The X’s and O’s That Will Define 2019 NBA Finals
On Thursday night, the 2019 NBA Finals (finally) commence between two teams who took very opposite paths to arrive.
The Golden State Warriors are looking for their third consecutive championship and fourth of the last five years. The favorites, Golden State enters the series with questions surrounding the health and availability of superstars Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins.
That may not slow them. Their team is intact despite the absences, spearheaded by two-time MVP Stephen Curry and essentially the same group that won the 2015 NBA Finals.
Opposing them, the Toronto Raptors are newcomers to the stage and a team previously written off by their failures to stand up to LeBron James in the East. Instead of folding, the Raptors reinvented themselves on the fly and filled the vacuum once LeBron left for Los Angeles. They traded their best player for another superstar with injury concerns, fired a reigning Coach of the Year and took many calculated risks with constructing their roster.
All paid off in a big way.
One thing is clear: The Warriors are still the favorites. Yet, a dive into the X’s and O’s, as well as the matchups, tell a story of defensive execution. This is a series about stars, so the tactical burden lies upon stopping individual players more than actions or plays.
Throw out the regular season contests between these two teams. Both occurred in early December before this Raptors iteration was together. Marc Gasol was still in Memphis, Stephen Curry missed one game and Kawhi Leonard missed the other.
Thus, the two best healthy players in this series have yet to step on the court at the same time, which is an important distinction. The Leonard and Curry battle will be one that ultimately determines this series.
If there is one thing we learned about these Raptors since they acquired Gasol, it’s that they are a much better team in the half-court than they get credit for. Offensively, they have shooters at every position (Pascal Siakam may be the only exception, but he’s good enough in the corners to draw attention) and some incredibly skilled playmakers.
Kyle Lowry and Siakam are more than capable of creating their own shot, while Gasol and Fred VanVleet have played hero at times due to their combination of shooting and passing.
Their top four threats (Leonard, Siakam, Lowry and Gasol) compliment each other so nicely and can each operate in three ways:
- They all shoot the three and cannot be ignored off the ball.
- They are all ball handlers or creators of offense in some form.
- They all operate out of the post in mismatches or bully-ball.
Luckily for the Warriors, Golden State has enough defenders who are stout enough to mitigate those interior mismatches, though not to neutralize them completely.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse has proven a pragmatic play-caller, sticking to a fairly bare-bones approach that lets his best players operate within their comfort zones. Kawhi has the ultimate green light to take over possessions and destroy one-on-one. He torched Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks, a fantastic defender in his own right, on isolations during the last series.
Toronto runs a few basic sets that keep the floor spaced and therefore are immune to being overwhelmed by schematic overhauls.
Ball screen sets for Kawhi are simple, such as their Chin pick-and-roll to keep the lane open. The plays built around their other scorers are direct as well: A quick trailer handoff to get Siakam a downhill attack is a favorite, and a baseline stagger for their point guard creates early movement.
Nurse also runs some nice ATO sets, including my personal favorite, a quick elbow give-and-go into a hammer screen.
Everything about their half-court offense is dictated by where Kawhi starts and what matchups they want to attack for him. When Leonard goes in isolation, he usually goes after misses when he can take advantage of a cross-matched defense or when plays are less scripted.
The Raptors love setting wide down screens, or pin-downs, for Leonard in early offense. He makes a killing off these early screens and reading his defender. Go under the screen and he pops back for a three; go over and he’ll curl it and score:
The Raptors’ other frequent early offense plays come from the Pistol Series, a staple even before Nick Nurse took over. Many teams run it due to its great spacing and offensive versatility, so the Warriors won’t be spooked by it or caught off guard.
But the Raptors weaponize it for Leonard, using the early guard-to-guard screens on the wing as a chance to create that mismatch early in a possession. Routinely, the Raptors will get the desired defender on Leonard before the shot clock hits eighteen; Then they get to be simple afterward: Spread the floor, let shooters be ready to shoot and watch Leonard go to work:
Leonard is so dominant out of post-ups that it’s hard for opponents not to double-team him on the block.
He’s 10-22 against single-coverage these playoffs and averaged 1.017 points per possession (PPP) during the regular season. If the Warriors double to help avoid those post mismatches, the Raptors have so many good passers and shooters surrounding Kawhi that it does little to slow down their offensive production:
Throughout the postseason, Toronto has gotten away with letting Gasol or Ibaka stand at the elbows or top of the key while a point guard sets a screen for Leonard to get those mismatches.
Kawhi juts off the screen, looking to curl to the basket or get to the rim, and the added space of a 5-out scheme allows him to read screens without fearing help defenders crowding his backdoor cuts. It’s a set I believe the Raptors call “Face”:
If the Warriors overplay Kawhi, they must be willing to give up corner threes from the weak side. However, sitting on his high shoulder, as the Bucks routinely did to some success, and forcing Leonard baseline doesn’t seem like a Warriors-esque strategy. They believe in their on-ball switching and off-ball rotations to cover openings as they arise.
Essentially, they’ve made five-straight finals by baiting teams into matchup hunting.
Steph Curry is the one weak point in Golden State’s impenetrable armor. Could the Raptors play into that trap and let Kawhi seek him out through all their actions and screens?
If they choose to do so, “Face” is a great way to attack.
Curry will likely be guarding one of Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet at all times. Using them as initiators to the action, then seeing them set down screens for Leonard, could allow Toronto to force a switch and let Kawhi attack. The weak-side spacing protects Leonard, and the screen could see multiple back cuts, catch-and-shoot opportunities or strong, decisive moves to the bucket.
The Warriors also present a challenge that the Raptors have not seen in a while: switching by design.
The Orlando Magic were a soft hedge team, the Philadelphia 76ers opted to always protect Joel Embiid and the Bucks did the same with Brook Lopez. So how will Toronto respond to or alter its approach based on the coverages?
Because the Warriors switch so frequently, their initial matchups really do not mean as much as you might think, especially knowing the Raptors are going to look to distort them early in possessions. A betting man would see Andre Iguodala wind up on Leonard, but the rest is fairly negotiable.
In the absence of Durant, Steve Kerr must decide between Green and Kevon Looney guarding Siakam and Gasol.
Conventional wisdom would put Looney on Gasol, where Green can more easily switch onto guards through actions including Siakam. But that may not be the case. The Bucks and Sixers both put their centers on Siakam through their series, avoiding the pick-and-pops. That same rationale may not apply for Kerr’s switchy scheme, but there is value in sticking Draymond on Gasol and applying pressure atop the key.
Despite the Warriors’ brilliance on offense and Curry’s unique shooting prowess, Draymond’s defensive weaponry may be the most valuable piece in the series.
There’s less discourse on Curry and Thompson starting on Lowry and Green. Curry is a more natural fit for Green—a wing who does little to handle the ball and is more stationary in the corners.
We’ll see early in the series how the Warriors initially look at matchups, but their ability to pre-switch and keep Curry out of the post—as well as how they pay special attention to Kawhi—are the biggest storylines for their defense.
No team has been able to truly neutralize the Warriors’ offense since Steve Kerr took over. They are 18-1 in playoff series under him, and have only gotten more dangerous over time. Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins added ingredients that make the offense even more unpredictable.
So, even if neither makes an impact during the series, the Warriors have experience winning titles without those stars.
The offense becomes easy to note but difficult to stop, and it changes greatly based on whether Durant is in the lineup. Without him, the Warriors’ offense transforms into a challenge of physical fitness, off-ball awareness and a dangerous game with Green.
Kerr’s offense has been consistent throughout the years, though he’s added a new staple to the playbook this season. One action, dubbed “Whip”, has so much speed, ball movement and player movement that I really do not know what I would suggest for a preferred coverage:
That’s the thing about the Warriors. Their playbook is not necessarily more shallow than other teams, but every set they run is based on organized chaos and a ton of movement. Curry is the best at this, constantly buzzing around screens and zipping through the lane, waiting for a breakdown before he strikes.
Without Durant, he becomes the focal point and the offense becomes based around his movement.
The Warriors are so talented in their chaos that they don’t need play calls in order to be incredibly dangerous. Curry freelancing while his teammates try to get him the ball is a frightening task.
How are you supposed to defend this?
Instead of preparing for actual plays, it may seem more practical to script how to guard individual actions as a blanket philosophy.
How does that manifest itself? Instead of saying “when the Warriors run Whip, we will switch the handoff”, the coaching staff would instruct the Raptors to “switch all handoffs involving Curry or Thompson”.
There’s a legitimate downside in that approach, however, especially against the Warriors.
Part of the reason teams scout plays is to prepare for the action that is coming. By only searching for actions in a certain way, the defensive coverage’s success rate hinges on the player’s ability to recognize the action as it occurs. Because the Warriors run so much and their actions happen so fast, that is quite the burden—even on a team with length and high-IQ defenders.
Yet, this is still likely the best approach for a switchy, long Raptors team.
One example would come from what to do when the ball goes into the post. No matter who is posting up and what the mismatch is, the priority should be to find Curry. He’s incredibly adept at coming off screens to the ball-side wing from their Split action:
Whenever the Dubs throw the ball inside, the Raptors could change their coverage to then deny Curry, essentially top-siding him and forcing him to cut backdoor and away from the wing screen.
The danger is that Steph gets to a layup from the slip, but if the Raptors sag from the weak side, they’ll be in prime position to force a skip and keep the ball away from him.
The same could be said for Klay Thompson coming off screens. This postseason, three out of every four shots resulting from a screen are of him moving to his left, according to Synergy Sports Tech. That holds up in the regular season as well, where 65.2 percent of the time he came off to his left. Klay should be guarded differently on each half of the floor, pushing him to his right and trying to jam him away from using screens on the left side.
The one player for the Warriors with no discernable tendencies? Kevin Durant.
He’s a great shooter and finisher, operates well on both sides of the lane and comfortably goes to either hand. He, and his health, are the X-Factor in this series.
From a pure talent perspective, the Dubs are simply too overpowering. While their playing style is harder to prepare for without him, their overall depth of talent means the Raptors need to win so many one-on-one matchups every night to get the victory.
The Raptors have talented individual defenders, which is why this series will not be a cakewalk. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard have both faced the Dubs before in the playoffs and know the challenges. Siakam can move well on the perimeter and should be pesky against Draymond or even Durant. Serge Ibaka coming off the bench to block shots is important. I have no idea how Marc Gasol finds a functionality on defense when Andrew Bogut or Looney are not in the game.
The Warriors’ famed “Death Lineup” is meant to play him off the floor.
The burden is on Nurse to design a scheme that works to submerge Golden State’s stars and protect his own. He successfully designed one against the Bucks, sagging heavily and playing the tendencies of Giannis Antetokounmpo to hamper the Milwaukee half-court offense.
Warriors players certainly have tendencies and strong points, and taking those away regardless of what pattern they use to arrive there is more important than the pattern itself.
For someone who loves X’s and O’s as much as I do, this series is not the playbook masterpiece that satisfies my must voracious cravings. Instead, it’s a delicate battle of personnel scouting for the Raptors and how they take Warriors shooters out of a groove.
Durant will likely be back at some point in the series. He’ll shift the offense to a more isolation-centric style, which is dangerous in its own right. But if the Raptors cannot stop the free-flowing style of play without him, Durant may have to assimilate to that style in order to win a title. The Raps have already proven their ability to take away isolation in the half-court.
Unfortunately for them, the Warriors are the least isolation-heavy group out there. Every team the Raptors have blown through this postseason are built incredibly different from Golden State. The experience that this Warriors roster has against opponents of all types and styles bodes well for their success.
Expect the unexpected, but don’t bet against the champs.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of May 27, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.
Outstanding preview. Keep up the great work.
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