- Nathan Sherman
2019 NBA Finals: Defensive Matchups
When the average observer thinks about the NBA Finals this year, it’s undoubtedly offense that comes to mind first: the historic shooting of Steph Curry and the record-tying seven 35-point efforts of Kawhi Leonard with a round still to play. But it’s on the defensive end that this series will be won.
The Warriors were without their best player Kevin Durant for at least the first game of the series, so the Raptors will have to continue to capitalize while playing on their home court. They just showed off their defensive versatility against the Bucks, keeping likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in check for the entire series, and stopping the NBA’s best regular season team.
The Warriors experienced their first loss since Durant got injured, but have turned back to the clock to their league-terrorizing days of 2016. Draymond Green in particular looks revitalized, and was incredible during the Western Conference Finals, anchoring a smothering defense that throttled Portland’s offense for four games.
If it is really true that ‘defense wins championships’ let’s take a look at the possible matchups and adjustments that will result in either the Warriors’ fourth title in five years, or the Larry O’Brien’s first foreign residency.
When Golden State is on Offense
The Raptors defensive coverages to start Game 1 told a lot about how they plan to contain the Warriors. The Raptors coaching staff have shown they don’t want to switch everything this season (even with the personnel to pull it off) and prefer their wings to fight over screens and their help defenders to be aware of rolling and popping off of said screens. Their defense in Game 1 pulled this off to perfection.
As we know, the Warriors love to run their star shooters around the court and off as many screens as they can, so what the Raptors choose to do with those alignments is incredibly important. With Durant missing the first game, Raptors Coach Nick Nurse had a lot of flexibility in how he used Kawhi Leonard. The Warriors love to run with Green screening and Steph Curry as the ball-handler -- one of their most potent offensive sets -- and if the Raptors choose to switch that action Kawhi is more than capable of doing so.
Who guards Steph Curry?
Curry only played in one of two regular season matchups between these teams. In that game Fred VanVleet started the game and guarded Curry for the majority of it, racking up 39 possessions on the Warriors star. VanVleet did a solid job on Curry, holding him to 4 points on 1/6 shooting and forcing 3 turnovers. With VanVleet unlikely to start in the Finals for the Raptors, Kyle Lowry started out on Curry. Lowry guarded him the second-most possessions during that game - ten - and Curry shot 1/2 for 3 points and 1 assist when Lowry guarded him.
Lowry may struggle with the lateral quickness required to chase Curry off of a multitude of screens every possession, and if Lowry is can’t keep up, the Raptors have the luxury of switching that matchup and having Kawhi Leonard guard Curry. I see this more as a last resort, but with Durant missing Game 1, the Raptors may go to it more if they need to contain moving forward.
Who guards Klay Thompson?
Thompson was one of two Warriors stars to play in both of the regular season games between these Finals opponents, and Danny Green guarded him for the majority of both games giving us 90 possessions to examine. During the pair of games, Thompson scored 25 points on 10/19 shooting, with three turnovers and two assists. Green is a solid wing defender with decent quickness, enough to stay with Thompson this season at the very least, and tall enough to challenge Thompson’s shot. Norman Powell will likely also be used to guard Thompson, but having not played in either of the regular season games, doesn’t give us anything tangible to go on.
Who guards Draymond Green?
Green has shown he is the Warriors second-most important playmaker during this run without KD, and Leonard will have a challenge in slowing down Green. These two played in their respective home legs so they didn’t have a chance to meet in the regular season so this will be a very interesting matchup. Green has done much of his damage coming off of the high PnR with Curry and in transition, two things that Leonard is excellent at defending.
In the Milwaukee series Leonard got switched onto Giannis in Game 3, and really took the likely MVP out of his rhythm in the post and most importantly in transition. While this was not just the result of Kawhi only -- the entire Raptors team formed a wall around Antetokounmpo while he was coming downhill -- Leonard is certainly the best defender in the NBA when his effort is there, and Green is in for a battle.
Who guards Andre Iguodala?
Pascal Siakam will spend a lot of time on Iguodala in the series. Iguodala isn’t the offensive weapon that he once was, but the veteran still always finds himself in the right place at the right time. Time and again versus Houston and Portland, the Warriors were able to get Green on the short roll with Iguodala just waiting on an alley-oop. Siakam is a very intelligent defender with incredible recovery speed, and will be able to help off of Iguodala and disrupt passing lanes while still being able to recover as needed.
Siakam was amazing defensively against the Bucks, always executing the game plan to a tee whether he was matched up with Giannis or Bledsoe. That experience guarding a non-shooter like Bledsoe gives great confidence he will be able to take advantage of Iguodala’s struggles as a shooter and be a menace helping on the Warriors stars.
When Toronto is on Offense
The Edwardsville Intelligencer
The Golden State Warriors have one of the greatest team defenses of all time, even without Kevin Durant (some argue that the Warriors defense functions better without KD) and they are coming into Scotiabank Arena on an absolute tear. I expect them to take some keys from the Bucks plan of attack on Kawhi Leonard, forcing him to his left and bringing strategic double teams and help defensive coverages to muck up passing lanes.
Who guards Kawhi Leonard?
Without KD this will be the toughest assignment for the Warriors. Expect more of what he saw in Game 1: a variety of Warriors to be involved in defending Leonard, including Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Those guys weren’t on an island with Leonard either, as Golden State tried to fluster Leonard with doubles and lots of weak side pressure. Leonard was forced to trust his teammates and they will have to continue knocking down shots to relieve the pressure Golden State will apply to him. When/If Durant returns, he will be the primary Kawhi stopper, but in his absence expect continuing coverage from Iguodala and lots of defense-by-committee from the Champs.
Who guards Kyle Lowry?
During the regular season Klay Thompson defended Lowry for the majority of the time and expect that to continue in the Finals. They were matched up 44 times during those two games, with Lowry scoring 10 points on 4/9 along with 8 assists and only 1 turnover. Thompson dwarfs Lowry by about 7 inches, but the Raptors PG is one of the stronger players in the NBA, along with one of its craftiest. Lowry will be leaned upon heavily for offense in this series, and will have to come out aggressive against one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.
Who guards Pascal Siakam?
Draymond Green started out on Siakam, but spent a lot of time helping on Leonard, resulting in Siakam’s Game 1 star-turn. Green guarded the Raptors forward on 21 possessions during the one game they faced off during the regular season. Draymond held Siakam to 3 points on 1/2 shooting and forced 2 turnovers. Putting Green on Siakam gives him room to roam around and quarterback the Warriors incredible read and recover defense. Draymond loves to get in the passing lanes and grab rebounds and quickly start the break, and guarding Siakam gives him the best opportunities to capitalize on those strengths.
And capitalize he did. Siakam must continue to make Draymond respect his range and make him his primary defensive focus -- it throws a real wrench into the Golden State defensive plan when Siakam plays as well as he did in Game 1.
Who guards Danny Green?
Green was one of the quiet “X-factors” for the Toronto Raptors. He played his best ball in weeks in Game 1, and if he is hitting his three’s with any type of regularity it bodes very well for Toronto. He hadn’t been his former playoff self in the previous two series, averaging only 6.8 PPG this postseason on 31.4% from three point range, but he is a career 39.9% three-point shooter in the NBA Playoffs, and shot an incredible 45% from three in the 2013-14 Finals against the Miami Heat.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the Raptors will need similar production from the veteran to have a chance to win this one. Steph Curry will be the primary defender on Green. Curry defended Green on 25 possessions in the one game the two faced off. Green scored 8 points on 4/5 shooting when defended by Steph.
A few non-starters bear mention for the deep Raptors squad as well.
Who guards Fred VanVleet?
VanVleet has the potential to be a pseudo-starter in this series, and in fact played more minutes off the bench than both Green and the very-impressive Marc Gasol. Since he has been absolutely lights-out since the birth of his son, we’ll likely see plenty of VanVleet moving forward. He finished the last two games vs the Bucks 11/14 from three, and though he missed three of four threes in Game 1, hit all of his twos.
He will most likely be guarded by Curry, who spent 22 possessions on VanVleet during the regular season, limiting him to just 2 points on 1/1 shooting and 1 assist. VanVleet provides much more pressure on Curry than Green does because VanVleet is a threat as a PnR ball-handler and Green only gets those opportunities extremely rarely -- if ever.
Who guards Serge Ibaka?
Ibaka actually started both of the regular season games between these two teams, but has played more of a bench role with the integration of Gasol, and though he played the second-most bench minutes for the Raptors in Game 1, is unlikely to supplant Gasol if the big Spaniard can replicate his Game 1 play.
Kevon Looney most likely will guard him. Looney, who led the Warriors in bench minutes in Game 1, also started both games, but the Warriors coaching staff started the series with Jordan Bell - who played the fewest minutes of any starter on either team - so we’ll see if they mix that up. He guarded Ibaka on 41 possessions, yielding just 10 points on 5/9 shooting with 1 assist and 1 turnover. This is a very important matchup for both teams and whichever backup big can win these minutes will have greatly helped their teams potential for victory.
Game 1 was extremely well-played and Toronto won it -- Golden State didn’t lose it. The Raptors did it by keeping all other Warriors besides the Big 3 out of double figures, and having their supporting cast rise up when the Warriors threw the kitchen sink at Kawhi Leonard.
Regardless of the approaches for Game 2, it’s clear that the defensive battles in the Finals will shape the path of the series to come.