NBA Finals

Golden State Warriors vs Toronto Raptors

Raptors lead 3-1

What are we seeing?
It’s a fair question. After game two, it looked like the Raptors Kawhi-fueled run was over, having lost home court advantage. But after two convincing wins over an injury-plagued Golden State team at Oracle Arena, the Raptors are a win away from setting this current dynasty into disarray. These Warriors, as injury depleted as they are, just don’t look the same. But it’s fair to ask the question: Are we seeing a team that’s just too injured to contend at the highest level or is there a deeper issue?

If I had to guess, it’s probably the former. No team can be expected to compete in the Finals with this many top players injured or dinged up. Kevin Durant has loomed like a specter over these Finals, and I think it’s safe to say that even if the Warriors can extend the series tonight, they can’t win three-straight without him.

Game three gave us vintage MVP Steph Curry. Without Klay Thompson, he put up a tremendous 47-point effort, hitting six three-pointers. It wasn’t enough. Not when the Warriors “stifle Kawhi” defense was backfiring. Kawhi had 30 points, but also 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. All of the Raptors starters plus Fred VanVleet were in double digits. Only Draymond Green and Andre Igoudala were able to break ten for Golden State. Focusing on Kawhi, as if he were LeBron has led to some tremendous performances by the Raptors cast of characters.

That’s why I found it so surprising that Steve Kerr drew up the same defense for the Warriors in game four. Kawhi put up 36 points, but also facilitated beautifully down the stretch, taking advantage of overzealous Warriors closing in on him to give opportunities to Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam. The result was a walk away, their second consecutive road win to put Golden State in a nearly insurmountable hole.

During this series, Kawhi Leonard has clearly been the best player on the floor for the bulk of the series, but that might change tonight.

Kevin Durant, after nearly a month of rest will be cleared to play for tonight’s game five. It’s a desperate move, but for the waning Warriors dynasty, these are desperate times. If there’s a player in today’s NBA that’s better than Kawhi Leonard, it’s probably K.D.

Will it be enough to get the two-time NBA Finals MVP back?

That all depends.

How close to 100% is he?
Can he jump off that strained calf?
Can he get back on defense, or push the ball in transition?
Can his weary and dinged-up teammates balance the load?

The Warriors offense is predicated on balance, forcing opponents to pick their poison, often surrendering easy looks in the process. Durant’s presence, even if he can’t play thirty-plus minutes, and even if he isn’t as explosive, might be enough to put the Toronto defense on its heels. It’s not like they can leave him uncovered to double Steph or Klay…

Clearly Kevin Durant will change the series if he can return and be anything close to his usual self, but it will be on the rest of the Warriors to play smarter defense and control the game.

For the Warriors to win and extend the series, Klay Thompson and/or Draymond Green need to lock up Kawhi one-on-one. This will keep his teammates covered, and force Kawhi to take lower-percentage shots. Guarding Kawhi with Durant’s length might seem opportune, but I fear that would result in too much strain on K.D. down the stretch. Let Durant cover Siakam, Toronto’s long, and lean, but not-nearly-so-powerful-forward.

For this series to get interesting, the Warriors role players need to outplay Toronto’s, and with the reintegration of Kevin Durant, there’s a chance, even on the road, that that might happen.

Image Source: AP Images/Ben Margot

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