The 2019 NBA Finals are set to begin Thursday night in Toronto between the Raptors and the Golden State Warriors, who are gunning for their third straight championship, and fourth in five years. They’re also coming in as heavy favorites, even with Kevin Durant expected to miss at least the first game, probably the first two, and perhaps the entire series. Durant is arguably the best player in the NBA. His absence, for however long it lasts, is the biggest story in this series, regardless of all the chatter suggesting Golden State could be better without him.
So that’s where we’ll start with a look at five main things to watch in these NBA Finals.
1. Kevin Durant’s absence
The Warriors aren’t better without Durant. They’re different, and perhaps equally capable when Steph Curry and Draymond Green are peaking, but their margin for error shrinks considerably without one of the most reliable scorers in NBA history — and that diminished margin for error is no small thing for a team that has had to squeak by for much of these playoffs.
Indeed, the fact that the Warriors are 5-0 since Durant went out of the playoffs and are coming off a sweep of Portland is deceiving. All six games vs. the Rockets were within five points with five minutes to play. In the conference finals, the Blazers had Golden State down at least 17 points in each of the final three games. A couple buckets here or there, one way or the other, and both those series could’ve played out a lot differently.
Durant is the guy who usually gets those buckets for the Warriors. These games will be close; don’t expect blowouts. In late-game situations, the Raptors can lock Kawhi Leonard onto Stephen Curry. And with no Durant, who gets you a half-court bucket in crunch time?
Having said that, in the big picture, it might be on the defensive end where the Warriors feel Durant’s absence most. Golden State’s playoff defensive metrics actually look better without Durant, but don’t let that fool you. That is a product of matchups and the small sample size. The bottom line is you need as many long, capable defenders for Kawhi as possible, and Durant would be one of them.
K.D.’s also a rim protector that allows the Warriors to thrive when they go small with Draymond at the five. If Durant were there for a Kawhi timeshare with Andre Iguodala, that would free up Draymond to do his typically destructive work as a roaming wrecking ball blowing up actions all over the court. Now it’s just Iguodala, and perhaps some Klay Thompson, with the Warriors having to work extra hard to avoid mismatches as their switching bandwidth shrinks significantly. The Warriors are also a bottom-six defensive rebounding team in the playoffs. They’ll miss Durant on the glass.
2. How, and with whom, will the Warriors defend Kawhi?
We just talked about part of this. Guarding Kawhi will be a committee approach, with Iguodala likely seeing the most individual time. The bigger question is whether the Warriors will even guard Leonard one-on-one all that much, or whether they’ll blitz, double and trap him in the same ways they did James Harden and Damian Lillard through the first two rounds to exceedingly positive results. It will compromise them elsewhere, of course, to commit a second defender to Kawhi, which makes Toronto’s shooting and secondary playmaking a big X-factor in this series. Marc Gasol should help with the latter. If a few of Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Fed VanVleet and Normal Powell are knocking down shots, it might deter the Warriors from committing so heavily to Kawhi.
3. Who guards Stephen Curry?
Another place where Durant’s absence will be seriously felt. Kyle Lowry will likely start on Curry, but when it gets down to it, and for sure if Curry gets it going, the Raptors, without Durant to worry about, will be able to stick Kawhi on Curry. They won’t want Kawhi on Curry for long stretches, if they can help it, if only because it will wear down Leonard, who is already playing at less than 100 percent with that obvious leg injury that nobody will really acknowledge.
Something to watch: Putting Kawhi on Draymond, instead of Curry, blows up the Curry-Green pick and roll because Kawhi is now the switcher onto Curry. The Raptors will likely put Siakam on Curry at times as well, making that Leonard-Siakam defensive duo on the Curry-Green pick and roll super long and athletic. This is where having Durant is such a release valve. Forget the pick and roll — just give it to Durant and isolate. Not an option at least for the first game and probably more.
4. Closing time
Again, all six of Golden State’s games against Houston were within five points with five minutes to play, which the NBA defines as clutch time. All told, 10 of the Warriors’ 16 playoff games have been decided in those final five clutch minutes. They are just 6-4 in those games, and as stated above, they trailed Portland by at least 17 points in each of the final three games of the conference finals. In other words, they are not blowing many games open like they used to. In fact, their point differential through the first three rounds — 6.2 per 100 possessions — is the lowest it’s been over the past five postseasons.
Chances are, there are going to be a lot of close games in these Finals, and that actually might favor Toronto, and specifically Leonard, who has become a killer closer and leads the entire playoffs with 48 total points in clutch time. Meanwhile, Curry, for all the talk about his domination in Durant’s absence, is shooting just 25.9 percent — 7 for 27 — in clutch time during these playoffs. If it is Kawhi checking Steph in those final five minutes, how much do you expect that number to improve?
5. Battle of the benches
DeMarcus Cousins, should Steve Kerr ease him back into the rotation as a bench player, is a factor here. Even if he’s not his usual All-Star self, just from a pure numbers standpoint he significantly helps the Warriors’ depth, which is not even close to what it used to be. Shaun Livingston is not the player he was even a few years ago. Quinn Cook, Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie are not players you want to be depending on in the NBA Finals, though all of them are certainly capable of a big performance here or there.
Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, on the other hand, is 14 for his last 17 from 3-point range, a scorching streak that spans the final three games of the conference finals. There is nobody off the Warriors’ bench that can provide that kind of firepower, probably Cousins included. Norman Powell has been really good. Serge Ibaka can still play like an All-Star in stretches. OG Anunoby, who’s been out since mid-April when he had to have an emergency appendectomy, sounds like he’s on track to return during the Finals. The bench is an area were Toronto can make up some points, and frankly it needs to. The Warriors’ starting lineup is just better than Toronto’s.