years. So that was really an oddity. This is more what the Finals normally feel like, where you’re going against a team you frankly don’t know that well and that you haven’t seen that often over the previous few years.”
This is an oddity, however, because there is a near-total absence of useful data about the matchup. It’s not just that Golden State and Toronto only met twice this season; it is that those two meetings are essentially meaningless. Both were before the Raptors traded Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles for Marc Gasol. Both were before DeMarcus Cousins made his season debut. Key players sat out.
In the first game, a 131-128 double-overtime Raptors win at Scotiabank Arena, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were inactive. Quinn Cook and Damian Jones were in the Warriors’ starting lineup, and Kerr used a Shaun Livingston–Klay Thompson–Damion Lee–Jonas Jerebko–Kevon Looney lineup at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. In the second game, a 113-93 Toronto win at Oracle Arena, Kawhi Leonard was inactive. The Raptors started the fourth quarter with a lineup of Kyle Lowry, Wright, Miles, OG Anunoby and Greg Monroe.
“It’s a different look for each team,” Golden State wing Andre Iguodala said. “So it’s kind of going to be a lot of wild punches thrown and guys trying to figure out where to find their rhythm, their groove.”
In order to prepare for how the Warriors might defend Leonard, Toronto coach Nick Nurse watched the first game of the 2017 Western Conference finals. That’s the one in which Leonard scored 26 points in 24 minutes and suffered a season-ending injury with his San Antonio Spurs up by 23. Gasol revisited clips of the Memphis Grizzlies‘ second-round series in 2015 because he wanted to see how Golden State guarded him.
Iguodala and center Andrew Bogut both said Thursday’s Game 1 will be a feel-out game. “It’s hard to game-plan,” Livingston said. Golden State has lots of experience against Leonard and Gasol from their years playing in the Western Conference, but it has only seen them play together on film. Pascal Siakam, the likely Most Improved Player, scored 26 points in that overtime game in November. The last time he had played the Warriors before that was the previous January — he scored six points in 21 minutes off the bench.
“That’s the big thing we’ve been talking about, we don’t really know these guys,” Warriors big man Jordan Bell said. “We watched a lot of film but we never played against the team they have now and they haven’t played against the team we are now. So it’s definitely a big difference. So kind of makes it more interesting because there’s a scouting report, but there’s no feel for it. Like, you don’t know people’s tendencies as far as playing them and things like that. Like, Marc Gasol isn’t the same person he was in Memphis and there are a bunch of people like that and different roles that they have now. I think it will be very interesting, like a pick-up game almost.”
Toronto entered the season with a new coach, a new superstar and a reconfigured starting five. Gasol arrived in February and changed the team’s style on both ends. In contrast, the whole league knows how Golden State plays, and the roster has only been tweaked in minor ways. The tricky part, from the Raptors’ perspective, is that they’re not sure who exactly is going to be on the court.
The biggest variable, obviously, is Kevin Durant, who made the trip to Toronto but has been ruled out for Thursday’s opener. Since his calf injury, Kerr has been unafraid to go deep into his bench and the Warriors have had to lean more on the playmaking ability of Curry and, to a lesser extent, Green. They started three different centers — Bogut, Jones and Bell — in their four-game conference finals series against Portland, and many analysts have predicted that they will start Looney to open the Finals. Cousins, who has been out since the second game of the playoffs, might be available, too. Typically, coaching staffs try to anticipate how opponents will manage their rotations. This is a fool’s errand for Nurse’s staff.
“We feel like we’re facing a fresh new team that’s playing different basketball than when the Warriors played ’em earlier in the season,” Bogut said. “And they might feel the same thing about us.”
You don’t make the Finals without being adaptable. The Raptors went to a massive, two-center lineup against the Philadelphia 76ers and used a faster, two-PG lineup against the Milwaukee Bucks. Gasol and Bogut surely remember when the latter matched up with Tony Allen four years ago, and you likely do, too. The nature of this series, however, dictates that adjustments will be even more significant than normal. Nobody knows what to expect.