TORONTO — Steve Kerr propped himself up with his right hand on his knee, and leaned forward.
“They remind me of us in a lot of ways,” Kerr said of the Raptors, during his practice day NBA Finals press conference on Saturday.
In a league that is now constituted of teams either built to beat Golden State, or teams emulating the Warriors, it’s a team that resembles that first Golden State title team from 2014-15 that may wind up using the Warriors’ own formula to end their dynasty in the NBA Finals.
Whether it’s Pascal Siakam — who Kerr has called “a young Draymond Green” — or other structural similarities, it’s not an opinion Kerr is alone in having.
“Their big men can handle the ball and make plays too, so that’s very similar,” said guard Klay Thompson. “Every position player on the floor can make a play. When you have playmakers everywhere, it’s hard to guard.”
That the Raptors are reminiscent of that first championship team is not a shock. Since then, 3-pointers have increased 78%, leaguewide pace has quickened by 8% and non-lottery teams that once couldn’t figure out where a player like Green would fit are now looking for length and versatility in the draft rather than prototypical size.
“You can probably say that for a lot of teams in the NBA,” guard Shaun Livingston said. “When you’ve had a level of success and you’re kind of the symbol, everybody’s trying to compare themselves to you. It’s a copycat league, but they definitely play together. They share the ball, they move it,. I think they’ve got guys with you’d say high character. They like playing with each other. Not every team you see guys out there that enjoy playing with each other, and I see that with this team.”
Over the last two postseasons, Kerr has wistfully and almost nostalgically recalled what Pat Riley called “the innocent climb” of a team seeking its first title, before the ego and the pressure of winning multiple titles in a row sets in. This Raptors team is on that climb, and they’ve done it quietly.
The Houston Rockets famously and overtly have tried to construct their team specifically to beat the Warriors, only to fall to them in four postseason series. The Utah Jazz don’t push the pace like Golden State, but they, too, have shown the fingerprints the Warriors have left on the league, as have the Denver Nuggets, who last season had the same roster distribution as the 2013-14 Warriors: four homegrown draft picks at their core, a few role players brought in via trade and one high-profile free agent.
There is no more overt cover band than the Sacramento Kings. Owned by a former Golden State minority shareholder in Vivek Ranadive, the Kings have become a not-so-subtle riff on that 2014-15 team, with Ranadive going so far as to say that Buddy Hield is the next Stephen Curry.
When asked what makes the Raptors different from the Jazz, the Nuggets, Daryl Morie’s obsessed Rockets and the Sacramento Kings, owned by former Warriors minority owner Vivek Ranadive, Shaun Livingston said simply: “Kawhi Leonard.”
Toronto’s success, though, goes beyond its one transcendent talent, acquired this offseason in a trade that sent longtime fan favorite DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for a return of Leonard and Danny Green. Like Golden State, the Raptors have built their roster through non-lottery draft picks and the occasional free agent signing, and prioritized length, size and versatility. Like Golden State, they did it quietly.
“We’re a little bit similar,” said center Andrew Bogut, a key player on that first title team. “They have more length than we had back then.”
“They’re very good, they’re very long, they don’t really play with a traditional post player, which is kind of similar,” Thompson said.
That inclusive atmosphere, where the players just like playing with one another — an essential ingredient for the Warriors under Kerr — is perhaps the most key ingredient.
“They play together,” Bogut said. “They like playing together.”
That eases any ego soreness over equal distribution of offense and allows for a thorny, switch-heavy defense that, after being brought into vogue by the Warriors, is now a staple throughout the league.
“They have good chemistry and it looks like they enjoy playing with each other,” Livingston said. “So I think that’s kind of the similarity you may see between them and us.”
One has to look no further than the likes of Siakam — a No. 27 overall pick whose raw, physical tools have been refined through his three years in the league — and Lowry, who had a plus-11 rating in Game 1 while scoring just seven points, dishing out nine assists, pulling down six rebounds and adding a steal. Like Green, Lowry doesn’t have to score to impact a game.
“They just do a good job of just looking for the open play, they hit some singles, drive and kicks, guys looking for the opportunities to try to take advantage of them,” said forward Andre Iguodala, who won the Finals MVP for guarding LeBron James in Golden State’s first title season. “ … Got to keep an eye on all their guys because everyone’s a threat on the court.”
They’ve added all that into an arena that drew multiple comparisons to the loudest of Oracle Arena crowds during Game 1, and a team on the innocent climb that’s embraced by an entire nation.
“I think it was louder than Oracle,” Bogut said. “They’ve got a sensational atmosphere, the emotion, their first finals, not many people pick them to win, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
There are some some key differences to the 2014-15 Warriors team — they’re older, bigger, stronger and have pieces with championship experience in Leonard and Green — but the most important similarity, to Bogut, is their suddenness.
“No one saw them coming,” Bogut said. “No one saw them as a team that was going to make the Finals. They have a lot of talent that’s starting to really show itself — Siakam and a few other guys — they have a good mix of veterans and youth, and they have one of the best players in the league in Kawhi Leonard, much like when we had Steph. Very similar roster build. Culturally, it seems like they’ve got it right.”