The Golden State Warriors have joined the Boston Celtics as just the second franchise in NBA history to reach five-consecutive Finals. It's an incredible achievement, made even more remarkable by the fact they did so by sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers without Kevin Durant.
Stephen Curry was incredible in the Western Conference Finals, averaging 36.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists. Klay Thompson was solid on both ends and Andre Iguodala locked down the Blazer guards before missing Game 4 with a calf injury. But the true catalyst of Golden State's return to pre-Durant form was Draymond Green.
The lighter, faster Green averaged 16.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the series, adding two triple-doubles and once again looked like the Defensive Player of the Year.
The Blazers deserve credit for getting as far as they did but it was clear they couldn't handle the vintage Warrior onslaughts. Whichever team comes out of the East will be far better equipped to counter what the Warriors do best.
The Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks are just the second and third teams to have a better record than Golden State since 2015. They are the only two teams to finish this season among the top-five in both offensive and defensive rating. Both teams have two-way superstars, enough shooting to blow you out and elite defences capable of winning low-scoring games.
If you're looking for teams capable of withstanding Warrior runs, these two are pretty close to the blueprint.
With Durant yet to return to basketball-related activates, the Warriors have announced that he will miss the opening game of the NBA Finals at the very least. If Golden State is without the two-time reigning Finals MVP for an extended period of time, Curry, Thompson and Green, in particular, will have to continue their excellence.
Against the Blazers, Green had what might be his best defensive series of the past three years. He was comfortable leaving an inconsistent shooting Moe Harkless open on the perimeter in order to create havoc around the rim, averaging 2.8 blocks and 2.3 steals in the series. The other Warriors were also comfortable playing up on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum because they knew Green was behind them to clean up.
Against either the Bucks or Raptors, that strategy is far riskier.
Milwaukee has a roster loaded with shooters and Mike Budenholzer's four-out system has made them a truly elite offensive team that's built to stop players like Green from leaving his man to help on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Green would often defend Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Mirotic, two solid shooters capable of making him pay for leaving them open. The Warriors would also need Green to spend time as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo because, without Durant, 30-plus minutes on Giannis is far too much to ask of the 35-year-old and recovering Iguodala.
Against the Raptors, Green would have a slightly - emphasis on slightly - easier time. Toronto has spacing but Green's likely assignment, Pascal Siakam, is shooting under 30% from three in the playoffs. Green can't fully leave Siakam as he is a far more dangerous driver than Harkless, but he's not the spot-up threat that will prevent Green from helping at all.
Green, who has always been an outstanding defender, will continue to play elite defence regardless of the opponent. Where he truly elevated his game in the WCF - and where the Warriors need him to continue to be great - is on the offensive end.
Against Portland, Steve Kerr reintroduced a heavy dose of the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, a hallmark of the pre-Durant offence. In Game 1, Portland dropped their big man and allowed Curry to shoot open three after open three. They understandably adjusted in Games 2 through 4, trapping Curry up top and putting the onus on Green to make them pay.
For the most part, he did just that.
While he's a famously inconsistent shooter, Green is a very dangerous roll man. If the defence traps or hedges Curry, Green can lead a four-on-three with the option to finish himself, toss a lob up to whichever big man is in the dunker spot or kick to the opposite wing where Thompson is always ready to shoot.
What made this play truly catastrophic for the Blazers was that Green was a real threat to finish at the rim. He shot 86.4% inside five feet against the Blazers, an astronomical improvement on his career average of just above 60%.
That play was the Warriors' bread and butter in the WCF, but it will be significantly tougher sledding in the Finals. Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo made Milwaukee the best restricted area defence in the league, holding opponents to just 58.0% shooting. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Siakam were no slouches themselves, holding opponents to the fifth-worst rate of 60.9%.
Milwaukee's defence is almost perfectly designed to slow down the Curry-Green two-man game. They take away shots at the rim and, though they allow the most attempted threes in the league, are very good at contesting looks in the corner. They also have length at every position to bother Golden State, similar to the 2016 Thunder team that gave the Warriors fits.
The Raptors have advantages, too, as well as a key cog of that Thunder defence in Ibaka. They have the length and size to slow down Curry and Green as well as contest Thompson's shots, but how Nick Nurse utilizes Kawhi Leonard will be the key.
If Durant isn't available, Leonard wouldn't have a true threat to defend. Toronto might put him on Thompson, but Danny Green is capable in that role. Instead, Toronto could use Leonard similar to how Golden State used Green against Portland - put him on one of the Warriors' limited offensive wings and allow the two-time DPOY to help on drives and muck up everything Green wants to do on the roll.
No matter which opponent the Warriors face in the Finals, it will be a fascinating challenge. They are not a better team without Durant, but the system they run in his absence can be more conducive to their talents, and they've proven capable of winning without him.
Golden State passed the first two tests without Durant with flying colours, but the final one may be the hardest yet.
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