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Golden State vs. Toronto: Five things to watch in NBA Finals

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The Golden State Warriors are looking to cement their dynasty status before what will be a summer of change.

The Toronto Raptors are trying to cap off a franchise-best playoff run with the first NBA title ever to go north of the border.

One way or another, NBA history will be made with these NBA Finals, the first ones ever to have games take place outside the United States.

This is also a series with the three players trying to vie for the mythical title of “best player on the planet” with LeBron James having not made the playoffs — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry. It’s a Finals that will feature other great players (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry) and players on the rise such as Pascal Siakam.

Here are the five things to watch that will likely swing this series toward Toronto or Golden State.

1. When does Kevin Durant return?

This is the storyline of the series because it changes everything. Durant is out for Game 1, and while nothing is official (and he did travel with the team) Warriors coach Steve Kerr made it sound like Durant will be out for at least Game 2 Sunday as well. Whether he returns for Game 3 or not may depend in part on what happens in the first two games and how badly the Warriors feel they need him.

With Durant out, Raptors coach Nick Nurse can put Leonard and his physical, elite defense wherever it will do the most damage. Leonard can be on Curry if he gets hot, on Thompson (probably where he starts), Andre Iguodala (so Leonard can help more and be disruptive that way), or whatever causes the Warriors the most trouble. It also means Siakam can cover Green, then switch onto Curry and use his length when the Warriors use their go-to Curry/Green pick-and-roll. The Raptors will be in position to crank up the defensive pressure.

All that goes away when Durant returns. Leonard has to spend the bulk of his time on Durant, which is going to mean more favorable matchups for Curry, Thompson, and Green. Plus, Durant becomes another long, quality defender they can throw at Leonard on the other end (along with Iguodala, Thompson, and Green.

Durant’s return changes a lot in this series, the questions are when will it happen, and where will the series stand when it does.

2. Kawhi Leonard has to continue to be the playmaker he was against Milwaukee.

For the first four games against Milwaukee, Leonard averaged 2.5 assists per game.

However, over the final two games he had 16 assists — it was the best playmaking we had ever seen from Leonard. As the Bucks threw multiple defenders at him, Leonard found his teammates, and they knocked down the shots. The Raptors offense has generally seen less ball movement with Leonard in the game, but not the last two.

That has to continue against the Warriors if the Raptors are going to win.

Leonard is playing as well as anyone in the world right now, but he can’t do this alone. The Warriors are a good defensive team — even better with Durant out — and while Leonard will get his, it will be making sure he finds Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and the rest of the Raptors, and that they hit their shots, that will give Toronto a chance.

Put more simply: The second biggest question in this series is will the Raptors be able to score enough to keep up with the Warriors? Leonard has to be a playmaker for that to happen.

3. Can the Raptors switching defense slow Curry in the pick-and-roll?

To beat the Warriors in a series will require a team that can switch a lot defensively — similar to what the Rockets did a season ago — and the Raptors have the long, athletic roster that can pull that off.

On paper. Yes, they have Leonard, Siakam, Danny Green, and they should get OG Anunoby back this series, all guys built for this kind of switching defense. That said, having the players for it and executing it against the Warriors is another thing. Especially the way Curry is playing right now — and Curry is motivated chasing the Finals MVP he wants so badly.

Of course, the Warriors have a counter. If the Raptors switching defense does work well, expect to see Durant back and more DeMarcus Cousins — those are the guys they lean on to punish switches. They are walking mismatches. By the way, don’t expect to see a lot of Cousins this series, but he can have an impact in short stints.

4. Danny Green has to find his shot.

Danny Green struggled mightily with his shot in the Eastern Conference Finals — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts and was 4-of-23 for the series. Coach Nick Nurse turned to Fred VanVleet off the bench, and in the final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son), it worked brilliantly as VanVleet 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”, respectively, and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland how that works.

Green is 6’6”, meaning he has the kind of size — and plays the kind of defense — the Raptors will need on the perimeter 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. The Raptors need Green to be a threat teams cannot help off of again.

5. Toronto cannot have one of its historically disastrous Game Ones.

Toronto came into these playoffs with a reputation of blowing Game 1s in ugly fashion — and then lived up to that billing. The Raptors lost big to the Orlando Magic in the first game of the first round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they led by as many as 13 in the second half but didn’t score on their final seven possessions and blew the chance to steal Game 1 on the road.

Toronto bounced back handily in both of those series to win handily — that will not be the same against the Warriors.

Game 1 sets up well for Toronto: The Raptors are home, the Warriors have been off for nine days and should be rusty, plus there is no Kevin Durant. Toronto needs to win this game, both because of all that and for the confidence — drop Game 1 and the doubts about if they can match up with the Warriors will creep in. This is a different team on a different stage than Toronto has faced before.

The Raptors need to put a little doubt in the mind of the Warriors on Thursday night.

Three things Warriors must do vs. Raptors in NBA Finals

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It seems that many believe that the Golden State Warriors are on their way to a third-straight NBA championship. They need to dispatch Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals first, but Golden State is still the overwhelming favorite in the season-ending postseason series.

The Raptors have shown surprising resilience, most recently in the Eastern Conference Finals against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Leonard and his band of merry men beat the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, and it appeared that Nick Nurse created an excellent game plan to combat the league’s likely MVP.

With Leonard on another level, and with Toronto’s coaching staff ready to take on the biggest challenge in the NBA, it’s not a given that Golden State will win another NBA title. Now is the time for maximum effort, and no doubt Steve Kerr’s squad will give it.

That being said, here are three things the Warriors need to do in order to beat the Raptors and take home the Larry O’Brien.

Set solid screens

This seems sort of obvious, but looking at game tape and analyzing Stephen Curry‘s worst performances of the year, one of the best things that the Warriors can do is set solid screens. Curry has struggled from the 3-point line this season only when players are able to effectively fight over the top of the Warriors screens.

The Portland Trail Blazers did a poor job of this over the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, and many thought that Curry’s onslaught was a result of Enes Kanter sitting back laughably low in the paint, particularly in Game 1. Instead, it was really the fault of the Portland guards and wings — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — who were hung up on great Golden State screens.

Curry doesn’t struggle from 3-point range often, but many of Golden State’s awkward losses over the regular season — Orlando, Utah, Phoenix — have come when he has shot poorly and in volume from the arc. There’s no surefire way to stop him, but Toronto’s best shot is putting pressure over the top and trying to force Curry into no man’s land around 12 feet. Golden State can’t let Toronto’s athleticism get to its shooters, and they’ll need to watch tape to see what Nurse’s staff did to slow down Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton.

Stop everyone outside of Kawhi

At this point it seems like Kawhi Leonard is inevitable. The Raptors forward is playing well, so much so that Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers compared him to Michael Jordan. Leonard has been the best player of these playoffs so far, and when the Bucks were successful against Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was because Leonard wasn’t getting any help.

Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam are all susceptible to wild undulations in performance. Just a few short weeks ago people were complaining about having to watch Toronto, with an inferior roster, potentially drag down Leonard. Now that supporting cast is playing better, and those qualms have quieted. That doesn’t change the fact that Toronto is far less talented than Golden State, and its role players less reliable.

Finding a way to stop the Raptors’ new passing and 3-point attack will be crucial for Steve Kerr and defensive assistant Ron Adams. It helps that Danny Green is already in a slump, but it could be helpful to get role players uncomfortable and out of position so they can’t fire away from deep.

Leonard can’t beat the Warriors by himself, and it’s going to be easier to shut down the VanVleets and Gasols on their roster than The Klaw himself.

Let Draymond run

That brings us to our final point, and that’s the single-man fastbreak ability of Draymond Green. Against the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Green was able to break the spirits of Portland by taking defensive rebounds deep into the opponent halfcourt all by himself.

The threat of Green’s speedy attack kept the Blazers from being able to crash the offensive glass effectively as a wing unit, and it also put Portland and a bit of foul trouble. Toronto is not the most disciplined team in the NBA, and Green could cause havoc for younger defenders in Siakam and OG Anunoby should the latter be able to return and play. That’s to say nothing of the effect Green’s running ability would have when the older Gasol or Serge Ibaka is on the floor.

Green is clearly in the best shape of any player on the Warriors roster at this moment, and he has used that to his advantage. When players have slowed down in the fourth quarter this postseason, that’s when he has shifted into his sixth and final gear. It’s unlikely that Kerr will officially program Green’s spurts into the offense, but it might be a tactic that he deploys either early in games to get Toronto off balance, or late in fourth quarters to break a tired Raptors finishing unit.

Report: Raptors could get OG Anunoby back during NBA Finals

AP
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The Toronto Raptors are headed to the 2019 NBA Finals, and they are going to need every player on their roster if they want a chance at dethroning the Golden State Warriors.

Forward OG Anunoby has been out since early April after needing an emergency appendectomy. He has not played in the playoffs yet this season, but a new report says the Raptors may be hopeful he could return before the end of this final series.

Via Twitter:

Anunoby Is a useful second-year forward who plays hard on both ends of the floor. Toronto is going to have a hard time matching up with the Warriors defensively, whether Kevin Durant plays or not. Having Anunoby available would help Toronto be more switchable and more adept at taking on some of Golden State’s smaller lineups.

We don’t have a timetable for Anunoby’s potential return yet, but the way the Finals are spaced out (Game 1 is on Thursday, Game 2 is next Sunday) it could help get players healthy and ready.

That could be good news for Kawhi Leonard, who sat out several games this year simply to rest. Leonard has looked a little banged up through these playoffs, as has just about everyone else. The bad news for Toronto is that this time between games could also help the Warriors get Durant ready to play.

Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals is on Thursday at 6 p.m. PST in Canada.

Toronto vs. Milwaukee: Five things to watch in the Eastern Conference Finals

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Last offseason, both the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks each made one big move — and that’s why they are here, ready to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals starting Wednesday night.

The Milwaukee Bucks fired coach Jason Kidd — now an assistant with the Lakers — to hire Mike Budenholzer and asked him to bring the team into the modern era. He got buy-in from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton then did just that — the result was Bucks finished with the best defense and fourth best offense in the league in the regular season. The Bucks are long and rotate quickly on defense, with an emphasis on protecting the paint. On offense, they space the floor with shooters and let Antetokounmpo go to work. The result is a title contender.

The Toronto Raptors traded fan favorite and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and brought back Kawhi Leonard with the idea he was the guy who could get them over the hump in the playoffs. Leonard was impressive in the regular season, but come the playoffs has been everything the Raptors hoped — he has been the best player in the East. Leonard has been methodical in getting to his spots and hitting his shots on offense, while reminding everyone he is the best perimeter defender in the game. If you have any doubts about how he’s playing, go ask Philadelphia.

Which move pays off with the trip to the Finals? How will the outcome of this series impact the summer free agencies of Leonard and Middleton? Those questions will be answered starting Wednesday night in Milwaukee, here are five things to watch during this series.

1) Can the Bucks slow Kawhi Leonard? Can the Raptors slow Giannis Antetokounmpo? Both Leonard and the Greek Freak are going to get their points. They are too good not to. The question is simply, can they be slowed, made a little less efficient? Doing so would be a big step toward winning the series.

Don’t expect to see Antetokounmpo and Leonard matched up on each other much, except during crunch time late in a close game. They matched up little when these teams met in the regular season, and that makes sense on a few levels, starting with the physical toll of running the offense then defending an elite player on the other end. It would just wear guys out.

In the regular season meetings between these teams, the Bucks had some success on Leonard. Middleton was the primary defender and Leonard shot just 40.7 percent against him (using NBA tracking data). However, the Raptors’ offense was still close to its average efficiency because of free throws and other guys stepping up. The Bucks have been a better defensive team in the playoffs than the regular season (where they were the best in the NBA), the role players may struggle to find space to shoot, Leonard needs to get them rolling and be more of a playmaker than just pure scorer. But he needs to get buckets, too.

Toronto struggled to slow Antetokounmpo. Pascal Siakam got the assignment most of the time, but the Greek Freak averaged 27 points per game in the meetings with a 66 true shooting percentage, plus he grabbed 15.3 rebounds a game. Numbers right at his season averages. Leonard did do a good job getting Antetokounmpo to give the ball up when he was on him in limited minutes, something the Raptors could try for key stretches late.

2) Which team’s “others” will step up and make plays? The stars are going to get theirs, but which one of them will get the most help?

Antetokounmpo got plenty of help in the second round — five other Bucks averaged double-digit points. Middleton averaged 19.2, but the big boost was George Hill giving the team 14.2 points per game off the bench. Another huge key is that Middleton and Hill both shot a little better than 47 percent from three — the Bucks offense is about transition and spacing, but to make that work the threes have to fall. They did against Boston.

One Buck who could have a bigger impact this series is Malcolm Brogdon, who returned from a plantar fascia issue midway through the Boston series. He was a critical starter for them in the regular season, he will open this series coming off the bench (Nikola Mirotic will still start) but should play a significant role.

The bigger question is will Leonard get help? He did not consistently against a good Sixers defense — in Game 7 Leonard took 39 shots because he was the only one willing to consistently pull the trigger.

That can’t happen this series, a hesitant Toronto shooter will find a long Milwaukee defender in his face fast. The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season and have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. The Bucks have shut down teams that tried to isolate against them these playoffs, something Leonard and the Raptors like to do. Toronto needs to find a varied offense.

All season — led by Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry — the Raptors have been unselfish and have passed up good shots to try to get great ones. Do that against the quick and long Bucks and that shooting window goes away. The Bucks defensive scheme leaves Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo back more to protect the paint, and with that they give up a lot of above-the-break threes — Gasol has to take those when he gets them. And hit them. Same with Lowry. And Danny Green. And every other Raptor. The windows to shoot will be small and the Raptors need to take them, hesitate and all will be lost.

It appears OG Anunoby will be out for most if not all of this series as he recovers from an appendectomy. That’s a blow, he’s the kind of “3&D” wing Toronto could really use.

3) Watch the pace: Faster is better for Milwaukee. In Game 1 of their second-round matchup, Boston was able to grind Milwaukee down. The game had 99 possessions, and the bottled-up Bucks scored just 90 points on their way to a 22-point loss (pace stats via Cleaning the Glass).

The rest of the series was played at an almost 106 possessions per game pace and the Bucks swept them all.

Milwaukee thrives in transition. When Antetokounmpo gets up a head of steam any defender is helpless. The Greek Freak is averaging 7.4 fast break points per game these playoffs, the most of any player. Toronto can play with some pace (they were 15th in pace during the season, middle of the pack, but very efficient in their transition offense) however, they have been five possessions a game slower in the playoffs and that needs to continue. In this series, the Raptors need to slow the game down and grind it out. Toronto just showed it can win that kind of series beating Philadelphia, and Leonard is at his best in the halfcourt.

That means Toronto needs to make its shots more often, not turn the ball over, and get back in transition defense. Slow the game down, take away the easy buckets. Sounds easy enough, but go ask the Celtics how easy it is to execute against the Bucks.

4) Kyle Lowry vs. Eric Bledsoe. This may be the bellwether matchup and tell us about how the “others” are performing. These two players are the spark plug point guards who can help set the tone for their teams on both ends of the floor. Both teams need their top three to outperform the other’s top three, and this is the head-to-head matchup in that group.

Based on the regular season, that could be good for Milwaukee. Lowry shot 23.3 percent and was 1-of-20 from three against the Bucks this past season, plus he sat out the one meeting between the sides where Toronto won. Bledsoe, in particular, was a good defender on Lowry and held him scoreless when matched up this season.

Lowry simply has to do better or this series will be short.

5) Does experience on this stage matter? The Bucks have not shown any signs of the playoffs being too big a stage for them yet, but now the pressure mounts. Will it show?

The Raptors hope so.

The experienced Raptors — with Leonard, Gasol, Lowry — have players who have taken part in 116 Conference Finals games. They know what this level feels like, how to handle the pressure and execute.

The only Buck to go this far is George Hill, from his time with the Spurs and Pacers. That’s it. This is all new to Milwaukee.

The question is, will it matter?

Nick Nurse makes it sound like OG Anunoby is out for most or all of series vs. Bucks

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There’s a lot of fans about to say “who?” but this is a more significant blow to Toronto than people realize:

It sounds like Raptors’ swingman OG Anunoby is out for the series against the Bucks. Or at least most of it.

Anunoby is recovering from an emergency appendectomy and does not sound close to returning, based on what coach Nick Nurse said at practice Tuesday. Via Blake Murphy of The Athletic.

Basically, in a week we will get another update on just how far away Anunoby is, and by that point we will be four games into the Eastern Conference Finals. I’d be surprised if he returns this series.

Anunoby is a long, versatile wing who can defend multiple positions off the bench, can get a few buckets and has to be respected from three. By the end of the last series Nurse trusted Serge Ibaka off the Raptors bench — he was the team’s second best player in Game 7 and they don’t win without him — and that’s it. Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet got a few minutes just so the starters didn’t collapse in exhaustion, but they both struggled.

The Bucks will bring Malcolm Brogdon, George Hill (who was phenomenal last series), Pat Connaughton, and Ersan Ilyasova off the bench. That depth gives Mike Budenholzer options.

That’s why Nurse will miss Anunoby off the bench.