What to Expect from Toronto, Golden State’s NBA Finals Rotations

The balance a coach must maintain between flexibility and rigidity is forever the most difficult part of the job. In a playoff series, it’s important for a team to adjust to an opponent’s particular strengths and weaknesses, but too many adjustments and said team loses the identity that brought it this far.

This dance will be of utmost importance for the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors, as each presents problems to the other that they haven’t faced this postseason.

How each team structures its rotations will be particularly interesting to watch, as both Nick Nurse and Steve Kerr have varying flexibilities and rigidities strewn throughout their rotational decisions.

For Toronto, things are a bit more straightforward: OG Anunoby is questionable to return after missing six weeks with an appendectomy and ensuing infection. But given how well Norman Powell is playing right now, it’s safe to assume he’ll have the first crack at the backup wing minutes either way.

The rest of the Raptors’ rotation will be the same as it has been throughout the playoffs, with Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Powell and Serge Ibaka playing the vast majority of the minutes. Expect Anunoby and Jodie Meeks to be available for “break in case of emergency” duty.

Despite the Warriors’ propensity to play on the perimeter—particularly with Kevin Durant sidelined through injury—Gasol will likely continue to see starting and closing minutes. He’s been their best center option throughout the playoffs, and Nurse was previously reluctant to remove him when other coaches may have made the switch to Ibaka.

May 5, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) is covered by the defense of Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) and center Serge Ibaka (9) and center Marc Gasol (33) and guard Danny Green (14) during the fourth quarter in game four of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of Durant’s injury, Kerr hasn’t used Draymond Green at center very often, making it much easier for Toronto to play Gasol. Any matchup against Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell or Andre Bogut will give the Raptors the advantage.

But when Durant returns, how will Nurse handle the closing minutes of both halves? Will he stick with Gasol against Draymond Green or will he move to the more mobile Ibaka? The latter brings more switchability, while the former is stronger at the basket and has a more varied offensive skill set.

Danny Green’s leash will also be important to Nurse’s decision making.

VanVleet and Powell played very well over the last few games of the Milwaukee series, while Green’s shot mostly abandoned him throughout the entire playoffs. Nurse has shown that he’s willing to move away from Green should his shot not resurface.

VanVleet gives Toronto another scrappy option to defend Curry, while Powell brings similar size as Green if the Raptors want to stay away from a dual point guard alignment. All three will get ample chances in Toronto’s 8-man rotation, but who Nurse chooses to close games will be an open question.

Nurse’s in-game substitution patterns have shifted over the course of the playoffs, particularly with respect to Leonard. Early in the playoffs, Leonard was playing the entire first and third quarters and sitting at the beginning of the second and fourth. The Raptors held to that strategy throughout their second-round series with Philadelphia, even though it meant sitting Leonard for the minutes at the beginning of the second and fourth when the 76ers had at least 80 percent of their starting lineup on the floor.

Against Milwaukee, things shifted slightly, with Leonard exiting earlier and earlier for his first rest as the series pressed on. Nurse matched Leonard’s minutes to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s for stretches before later moving away from that strategy.

Golden State’s star rotations are much more rigid: Curry and Draymond Green play the entire first and third quarters and will sit for the first several minutes of the second and fourth, much like Leonard was doing in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Will Nurse match Leonard’s minutes to Curry and Green, ensuring that his superstar is always on the floor with the Warriors’ two best players? Will things change when Durant returns to the lineup? Nurse may want to match Leonard’s minutes exactly with Durant’s, as Leonard is clearly Toronto’s best option to defend Durant.

May 23, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In the non-Durant games, which will include at least Game 1, the Raptors should have a distinct advantage during the non-Curry/Green minutes at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters.

Their depth is much better than Golden State’s, even if Leonard is sitting during those periods as well. In their current state, the Warriors are running out Thompson as their only positive second-unit contributor offensively, which should give Toronto an opportunity to build a lead or cut into Golden State’s.

That advantage disappears when DeMarcus Cousins and perhaps Durant return, as those two will typically open the second and fourth quarters with Thompson in a staggered setting that puts at least three of the Warriors’ five stars on the floor together at all times.

The health of both Durant and Cousins will determine much of Kerr’s rotations decisions. Getting Durant back unlocks the Death Lineup with Draymond Green at the 5—a group that absolutely tears teams apart. Cousins’ return clarifies the center rotation in a key way, pushing Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut and Damian Jones completely out of rotation and ensuring that Kerr can’t get too weird with his choices.

Nobody has any idea what Kerr will actually do, but he can’t afford to fool around with any of the other options against Toronto—as he was clearly doing during the earlier rounds.

Kevon Looney has to be the Warriors’ starting center, and he must play significant minutes. There are downsides with respect to the already limited bench unit that starts the second and fourth quarters, but even starting Looney doesn’t preclude him from playing those minutes as well, as long as Kerr pulls him early enough in the first and third quarters to have him available after the breaks.

May 20, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (5) celebrates with teammates during overtime against the Portland Trail Blazers in game four of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Warriors won 119-117 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

If Cousins returns, that should help solve the bench problem, as he can play those minutes alongside Thompson to give Golden State the offensive boost it desperately needs. Looney can keep starting but, the closing minutes can go to whomever Kerr believes is playing best in the moment.

That could be Looney, Cousins or Green, with another wing inserted in Durant’s spot on the Death Lineup.

Without Cousins, the backup center minutes should fall to Bell, though there are no great choices among the Bell/Bogut/Jones trio. Bell is the least bad option due to his energy and perimeter defense, which will be important against a Raptors team that likes to spread things out. He’s a good matchup for Ibaka, though they’ll have to be wary of Ibaka’s spurts of energy going for offensive rebounds.

Shaun Livingston and Alfonzo McKinnie will round out Kerr’s rotations at first, though McKinnie may see his minutes dry up if Durant is able to return at full strength. Quinn Cook gives Kerr a different option at the backup point guard spot and puts more shooting on the floor with the second unit, but Kerr likely prioritizes Livingston’s Finals experience, defense and basketball IQ.

Both coaches will have significant rotation decisions to make, both within the scope of their full roster and within the games themselves. Nurse’s management of Leonard’s minutes will be of utmost importance to the Raptors, while how quickly Kerr can and should bring back his injured stars will change the series dramatically, whatever his decision.