The Toronto Raptors are not just happy to be here.
From the moment they finally got over the hump and won the Eastern Conference Finals, the team has followed the lead of Kawhi Leonard and been focused and looking ahead. Nobody would blame them for celebrating making the Finals — their fans sure did — but the Raptors as a team have been focused.
Toronto has a shot at winning this series.
They are not the favorites (nor should they be against the two-time defending champs), but the Raptors have the pieces to push and maybe even beat the Warriors. They have little margin for error. They need Leonard to continue to be dominant on both ends, including keeping up his improved playmaking. They need the secondary players — Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, etc. — to not be hesitant and knock down shots. The bench needs to play like it did the last two games against Milwaukee with Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell knocking down threes. And that halfcourt defense that was so good against Milwaukee has to be great again — and they need to keep playing that hard on defense even as Golden State scores in bunches. Because it will. Toronto can’t let up.
Here are three other, less obvious things the Rockets need to do to dethrone the Warriors.
• Attack Golden State’s centers on switches in the pick-and-roll.
The Warriors role out a group of long, switchable defenders with Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (plus Kevin Durant if/when he returns). The Raptors need to create mismatches with the other guys on the court and attack. For example, have Stephen Curry’s man set the screen for Leonard and try to force that switch (and the help that would follow).
The other place to attack is the Warriors big men — if Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, DeMarcus Cousins (when he returns), or Andrew Bogut get switched onto Lowry or Leonard, the Raptors need to attack that. Fast. The Warriors big men cannot match up.
Golden State will likely counter this with traps, particularly against Leonard to force the ball out of his hands. He has to be a playmaker there, then trust Gasol as a secondary playmaker in a 4-on-3, or get the ball to other shooters, and the Raptors need to make the Warriors pay for that trap.
• Danny Green has to break out of his shooting slump and stay on the court.
Against the Bucks last round, as Danny Green struggled with his shot — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts — Nick Nurse could turn to VanVleet and the bench. The final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son) he was lighting it up.
The problem is the Warriors will light him up. VanVleet is listed at 6’0” while Lowry is 6’1”. Curry and Thompson are 6’3” and 6’7” and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland.
Green, at 6’6” is the kind of size and plays the type of defense the Raptors will need to have a shot in this series. If he is still slumping and not an offensive threat, the Warriors will be able to help off him and cause more trouble.
• Toronto cannot have another of its disastrous Game 1s.
Toronto came into these playoffs with a reputation of blowing Game 1s in ugly fashion — and it has lived up to that billing. The Raptors lost to the Magic in the first game of the first round. This past round, they led by as many as 13 but didn’t score on their final seven possessions and blew the chance to steal Game 1 on the road.
Toronto bounced back to beat Orlando and Milwaukee. It will be far tougher to dig out of that hole against Golden State.
Game 1 sets up for Toronto: At home, Golden State has been off for nine days and should be rusty, and no Kevin Durant. This is one Toronto needs to have confidence in this series. Lose this one and the Warriors will smell blood in the water.