The last four years of the NBA Finals the Golden State Warriors played against LeBron James. The Cavs were top heavy, not much depth. The Toronto Raptors are the polar opposite and so the Finals of 2019 are exponentially different. Where to start? The Raptors have a deep bench. They have length. They all defend, meaning excellent foot work. Their team chemistry is off the charts. They have 3-point scorers but they also have put it on the floor and score on a turnaround j. They have veterans and young guys. They are the biggest challenge the Warriors have faced since they began this run in 2015. The scary part for the league is that this isn’t some fluke for Toronto. They have developed young players, added a great player, traded for a smart veteran. This run can continue.
But for the present. Pascal Siakam’s awesomeness was helped along by the absence of Kevin Durant and the presence of Jonas Jerekbo. There is no one on the Warriors long enough to do anything to impede Siakam from doing whatever he wants to do.
Siakam’s breakout year has always had to catch up to his psyche. He had to believe he has star game. He had to get the mental part right. Once that happened, watch out.
The Raptors will be fine if Kawhi does leave with Siakam not even in his prime and skilled at the three, a hook in the lane, finishing at the rim, blocking shots, and making defenders change their shot. He is what happens when athleticism marries skill.
There is a story floating around about Siakam when he was a rookie. He figured out pretty quickly he couldn’t shoot. He then approached Raptors assistant Nick Nurse. He and Nurse worked on his shooting, starting with 3 feet and then moving out once he mastered a range. What that story tells about Siakam is what no scout can predict. What do you have beating in your chest? Do you want it? Are you willing to sacrifice to become better? For Siakam, the answer was yes and on the biggest stage he has arrived.
But has Siakam’s arrival signaled the slow end of the Warriors machine?
The Warriors function with their guards in constant motion, ball movement, and Draymond Green. But in a younger and deeper NBA where player development is just as important as drafting well and free agent picks, the thinness of the Warriors second team may be what does them in even if Durant does come back to be the hero which fits the Durant mental psyche. Save the team before he ditches the team.
Because everyone on the Raptors can defend, the second unit of the Warriors has to work to get off their shot. The Raptors make it hard to score the way you want to score because of their length and their ability to defend with footwork. While the Warriors bench makes it easy for the Fred VanVleets of the world to score, the Raptors bench is mano e mano. It is an imbalance and something the NBA has been loathe to address.
What if instead of 4 All-Stars, you have 2 All-Stars and 7 really good players who show up when they have to. That is the prescription the Raptors are trotting out for everyone to see and if it is successful it will be a blueprint because most teams have trouble trying to draft/trade for one All-Star, much less 4.
When everyone was raving about the Warriors being a better team without Durant they were talking purely about entertainment. The worst thing you can say about Durant on the Warriors is he won’t set screens for his teammates. His offensive repertoire and talent is so above everyone else’s ability to just do their job. So, sure. Against the Rockets and Blazers, it was fun to go back to 2015. But those teams were incomplete once you got past their stars.
The Raptors are deep. Steph/Klay/Dray can’t beat 9 players. And their bench is average. The Warriors can easily be down 0-2 or 0-3 by the time Durant returns. So much will be put on Durant’s shoulders, and even though that is what Durant fetishizes, like some Warrior God bringing the Dubs from the brink of extinction, the truth is the Warriors need more than Durant.
They need a bench right about now. They need a defensive second unit that can stay with athletes and contest shots. Short of that, this three-peat thing may be sucking air while hoping the Raptors accidentally transform into the Cleveland Cavaliers 2017 and 2018.