Warriors vs. Raptors NBA Finals: Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry lead ranking of 10 most important players in series
This week's NBA Star Index is focused on the most pivotal Finals players and matchups
With the 2019 NBA Finals set to kick off on Thursday in Toronto, we're shaking up the weekly NBA Star Power Index. Usually we list the players around the league who are generating the most buzz, in no particular order, but this time we're limiting the list to just Warriors and Raptors and ranking them 1-10 in terms of their importance to the series. Simple enough, yes? Let's get started.
While the Warriors can feasibly win a title without Stephen Curry being great -- or Kevin Durant, assuming he returns at some point -- the Raptors can't get anything less than a Superman effort from Kawhi if they're going to pull this off. He has to score huge, extend that scoring to 3-point range preferably, make the right reads out of Golden State's inevitable traps and double teams, control pace and be an all-world defender.
Leonard will almost certainly be tasked with defending Curry in crunch time, and if and when Durant returns, he'll likely draw that assignment for the bulk of the game, I would guess. Without Durant, he's either going to start on Klay Thompson or Draymond Green and be tasked with roaming and blowing up pick and rolls. So basically, Leonard's job description looks something like this: Spend up a huge amount of energy covering arguably the best player in the world/second-best shooter in the world on defense, then turn around and score like arguably the best player in the world on offense.
Is it too much? We'll see. Leonard has been the best player in the playoffs so far, and pretty simply, he can't be anything less than that if Toronto is going to win this title.
Curry is right there with Kawhi in terms of importance. If Durant doesn't return, the Warriors are not going to win their fourth title in five seasons if Steph has a clunker series. Even if Durant does return, Steph means more to the Warriors' ceiling than Durant does, and they'll have to get a bit closer to their ceiling to beat a super-good Toronto team than they had to do to beat the Cavs in the last two Finals.
Curry will see a ton of double-teams and shading defenses as long as Durant is out, and even in one-on-one situations he'll have a borderline great defender on him at pretty much all times between Danny Green, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, plus Kawhi Leonard on switches. Curry also has to hold his own defensively as Toronto will attack him whenever it gets the chance, and he has to stay out of foul trouble with Golden State's lack of depth. Curry is the Vegas favorite to win Finals MVP. That said, he doesn't necessarily have to be the best player in the series for Golden State to win. But he can't be far off, especially if Durant doesn't return.
This is basically two completely different series: If Kevin Durant returns, and if he doesn't. In my mind, he single-handedly takes this from something close to a 50-50 series -- maybe 60-40 in Golden State's favor at the most -- to a super long shot for the Raptors. Toronto is a far better defensive team than Portland with matchups that can wear the Warriors down. Draymond Green will have a hard time repeating the offensive series he had against Portland. Curry will not run around as freely and will have far tougher one-one-one defenders to beat than the Blazers or even the Rockets could offer.
There simply won't be as many places for the Warriors to compensate for Durant's absence. In that way, Durant is actually a more pivotal player by NOT playing, which is strange, but true. My bet is he comes back for Game 3 in Oakland. How he returns, and how the Warriors re-implement him, is a huge factor. A lot will swing on Durant.
To me, Siakam is the biggest swing player for the Raptors. He's going to end up with a smorgasbord of defensive responsibilities -- my guess is he'll start on Draymond, which is a big-time swing matchup both ways, but he'll also inevitably see time on Curry as a switcher on the Green-Curry pick and roll.
On the other end, he'll see a bunch of different defenders himself with all the switching the Warriors do, and he'll need to attack and score like the guy that has looked like Toronto's second best player for much of the season. If he can hit some 3s, too, that would be a major lift. If Green is guarding him, and feels safe leaving him to go roam around as a free safety, that's a big advantage for the Warriors. Siakam can, and must, make the Warriors pay for leaving him.
Even with Curry's exploits, Green was arguably the Warriors' best player against Portland. Along with Kawhi, he is the only player in this series who can legitimately dominate defensively, and without Durant's isolation scoring to solidify Golden State's half-court offense, Green's mindset and ability to push the pace relentlessly, both off misses and makes, is perhaps one of the biggest game plan X-factors in this series.
When Draymond is leading breaks and forcing defenders to commit with Curry and Thompson spread to each side, Golden State is indefensible in transition. That's where they'll want to live as often as possible, while Toronto will want to grind the pace down. This is to say nothing of how hard Green is going to have to fight on the boards and as a rim protector when the Warriors go small with him at the five, which they'll surely do quite often even without Durant.
There is no room in this series for Lowry to go into one of his postseason scoring droughts and simply hang his hat on "playing gritty defense" and "doing the little things." The Raptors need buckets, flat out. If Lowry isn't giving them many, if he isn't stretching the floor as a 3-point shooter, if he isn't attacking Curry when he gets him in a one-on-one matchup, Toronto is going to have a hard time keeping up with the Warriors. This is everything Lowry's career in Toronto has been about, finally get the chance to play for a title. He has it, and there's a lot on him -- much like Siakam -- to provide Kawhi enough scoring support to give the Raptors a fighting chance.
Depending on how long Durant is out, Klay is going to have to be more than a luxury scorer. Well, that's a bit of an overstatement. He's never a luxury. But he's a lesser level of necessary when Durant and Curry are in there together. With Curry alone as the No. 1 guy, Thompson becomes a pivotal release valve for the attention Curry will demand. Klay could very well have Kawhi defending him at the start assuming the Raptors try to "hide" the smaller Lowry on the non-shooting Iguodala, or if Kawhi slides to Green, Siakam will be hounding Klay. Even if the Raptors play it conventionally, Danny Green, still a tough defender with length, will be on Klay. Either way, he's going to have to work for his space and shots.
On the other end, Klay will likely draw the Lowry assignment so Curry can hide on Danny Green, and he'll see plenty of time on Kawhi as well, certainly as a switcher and likely at times by design -- at the very least during Iggy's bench minutes. As usual, it's Thompson who gets the brunt of the defensive toll while Curry grabs the glory. This is why they are arguably the greatest backcourt ever. Curry creates shots for Thompson he can't get for himself, while Thompson guards players Curry can't defend. Together, they are without weakness.
The bench is one of the areas Toronto can actually have an advantage in this series, and it's led by Fred VanVleet. From a pure bodies standpoint, Golden State can, and probably will, go as deep as Toronto, but nobody on the Warriors' bench has the sheer firepower of VanVleet, who has hit 14 of his last 17 3s and can be a Jamal Crawford-like scoring spark. Those kinds of boom scoring streaks off the bench often end up separating series.
VanVleet could very well see starter minutes, perhaps in place of Danny Green if he doesn't get his shot going. Over the final four games against Milwaukee, all Toronto wins, 13 of the Raptors' 14 best point-differential lineups included VanVleet. Toronto's two best lineups included VanVleet and Normal Powell, who was also terrific against Milwaukee. Throw in Serge Ibaka, and the Raptors can put a dent in the Warriors with their bench minutes and either make up ground or force Golden State's stars to overtax themselves. Considering the starting lineup disparity, it feels like a must that Toronto wins the bench battle.
Iguodala will almost certainly draw the Kawhi assignment to start in Game 1, and for as long as Durant remains out moving forward. For that reason alone, he's one of the 10 most important players in this series. He has also shot fairly well from 3 in the playoffs and that'll be key to keeping the floor stretched without Durant.
If the Raptors are able to squeeze penetrating lanes and devote multiple defenders to Curry and Thompson by feeling safe leaving three of Golden State's starters open -- Iguodala, Green and presumably Kevon Looney -- the court is going to get really cramped really quickly. One way or another, you know Iguodala is going to impact this series in a major way. He might be the smartest player in the series and he just feels what play needs to be made at what time.
Frankly, it's hard to even forecast where Iguodala's most lasting play or plays will come from. It could be a defensive stop, one of his signature ball strips; it could be a timely 3-pointer; it could be a big offensive board and kick-out to a shooter. Somewhere, someway, he's going to do something to leave his prints on this series.
It's a tough call for the 10th spot on this list. Marc Gasol is obviously going to be pivotal, as are Powell and Ibaka off the bench for the Raptors. For Golden State, DeMarcus Cousins will likely play and could be an unexpected spark. But I'm giving this last spot to Danny Green, who has been ice-cold from 3 but has the potential to bust out of that slump and become one of the biggest swing players in this series.
For large stretches of this season, Green was so good for Toronto that people couldn't believe he was a "throw in" in the Kawhi trade. For a time he had the record for most made 3-pointers in an NBA Finals with 27 in 2013 while playing for San Antonio -- a record that was eventually broken by Curry, who hit 32 3s in 2018. Point is, Green can get it going in the snap of a finger, and if he does, not only is that an unexpected source of scoring for the Raptors, but it also allows Green to stay in the game as an impact defender. If the Warriors can leave him because he's laying bricks, the Raptors will be forced to pull him.
I don't know who Looney could replace on the top-10 list, but he has to be highlighted. He's likely going to get the start at center for Golden State with Durant out, and he has at times been a flat-out dominant player who has stolen the Warriors extra possessions with huge offensive rebounds and been a capable finisher on rim rolls and lobs.
Defensively, Looney can put up a fight on the perimeter when he gets switched, and he's the one guy with the size to battle Gasol assuming Andrew Bogut doesn't see much time and Cousins has to be eased back from a conditioning standpoint. Looney is like Iguodala. It's not necessarily one thing that he does, but he's become a player that you almost depend on to make winning plays at winning times.
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