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TORONTO – The Warriors will take a cross-country flight on Wednesday that might become part of their itinerary in about seven months.
When the Warriors (15-7) visit the Toronto Raptors (18-4), the intrigue will not just center on if Stephen Curry will play after missing the past 10 games because of a sore left groin. It might also provide some clarity on if the Warriors compete for their third consecutive NBA championship against Toronto after winning three of their past four NBA titles against Cleveland.
“They’re going to be a great test for us,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “Who knows? It might be a preview of June. They got something really special up there in Canada right now.”
The Raptors, winners of six consecutive games, have constructed their deepest roster in franchise history. Though it came at the cost of trading fan favorite DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors acquired All-Star Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio last summer. They reportedly are convinced this one-year rental will turn into a long-term commitment.
What’s not to like?
The Raptors have point guard Kyle Lowry, who leads the NBA with 10.4 assists per game. They have sharpshooter Danny Green, who has a team-leading 51 3-pointers. They have forward Pascal Siakim, whom Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams said has had “a mini All-Star season” because of his blend of scoring (14.5 points), rebounding (6.7) and defense. Despite all of that top-heavy talent, the Raptors still have a bench that ranks 10th out of 30 NBA teams in total offense (39.6 points per game).
“Probably the best team in basketball right now,” Adams said.
That only leads to a natural question: how much could the Raptors threaten the Warriors’ hopes in winning their fourth NBA title in five years?
“Not that much,” said one Eastern Conference coach. The reasoning?
“The Warriors’ biggest challenge isn’t what team they face. It’s themselves,” said TNT NBA analyst Kevin McHale, who will be part of TNT’s broadcast of the Warriors-Raptors game. “Is Toronto a team that could bother them? Yeah. But honestly, no team can truly bother the Warriors all that much if they’re focused.”
The Warriors appeared focused to open the 2018-19 season only for injuries (Curry, Draymond Green) and infighting (Green with Kevin Durant) to cloud the team’s vision. The Warriors believe they have since moved on from those issues en route to a three-game winning streak.
Although they have not provided a specific timetable, the Warriors expect Curry and Green to return during their five-game trip. That trip also includes stops in Detroit (Saturday), Atlanta (Dec. 3), Cleveland (Dec. 5) and Milwaukee (Dec. 7). Although uncertainty will hover over Durant’s pending free agency until July, the Warriors no longer sense the same tension between Green and Durant after their argument two weeks ago.
“It’s hard to say who we will be,” Adams said. “I think we’ll be really good. But we have to get everyone back.”
Assuming the Warriors get everyone back, an informal poll of executives, coaches and analysts expect them to win their third consecutive NBA title. After all, the Warriors will eventually add a fifth All-Star once DeMarcus Cousins heals from a left Achilles tendon he injured in January with New Orleans.
Would that be against Toronto? Perhaps. Adams considers the Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics as the main Eastern Conference threats. He expects Boston (11-10) to overcome a slow start that various talent evaluators pinned on integrating blending stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on a team that leaned on its role players. Others around the NBA favor the Raptors, though.
“Toronto is for real,” said one Eastern Conference general manager. “Kawhi is an MVP-caliber player and they have great depth.”
Leonard missed a combined 73 games last season with San Antonio because of a quadriceps injury. Before then, that Eastern Conference GM observed that “Kawhi had been a thorn in the Warriors side.”
Leonard averaged 14.7 points on 55.7 percent shooting against Golden State in the 2012-13 Western Conference semifinals. Since then, Leonard remained efficient against the Warriors in 2013-14 (15.3 points on 51.1 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds), in 2014-15 (19.0 points on 65.7 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds), in 2015-16 (19.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists) and 2016-17 (27 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists). The Warriors overcame a 25-point deficit in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals after Leoanrd suffered playoff-ending left ankle injury after stepping on Zaza Pachulia’s foot on a close out. The Warriors disposed the Spurs in five games of the first round of the playoffs last season during Leonard’s absence.
“Kawhi fits in. its not like he’s dramatically different than DeMar,” said a Western Conference executive. “They have a lot of similarities in how they play. It’s not like they have to go through a major adjustment. They’re different players, but not it’s like they’re so dissimilar. The interesting thing with Kawhi is he’s so long. He’s such a unique player with his height, weight and wing span. But in terms of their games, they are fairly similar.”
There’s one key difference, though.
“Leonard has a terrific defensive component to his game,” Adams said. “Maybe there’s a difference there. But they were awfully, awfully good with DeRozan.”
Nonethless, various NBA talent evaluators figure the Warriors to match up just fine against the Raptors.
They suspect Green can defend Leonard well enough to neutralize him. Though they suspect the Warriors will have trouble limiting Lowry’s playmaking and Serge Ibaka’s versatility, they do not see how the Raptors can stop Curry, Durant or Thompson.
The Warriors sounded mindful, though, that the Rapters depth could expose theirs. The Warriors have carved out bigger roles for their younger players in third-year center Damian Jones, second-year forward Jordan Bell, fourth-year forward Kevon Looney and fourth-year guard Quinn Cook. But the Warriors rank 29th out of 30 NBA teams in bench scoring (31 points per game).
“Our bench has to be ready to match their intensity,” Looney said.
And that is not the only reason why Looney predicted “it’s going to be a fun game.” Although he did not want to offer any projections, he sounded intrigued about traveling to Toronto in June.
“It’ll be good to make it that far and not have to go Cleveland for the fifth year in a row. But I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Looney said. “We have our own things going on over here. We have to figure out the West.”
First, the Warriors must figure out Toronto. Then they will see if anything that happens in November will mean anything in June.
“Right now they’re the best,” Thompson said of the Raptors. “I expect them to be there throughout the whole season.”
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