- The NBA Finals have been all about matchups. When DeMarcus Cousins returned for the Warriors, he surprised the Raptors with his effectiveness. Could Pascal Siakam be the key to solving that problem?
The NBA Finals have played out somewhat strangely. The series started with Marc Gasol playing lights out in Game 1—a development that was fairly surprising! Gasol is a very good basketball player, but his lumbering style screamed that he wouldn’t be a good matchup for Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Instead, his pick-and-roll defense was a key factor in Toronto’s victory, and he splashed some threes on the other end for good measure.
Then, in Game 2, Golden State countered with Boogie Cousins in its starting lineup. The Raptors did what every team would do in that situation—attack Cousins relentlessly. Except the Warriors had a 75.4 defensive rating with Boogie on the floor, and Toronto wasn’t able to take advantage of his presence during two big stretches in the second half—the Dubs’ 18–0 run to start the third, and the decisive final six minutes of the fourth. (Gasol, by the way, came down to earth offensively Sunday night.)
So what’s the next move? Toronto’s offense looked stuck in mud for much of Game 2. Kawhi Leonard’s health is severely affecting his first step, and he’s having trouble blowing past defenders or dealing with hard traps. Danny Green’s offense has cratered. Kyle Lowry and Gasol were just plain ineffective. On one hand, the Raptors can run back almost exactly what they did in Game 2 and expect to play better, just by regressing to the mean. On the other hand, Toronto obviously can’t afford any more huge stretches of practically scoreless play, and Nick Nurse still has one card left in his sleeve: Playing small.
Before the series, I thought playing Siakam at center would be the Raptors’ best counter to the Warriors' Death-adjacent lineups. Except Steve Kerr has kept a center on the floor for nearly every minute of this series, allowing Toronto to keep either Gasol or Serge Ibaka on the court at all times. Golden State’s injury issues are forcing Kerr to stay big, and now Toronto has the option to go smaller and dictate the style of play itself.
Playing Siakam at the five would kind of do for the Raptors what Draymond Green at the five does for the Warriors—force a center into a challenging situation. Siakam could have the ball in his hands at the top of the key with a mismatch defensively in Cousins, and use his athleticism to get into the lane. This look could also stop Draymond from guarding Siakam, something the Warriors had some success with in Game 2.
Of course, there are issues. Siakam isn’t accomplished as a roll man after setting screens, and Golden State would still sag off of him at the three-point line. But if the Warriors are throwing traps at Kawhi, wouldn’t Toronto rather have the ball in Siakam’s hands in a four-on-three situation as opposed to Gasol?
Things would almost certainly get tricky on the defensive end. Siakam can’t stop Cousins one-on-one in the post, and he’s been prone to foul trouble at times in the playoffs. But the Raptors have been bold in cheating off Golden State’s non-shooters, and the Warriors aren’t typically the type of team to dump the ball into the post repeatedly when Curry is also on the floor.
Also, almost all of this goes out the window if Kevin Durant returns for Game 3. In that case, the Raptors will probably see a lot of the Dray-KD frontcourt, at which point Siakam will almost certainly have to slide up to center no matter what. (The return of OG Anunoby should help Toronto if this series ever does finally downsize.)
There are so many threads to follow in this series and there was so much variance between the first two games that drawing definitive conclusions would be risky at this point. But if I’m the Raptors, I can’t let the Warriors play lockdown defense in Game 3 with Cousins on the floor. Maybe that changes simply by Toronto hitting more shots. But the Raptors looked lethargic and tight during those two key stretches of the second half. By forcing Cousins to defend someone with more skills on the perimeter, maybe Toronto can inject some life back into its offense if things start to slow down once again.