TORONTO — Draymond Green believes he’s the best defensive player in basketball. Klay Thompson sought inclusion on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team for years. Andre Iguodala, even at 35 years old, can still neutralize just about any opponent.
Golden State has some big-time defenders, without question.
And they all respect Kawhi Leonard’s offensive game.
They will probably all get a turn at guarding Toronto’s best player at some point during the NBA Finals, whether the assignment is by design or just sort of happens organically when defenders get switched during a Raptors possession. When the title series starts on Thursday night, the biggest key for the Warriors will likely be slowing down Leonard — the most dominant player in this postseason so far.
“He’s been playing amazing this whole playoff run and really all season,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said.
“He’s always at his own pace, and never seems to get rushed or be in a hurry. He’s obviously physically gifted and strong. He can get to his spots, but he’s become a really good shooter; off the dribble, getting to a spot, rising up. But we have some capable — beyond capable — defenders to guard him.”
Those capabilities will be tested.
The only thing that slowed Leonard in these playoffs was the flu, which he was dealing with when he shot 5 for 19 in Game 3 against Orlando. Not even a leg injury has been able to derail Leonard. He’s averaged 31.2 points in the playoffs, along with 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 51 percent.
The numbers he has put up so far in the playoffs are comparable to what LeBron James posted in his last four playoff runs with Cleveland.
James doesn’t own the East anymore.
For now, the beast of the East is Leonard, who will take his turn in the role James held, facing Golden State for a title. The Warriors’ primary task in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 was slowing James.
This year, slowing Leonard is the priority. And he’s been boning up on film, trying to figure out what he can do to maximize his chances.
“I think it just really comes down to being smart and just being in those situations before and just knowing what’s going to happen,” Leonard said.
“Going through years of playing and seeing defensive schemes or offensive schemes and watching film and seeing how they guarded other guys or me in the past.”
Leonard hasn’t faced Green since 14 May 2017 — Game 1 of the Western Conference finals that year between the Warriors and San Antonio, the game where the Spurs were up big and Leonard had 26 points in the third quarter and was generally unguardable. Then, Zaza Pachulia closed out on him, got his foot under Leonard’s on a jumper, creating an awkward landing that knocked Leonard out for the rest of that series.
Iguodala and Thompson have seen Leonard once since, that being back in November, a game in Toronto where the Raptors’ star scored 37.
He made his first six shots that night, the first four of them when the Warriors matched Damion Jones against Leonard. By the time the fourth shot fell, Jones just put his head back in mock disbelief. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying. He just didn’t have the capability to stop him.
It’ll be a different approach on Thursday night.
“I would say they’re going to probably do something similar to what we’re going to do,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “There are a lot of bodies that can guard a lot of different people. I think you are going to see a lot of different people.”