NBA Finals Preview: Things to Watch & Expert Predictions

When two teams face off in the NBA finals we usually have enough match-up data from the season to get an idea of who’s likely to win, but not today.

Head-to-head match-ups during the season

Last time these two teams met Marc Gasol was still playing for Memphis, Jonas was still on the Raptors, and DeMarcus Cousins hadn’t played a single minute for the Warriors. If we dig a little deeper we’ll see that Kawhi played in only one of the games, as did Steph (a horrible 3/12 shooting night, which only netted him 10 points).

While Toronto won all (2) of the match-ups between the two teams this season, it gives us very little insight into who will win this series.

With so much up in the air, here are five things that I think will shape this year’s finals.

Are we seeing the best version of Kyle Lowry?

I know what you’re going to say - “But Kyle Lowry chokes during the playoffs!”. And to that, I’m going to quote Kevin Durant, and kindly ask you to watch the games and not focus on past narratives.

Gone are the days where Lowry has to try and carry the bulk of the offensive burden. With the 2018-19 version of the Raptors, he doesn’t have to force his shot. He can co-run the offence with Kawhi, throw it into the post to one of the better passing big men in the league (Marc Gasol), play great defense, and still have enough energy for his hustle plays (2nd in the playoffs for charges drawn at 0.72 per game and 2nd in the playoffs for loose balls recovered at 2.2 per game). It’s these hustle plays that are quickly changing the narrative of playoff Lowry.

An example of the kind of impact taking a charge can have on a close game:

And this isn’t just a playoffs thing. According to our defense vs position data, Toronto has the 5th best defense in the league against opposing point guards, and Kyle Lowry has been a big part of it.

Will Kevin Durant play?

Talking about narratives, let’s quickly squash the narrative about the Warriors being a better team without Kevin Durant with 4 of my favorite Kevin Durant facts:

  • Kevin Durant has been the finals MVP for the past 2 years
  • The Warriors have gone 2-0 in finals appearances with Kevin Durant on the team
  • The Warriors have gone 1-1 in finals appearances the 2 years prior to Kevin Durant joining them
  • Kevin Durant is (arguably) the best player in the NBA

While he has already been ruled out of game 1, and with rumors that his injury is more serious that we’re being led to believe, here’s why it’s important for Golden State that he plays:

Durant is the Warriors best match-up for Kawhi

Durant has earned the title of a two-way player. He tends to turn it up a notch when he’s given the task of guarding an elite wing player, and there’s no player that Golden State wants to stop more than Kawhi Leonard.

Kawhi is also the best match-up for Durant

Durant is one of the hardest players in the NBA to stop. He can take you off the dribble, he can catch-and-shoot, he can post up (there’s literally nothing he can’t do on the offensive end), and it’s going to take Kawhi’s best efforts to try.

Without Durant there’s one less weapon to try and stop, allowing Kawhi to cover either Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. It also gives Toronto the luxury of not having to play Danny Green if his shot isn’t falling since there’s no threat of a 3rd perimeter player.

Can Danny Green get his groove back?

The best version of Danny Green is a defensive stopper who’s an elite 3-point shooter.

We haven’t seen that version of Danny Green for a long time. He averaged 0.7 3-pointers a game in the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee, shooting them at 15%, and has been averaging 1.5 3-pointers for the entire playoffs, which isn’t horrible, but he’s shooting them at 31.4%.

To beat Golden State Toronto needs their best defenders on the floor, and for Green to remain on the floor his shot needs to start falling again.

Toronto’s counter to Golden State’s small-ball lineup

Golden State’s best lineup is when they go small by pushing Draymond to C, Durant to PF. and running Steph and Klay with one of Iguodala or Livingston.

But guess what? Toronto is one of the few teams with a worthy counter-move of pushing Siakam to C, Kawhi to PF, and running Lowry and Green with whoever’s shot is falling between VanVleet or Powell.

What they lack in offensive firepower (compared to Golden State) they make up for it on defense.

Does Fred VanVleet have another baby on the way?

Jokes aside, I’m pretty impressed that VanVleet is even able to play basketball at a respectable level since the birth of his son before game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. But fatherhood obviously agrees with him, as seen by his pre-baby and post-baby playoff 3-point shooting numbers.

 Post-baby 14/17 (82%) 
 Pre-baby 8/41 (19.5%) 

He was virtually unplayable for the entire playoffs, but he came up huge in the last 3 games of the Eastern Conference Finals, providing a much-needed scoring run off the bench (allowing Toronto to sit Danny Green since his shot wasn’t falling).

It’s often role-players who can swing a game during the NBA finals, and if Toronto is going to beat Golden State they’re going to need VanVleet to keep his shooting hand hot.

Predictions

Everybody loves a good prediction - here’s who the smart people think will win.

FiveThirtyEight Predictions

The FiveThirtyEight model predicts a tight series and makes a prediction that’s different to most, with Toronto having a 55% chance of winning the finals.

Betting Expert Predictions

Golden State are opening as favorites, but betting experts are predicting a tight match-up. If this series becomes a back and forth affair, the importance of each game becomes more evident. As a result, it's worth keeping an eye on the daily betting info for every game in the final series as odds will change from one game to the next.

Who do you think is going to win?

Tweet us to let us know via @hashbasketball

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