TORONTO – As they approach their fifth consecutive NBA Finals, the Warriors continue to be praised, first and foremost, for their offense. The crisp passing, the 3-pointers coming off the fingertips of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and the general scoring brilliance of Kevin Durant all come to mind.
This was a simple interpretation for most of the first four seasons, when the best of the Warriors was triggered by defense. But it’s entirely true now. Through 16 postseason games, among the 16 teams involved, they possess the No. 1 offense – and the No. 9 defense.
“We’ve kind of followed our regular season pattern a little bit in the playoffs,” assistant coach Ron Adams told NBC Sports Bay Area on Wednesday. “I don’t know if I can attribute it to much of anything, but I do know we miss Kevin (Durant) defensively. But we’ve had some really good moments, played some very strong quarters.”
Yet the defense has been more vulnerable this time around than any before. And if there is no significant improvement in The Finals against the Raptors, there will be no three-peat.
Not since the 1999-00 Lakers has a team ranked so poorly on defense and still been able to win it all. Only three of the last 12 championship teams finished outside the top five in postseason defensive rating.
The Warriors have at times played tremendous defense, usually in the second half, when they’ve been able to lock down teams and wipe out deficits – a formula that was good enough to earn a sweep of the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals.
The Raptors are better than Portland in nearly every conceivable way. Shoddy defense is a dangerous game to play against a team with two former Defensive Player of the Year winners in forward Kawhi Leonard (a two-time winner) and center Marc Gasol.
Toronto, by the way, ranks second in postseason defensive rating.
“They’re playing exceptional defense right now,” said Adams. “All five guys are involved and engaged.”
The Warriors, by contrast, have been intermittently active and engaged. They’ve played some spectacular defense, particularly Draymond Green, but they’ve also had more than a few spells of indifference, along with mental and physical errors.
Their second-quarter defensive rating (120.1) is downright unsightly. Do they believe that will be good enough to get away with that against Toronto?
“I always think anything we do will be good enough,” Green said. “That's the confidence I have in our group. In saying that, I don't think we'll necessarily purposely say, oh, our defense will be OK in the first half but in the second half we're going to turn it on.
“I do think we have the ability to say, ‘OK, we weren't that good (in the first half) and now we need to focus more here, let's lock in this half on the defensive side of the basketball.’ I do think we have that ability.”
Under most circumstances, what happens between teams in the regular season has no bearing on the postseason. But Toronto swept the Warriors, winning by three at Scotiabank Arena last Nov. 29 and by 20 two weeks later at Oracle Arena. The Warriors were outshot both times.
The Raptors are better now, after adding Gasol and getting Norman Powell back from injury, than they were six months ago. Indeed, at no time over the past five postseasons have the Warriors faced a better all-around team than the Raptors.
Toronto is better than any of the Houston teams to face the Warriors, and comprehensively superior to the Cleveland teams to reach the previous four Finals insofar as the Raptors go eight-deep with quality players, none of whom can be neglected on defense.
Leonard is the leading scorer (31.2 points per playoff game) and the Warriors will try to contain him mostly with Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson. Five other Raptors averaged double-digit scoring in the regular season, with 6-foot-9 forward Pascal Siakam second behind Leonard at 16.9 per game.
“It’s The Finals now,” said Adams, the chief voice in coordinating the defense. “We’re going to have to play every possession really well. Every playoff round is similar in some ways, but The Finals are at the top.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers provided the most accurate description of the Warriors when at their best, saying “they kill you with their defense and then they show you their offense.”
That’s their blueprint. If they’re able to follow it, they’ll succeed. If not, the NBA championship parade will be in Canada for the first time ever.