The 2019 NBA Finals have arrived, and for the first time since 2014, it won’t be the Golden State Warriors facing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Steph Curry and Co. are back, though, reaching the Finals for the fifth straight season. They’ll attempt to become the first team since the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers to three-peat, while also chasing their fourth title in five seasons.

Golden State’s opponent this time around is the Toronto Raptors, who have made the Finals for the first time in franchise history. But while they haven’t been here before, their leader, Kawhi Leonard, has plenty of championship experience from his time with the San Antonio Spurs.

Ahead of Thursday night’s Game 1 in Toronto, here’s a closer look at one key thing to watch for from each team.

Steph Curry pick-and-rolls

For years, Steph Curry pick-and-rolls have been among the most dangerous plays in the entire league. His combination of shooting and passing, along with all of the other talent the Warriors have on the floor, make guarding such actions almost impossible for opposing teams.

Since Kevin Durant’s arrival, however, the Warriors haven’t run them quite as much. Durant absorbed a large portion of the offensive touches, and prefers to play a more stagnant, isolation game. It’s worked, of course, as the Warriors have won the last two titles, and Durant has taken home Finals MVP each time, but it’s not as exciting or interesting.

But Durant, still recovering from a calf injury he suffered in the second round against the Houston Rockets, won’t play in at least Game 1, and may not be ready for Game 2 (although he will travel with the team to Toronto). Which means more Curry pick-and-roll.

During the regular season, only 21.6 percent of Curry’s offensive possessions involved him running the pick-and-roll as the ball-handler, down from 26.2 percent in 2015-16, the season before Durant arrived. In the playoffs, though, Curry has become a pick-and-roll machine, running them over 30 percent of the time when he has the ball, and teams cannot stop him; Curry is averaging 1.17 points per possession off the pick-and-roll in the playoffs.

That’s in large part due to his unreal shooting ability. As we saw in Game 1 against the Trail Blazers, dropping your big and letting him walk into open 3s isn’t a wise idea, because there’s no reason to make it easier for him. But the fact is, it often simply doesn’t matter how many defenders are around him, nor how deep he is behind the line.

But while Curry prefers to shoot the ball off the pick-and-roll, he’s also adept at passing as well. Including pick-and-rolls where Curry passes the ball, the Warriors’ derived offense in those scenarios jumps to 1.24 points-per-possession. With the shooters and playmakers they have around the floor, it becomes so difficult for opposing defenses to get a stop when they have to start rotating all over the place.

One action to watch, in particular, is when the Warriors clear out one side of the floor and Curry runs a pick-and-roll with Draymond Green. He almost always gives the ball up to Green, who is then able to get downhill and play four-on-three. Green, of course, is such a good playmaker himself that most of the time he ends up getting the assist after finding an open teammate. The Warriors especially like to break this action out at the end of close games because they know it’s almost an automatic bucket.

“They have been playing pick-and-roll together for five years, more than that, seven years, I guess, and Draymond is an amazing play-maker and Steph is so lethal, he’s going to draw a lot of attention,” Steve Kerr said. “So they have a lot of knack for working the pick-and-roll together, finding openings and then attacking. They are both great passers, as well. They are fun to watch. They are kind of made for each other from a basketball standpoint. You know, they have been doing this for a long time, so they have got a real feel for each other.”

The direction Kawhi Leonard drives out of isolation situations

Though the Toronto Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard last summer, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when they got to see him at full capacity and the deal really started to pay off. Leonard sat out 22 games during the regular season as part of a maintenance program to make sure he was healthy after missing all but nine games in 2017-18 with the San Antonio Spurs.

Before the playoffs, the most games he had played in a row this season was nine, and the Raptors learned to succeed without him. Kyle Lowry continued leading, Pascal Siakam took a big leap forward and various role players got extra opportunities. Once the playoffs started, though, Leonard has been leading from the front, as the Raptors have often relied on him to bail them out as the rest of the team struggles with inconsistency.

In the playoffs, his usage is north of 33 percent, meaning he takes charge of one-third of the Raptors’ possessions when he’s on the floor. He’s averaging 31.2 points on 50.7 shooting from the field, including 38.8 percent from 3, and has done it all while playing almost 40 minutes a night and shouldering an important load on the defensive end as well.

“Well, for me [this is the best I’ve seen Leonard], but again, I’m like — I’m like — you know, it’s really different when you have a guy, when you’re with him every day and you’re witnessing it all,” Nick Nurse said. “I certainly remember he’s been unbelievable in the playoffs with the Spurs, as well, but you’re not as close to it. Heck, you might not have even have seen all the games or whatever. But I can only state that he’s been really good, and it seems like he’s — I don’t know, it doesn’t look like — he gets stronger as the fourth wears on. He wants the ball, and he wants to make the plays, and he seems to be making the right play for the most part, and you’re almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet and it doesn’t go in.”

Like Curry, Leonard is also skilled running the pick-and-roll, and many have taken note of his improved playmaking in those situations. But he’s also often given the ball and just told to make something happen in isolation, which he’s quite capable of doing. Among the players with at least 25 isolation possessions in the playoffs, only Steph Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant have scored more than Leonard’s 0.92 points per possession.

Isolation plays account for just under 20 percent of his offensive possessions, and when you zoom in you’ll notice something quite interesting about how Leonard operates out of isos. For the playoffs, Leonard’s splits in terms of driving left or right are about 50/50, but his success rate is quite different, as he scores 1.27 points per possession when he drives left, but just 0.75 points per possession when he drives right.

In fact, a similar pattern has developed throughout his career, where he’s almost always been better going to his left: 

Kawhi Leonard isolations

Drive left frequency

Drive left points per possession

Drive right frequency

Drive right points per possession

2018-19 playoffs

52.9%

1.27 ppp

47.1%

0.75 ppp

2018-19 regular season

49.7%

1 ppp

50.3%

1.27 ppp

2016-17 playoffs

68.8%

0.87 ppp

31.3%

0.53 ppp

2016-17 regular season

59.1%

1 ppp

40.9%

0.77 ppp

2015-16 regular season

50.4%

1.15 ppp

49.6%

0.9 ppp

When you really dig into the details, you’ll notice that there’s one big reason why that’s the case: jumpers. During isos in the playoffs, Leonard has shot 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) on pull-up jumpers going to his left, but just 4 of 16 (25 percent) on pull-up jumpers going to his right. Now, that’s a pretty drastic split, but it follows the pattern that’s developed over his career, and is not even an unheard of difference for Leonard. Take the 2015-16 regular season, for example, when he shot 51.2 percent on pull-up jumpers going to his left, but just 31 percent on pull-up jumpers going to his right.

Though Leonard is a right-handed player, he looks much more comfortable and consistent driving hard to his left hand. Moving left he can either rise straight into his jumper, or hit you with his preferred step-back.

When driving right, however, he’s not able to pull off those moves in the same way, and often spins back around for a fadeaway — something he never does going left — which is a much tougher shot. 

With a player as good as Leonard, there’s only so much the defense can do, but it will be interesting to see if the Warriors try to influence him to the right in iso situations. 





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