As they proved in their series against the Bucks, the Raptors are a nimble defensive team. Toronto threw Kawhi Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo and packed the paint against Milwaukee, slowing down one of the regular season’s best offenses en route to a 4–2 series victory in the East Finals. The Warriors, obviously, will present a whole new set of challenges for Nick Nurse and the Raptors. While Kevin Durant’s early absence from the series means Golden State will likely play more non-shooters than normal, the mere presence of Stephen Curry (and Klay Thompson) will stretch out Toronto’s defense in a way the Bucks could not. And that’s why the Raptors should consider starting Serge Ibaka in Game 1 of the Finals.
The beauty of Toronto’s roster all season long has been its flexibility. Even after the loss of OG Anunoby (he would be incredibly useful in these Finals), the Raptors are able to fashion a bunch of different styles of play if necessary. Toronto played at a snail’s pace against the Bucks—and it probably won’t want to run much against Golden State as well, if only to preserve the legs of those playing heavy minutes. But the Raptors should be prepared to play smaller against the Warriors, because the Dubs’ offense will command a lot more defensive movement than Milwaukee’s.
Playing Ibaka at center is the simplest counter Nurse can make to begin the series. Kevon Looney will not be getting many opportunities in the post, and Ibaka’s athleticism will be useful in switches off the ball, and also whenever Curry decides to run a pick-and-roll. Portland’s bigs were repeatedly targeted by Curry in the West Finals, and no one was really up to the task of slowing down Steph. Ibaka isn’t a magical elixir, but he can more credibly switch onto Curry late in the shot clock, and his athletic ability will help in scramble situations as well. Marc Gasol played well against Milwaukee, but unless DeMarcus Cousins starts in Game 1 (and even then Ibaka may be more useful), his big frame could become a bit of a liability against the Warriors.
Ibaka has played well with the starters, albeit in a limited sample size in the playoffs. The Kyle Lowry, Kawhi, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, and Ibaka group has a 36.1 net rating in 36 minutes in the postseason. In the regular season, that fivesome was Toronto’s most-used lineup, and it sported a more-than-respectable 8.3 net rating.
When Golden State closes with some version of a death lineup—assuming Andre Iguodala is healthy—I think the Raptors should consider going even smaller. In the fourth quarter, Toronto’s main focus will be trying to slow down the Steph-Draymond Green pick and roll. The Blazers and Rockets both most often trapped Curry, and he made them pay by dumping the ball to Green and letting him play four-on-three. When the Cavs beat the non-Durant Warriors in 2016, they had their most success switching onto Curry, and the Raptors may be best served following that plan.
I really wonder if we’ll see a Lowry, Leonard, Green, Siakam and Fred VanVleet lineup in this series. It’s not a unit Toronto really used in the regular season, but it makes some level of sense. Siakam can guard Draymond, while Kawhi or Danny Green can take Steph, and then the Steph-Dray action becomes switchable. Kawhi can also check Dray and Green can take Curry if Toronto is committed to switching, which would also allow Leonard to roam a little bit off ball. Danny Green or Lowry can chase around Klay. VanVleet can get away with hiding on Iguodala if Iggy is parked in the corner.
Those are just a few early thoughts on how the Raptors can start to counter the Warriors. Nick Nurse has undoubtedly weighed every option. And all of this is subject to change depending on Golden State’s health. If Boogie starts, that may require some more bulk. If Iguodala is out, the Raptors probably won’t need to go very small. When (if?) Durant returns, Toronto is in a bad spot no matter what. What’s for certain is that even though the Raptors have been a great defensive team all year long—and just put the clamps on an MVP finalist—they will need a whole new gameplan to slow down the Warriors. No team has had a great answer for Golden State over the last five years, but Toronto could have the flexibility to make things interesting.