The Toronto Raptors might've raced out to a blistering 18-4 start, but that can mostly be attributed to mopping up bottom feeders. Toronto lacks signature wins, but there's no bigger triumph than beating the 15-7 Golden State Warriors.
Stephen Curry and Draymond Green remain sidelined, but the Warriors are still formidable even in their limited form. National TV cameras will be making a rare appearance north of the border, and Toronto can generate legitimate championship hype if they throw their best punch and knock out the Warriors.
Here are four key questions that will decide the first of two meetings between the Warriors and Raptors:
Most teams struggle to find even one passable option to check Kevin Durant, but the Raptors have an abundance of defenders they can assign to cover the most prolific scorer of his generation.
Kawhi Leonard would be the most effective option, by far. The Raptors may look to save Leonard's energy and start him on an easier assignment, but Leonard will definitely guard Durant in the fourth quarter. Either way, this will be a barometer for the two-time Defensive Player of the Year's recovery from a quad injury that limited him to just nine games last year.
However, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse may give strong consideration to Pascal Siakam as the primary defender on Durant. Putting Siakam on him also allows the Raptors to avoid cross-matching in transition, as Golden State has exclusively played Durant at power forward in Green's absence. Siakam obviously can't guard as well as Leonard, but he's a rangy 6-foot-9 defender who can match up with the Warriors star athletically.
Siakam can be a bit jumpy on pump fakes, and the matchup could put Toronto at risk of having one of its most important players in early foul trouble, but Siakam should be otherwise up to the task.
Golden State generally prefers to thwart opponents by switching, but some meticulous scouting would reveal that teams have effectively taken Leonard out of games by sending doubles.
Part of that speaks to Leonard's limited handle. He isn't particularly quick with the ball and relies on getting his space by muscling past defenders or by shooting over the top. However, he instinctively picks up his dribble when trapped, and is sometimes slow to find the open shooter under duress.
The Grizzlies limited Leonard to only 11 field-goal attempts Tuesday by ignoring both Siakam and Serge Ibaka, who aren't reliable 3-point shooters. Siakam has come on strong of late, but he's a career 24 percent shooter from distance, while Ibaka is only hitting 29.4 percent of his threes since moving into a full-time center role. Golden State could mimic Memphis' strategy and have Durant and Damian Jones leave their assignments to wall off Leonard.
Having said that, the Raptors are well-equipped to pivot to plan B if Leonard is taken out of the game. Siakam and Ibaka are excellent cutters who reliably finish at the basket, while the likes of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Fred VanVleet are dead-eye shooters. Memphis limited Leonard on the scoresheet, but Toronto got the win by drilling 18 threes.
Leonard is the Raptors' best player, but Lowry has been their catalyst. He's always been a thorn in the Warriors' side, dating back to 2016 when he tallied 41 points in an unforgettable duel with Curry, who had 44.
Toronto is unstoppable when Lowry can pick teams apart in the pick-and-roll. He leads the league with 10.4 assists per game, and more than six of those helpers are to Ibaka, Siakam, and Jonas Valanciunas. Lowry's at his best when he can leverage the threat of his drives and pull-up jumpers to create for his teammates.
One wrong step and Lowry will thread a pocket pass or float a lob over the top for his sure-handed bigs to finish a layup. Valanciunas finishes 69 percent of his shots from the restricted area, Ibaka is at 78 percent, and Siakam is even better at 79 percent. The Warriors should also be cautious about Ibaka, who's developed incredible timing with Lowry in the pick-and-pop.
Golden State's best recourse is to put Klay Thompson on Lowry and force him to score, stay attached to Toronto's bigs after the initial screen, and allow Thompson to use his length to deter Lowry, who's largely feast or famine with his scoring. Lowry is liable to get hot from deep and can still worm his way to the hole if he's in the mood, but he hasn't topped 30 points since March.
The Raptors should have a significant advantage in depth, but Golden State's second unit has actually outperformed Toronto's in point differential.
The Raptors' "Bench Mob" can barely hold it together this season. VanVleet has been inconsistent after injuring his toe earlier in the year, Delon Wright goes entire weeks without making his presence felt, and C.J. Miles is a shooter who can't shoot. Nurse has needed to extend his starters' minutes to make up for a wholly unreliable second unit.
However, it's not as if the Warriors are satisfied with their reserves. They have too many uncoordinated centers and limited wing players, and not enough shot creators. Andre Iguodala and Quinn Cook have brought a semblance of stability to Golden State's starting lineup, but the team's bench is now entirely reliant upon Thompson and Durant getting hot in isolation to keep them afloat.
Toronto's bench should hold the upper hand, given that supporting players generally play better at home. Nurse has been careful to stagger minutes, with Siakam and Leonard leading the second unit, and he should continue that trend as the Warriors will do the same.