For the Warriors, a Lack of Doubt Should Create Some Doubt

2019 N.B.A. Finals Preview
This N.B.A. season has been treated as a foregone conclusion, but Golden State will not want to get too comfortable against Kawhi Leonard and his loaded Toronto Raptors.

Game 1: Thursday, 9 p.m.

The games will air on ABC and will be streamed on Watch ESPN.

The Warriors, for better or worse, have always fed on doubt. No matter how invincible they have seemed, they have managed to find slights to inspire them — often going to somewhat comical lengths to do so.

The last time they faced significant doubt — and even then, it was hardly from a majority of pundits — was before the 2015 finals when, as a group of upstarts, the Warriors had to prove their mettle against LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers. But over the last four seasons, as they made the shift from powerhouse to dynasty, they have used injuries, inexplicably sloppy performances and some apparent figments of Draymond Green’s imagination as ways to make winning feel less inevitable and more like a chance to prove “everyone” wrong.

Even last year, as they pulled off one of the most dominant sweeps in finals history, they seemed to be powered by a reserve of doubt created by the team barely having survived a clash with the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals.

As Golden State comes out of a nine-day break, looking to win its third consecutive championship and a fourth in five years, the doubt created by injuries to Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins — doubt that helped inspire some of the best basketball of Green’s career — has faded away. In what should be ringing the “lack of doubt” alarm in Green’s head, the players and coaches have spent the last few days being asked about the possibility that Stephen Curry will finally win a finals M.V.P. Award.

Shaun Livingston and Curry both answered questions about the award on Monday, playing down the importance of Curry becoming the M.V.P., while neither pushed back against assumptions that the Raptors have only a slight chance of winning the series.

Steve Kerr, for his part, seemed to understand that the line of questioning could be counterproductive for his squad. “We’re trying to win” the series, the coach said when asked two consecutive questions about the award. “So we’re not talking about any awards, we just want to win four games.”

This Raptors team, after all, is far more complete than any of the James-led teams that faced off with the Warriors in their previous four trips to the finals.

After five years of watching his team dominate in the regular season only to fall apart in the playoffs, Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president, blew things up, trading DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The move did not pay tangible dividends in the regular season — the Raptors played slightly worse over the 82-game grind than they had the season before — but the killer instinct they had previously lacked became a defining characteristic of the team once the playoffs began.

You saw it in each series, as the Raptors systematically eliminated Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, playing suffocating defense as Leonard led the way on both ends of the court.

Leonard, who has a finals M.V.P. Award on his shelf from his days in San Antonio, has already justified the cost of trading away DeRozan, a franchise icon. Even if Leonard signs elsewhere as a free agent this summer, he has taken Toronto farther than it has ever been before.

His buzzer-beater to end the second-round series against the 76ers was the most important shot in franchise history, and Leonard followed it up by averaging 29.8 points and 9.5 rebounds a game against the top-seeded Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, thoroughly outplaying Giannis Antetokounmpo, the presumptive winner of the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.

And Leonard is hardly alone. Pascal Siakam, who has the makings of a superstar, is a worthy sidekick on offense and defense. Marc Gasol, a rugged veteran acquired during the season when Ujiri sensed yet again that his franchise needed a shake-up, could be a problem for the undersize Warriors. And Kyle Lowry, once a centerpiece of the franchise along with DeRozan, has looked like his old self in spurts, even if he has had more mediocre playoff games than great ones.

Fred VanVleet probably can’t keep up the 82.4 percent he shot from 3-point range in the final three games of the series against the Bucks, but he will still provide a scoring threat from the bench that has to be accounted for.

The Raptors have more length than the Warriors and, at least until further notice, better health. They have home court advantage — a luxury Golden State had in each of the previous four finals — and, with help from their raucous fans, could win Games 1 and 2 before Durant’s anticipated return.

If Green and Curry can pick up where they left off in the Portland series, Durant’s return might be a formality. In the last six games, Curry has quieted talk about his “disappearing” in the playoffs by averaging 34 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists. In those same six games, Green, in the best shape of his career thanks to some late-season weight loss, has nearly averaged a triple-double, with 13.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 8.8 assists, while also playing elite defense at multiple positions. The Warriors’ ability to go galactic, and the likelihood that Thompson has a few big scoring nights in him as well, could make quick work of Toronto.

But Curry’s game is mercurial enough to make one wonder if he is due for a rough stretch, and Green is volatile enough that the task of tangling with Leonard and Gasol could put him in consistent foul trouble — or worse if he were to get three more technical foul points, earning a one-game suspension.

If both of those things happen, the Warriors have to hope they can count on Durant, currently reduced to being an extremely tall fan, to fly in for the rescue, putting the team on his back and securing the three-peat. The only problem, of course, is that Durant’s return has been a moving target. Pinning too much hope on a player who has been out since May 8 seems unwise.

As it stands, these two teams are more evenly matched than the average fan might assume, though a combination of top-shelf talent and finals experience should give Golden State a slight advantage. However, if Green is looking for some motivational doubt, there is no need to manufacture it this time around. The Warriors, the first team to play in a fifth consecutive finals since the Celtics appeared in their 10th straight in 1966, are nowhere near a sure thing.

The scripted chaos of Stephen Curry

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Like a seasoned yogi realizing he can deepen his stretch, there is a zen-like quality to Stephen Curry’s exacting hunt for the perfect shot.

On Sunday against the Nets, he continued his streak of making at least five threes in the first seven games of the season, breaking the record George McLoud set in 1995. Curry is on pace to shatter the single-season record in three-pointers made, which he set at 402 in 2015-2016, which shattered his own the previous record of 286 in 2014-15, which shattered his own previous record of 272 in 2012-13.

In the offseason, he told the Wall Street Journal, “I might be delusional, but I feel like I can get better at putting the ball in the basket.” His personal trainer, Brandon Payne, added that “he’s not even close” to his peak. Together, to hear it from Pablo Torre on ESPN’s High Noon, Curry and Payne devised a drill in which Curry had to hit 20 sets of shots, differing in spot and style, from the perimeter, and swish six of 10 free throws. It was called “Perfection.”

Up against the Warriors’ decadence, tried-and-true theories about the professional athlete’s insatiable drive fall away. It’s hard not to wonder why they’re not satisfied when they’re already deemed unbeatable. What an extravagance. And what do they have left to improve?

But the difficulty of Curry’s shots aren’t mere theatre. If he wants to actually shoot the ball, defenses are going to force the world’s best decoy to chase perfection and master chaos.

Consider: Opponents would rather allow Kevin Durant to play one-on-one against mismatches and let Jordan Bell throw down alley-oops than allow Curry to shoot threes. Hell, they’d rather let him get lay ups: the Warriors often free Curry up by running him off screens as he cuts to the rim, usually as a fake-out before he sprints to the corner pocket. Against the Jazz on Oct. 19, Curry was aggressively chased off the three-point line by Dante Exum and hounded on pick and rolls by Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert, whose 7’9 wingspan gave Curry pause. They tugged at his jersey and laid him out with hard screens. Royce O’Neale even gave him a nosebleed. Curry didn’t hit a three until more than halfway through the second quarter, on a uniquely unguardable play illustrated by NBA analyst Jared Dubin.

Curry tried to push the game to devolve into chaos, his high-risk way of forcing the issue: boxing out for offensive rebounds, throwing dangerous outlets, whipping rainbow passes across the floor. But the Jazz’s length, athleticism, and discipline tipped the scales in their balance, up until Jonas Jerebko’s game-winning putback for the Warriors.

As though he took note, Curry had, to put it lightly, more success against the Wizards on Oct. 24, scoring 51 points and drilling 11 threes. The Wizards tried to switch and trap Curry mercilessly, forcing the ball out of his hands. The only problem: he got rid of it by flinging it into the basket.

READ MORE: https://www.sbnation.com/2018/10/31/18047242/stephen-curry-highlights-golden-state-warriors-mvp