OAKLAND — Wednesday night’s game between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors is looked at by NBA pundits as a possible NBA Finals preview, and for good reason: Toronto is No. 1 in the Eastern Conference Standings, and Golden State, despite a run of four straight losses and six in nine games, are second in the West at 19-9.
The Warriors — led by Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and a now-healthy pair of All-Stars in Stephen Curry and Draymond Green — won’t have Andre Iguodala due to right hip tightness. The Raptors could be missing an even bigger piece.
Kawhi Leonard did not play on Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers with a right hip bruise. He’s questionable for the Raptors’ rematch with the Warriors, but if he plays, the game would add another level of intrigue, especially since neither Curry nor Green were in the lineup when Leonard scored 37 points in a 131-128 overtime win on Nov. 29.
“You can’t control it, but you still think about it,” said Durant, the two-time NBA Finals MVP. “I want him to play. I’m sure he will, but it’s out of my control.”
The Raptors won 59 games and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers last season. Then, when Leonard’s situation in San Antonio became untenable, Toronto reaped the reward, adding the two-time All-Star and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year via trade.
After playing just nine games last season due to hamstring trouble, a shoulder tear and right quadriceps tendinopathy, Leonard has averaged 26.1 points, 1.9 steals, 3.0 assists and 8.3 rebounds with the Raptors.
“I think it’s better [than he was in San Antonio],” Durant said. “More seasoned, more confident in his style of play, and it translates to success with this Raptor team. I think he’s better than where he was the year before, and that’s just through experience and knowing more about the game.”
As good as he’s been, though, when Leonard has missed time, Toronto is 6-1.
“They’ve won without Kawhi because everyone on their team knows their role,” Durant said. “That says a lot about their team. They’re resilient. They’ve got guys stepping up into roles, like [Pascal] Siakam, who’s playing phenomenal basketball this season. They’ve figured out the flow of the team. Guys are playing their responsibilities.”
Four-time All-Star Kyle Lowry had totalled just 15 points in his previous four games, but scored 21 in Leonard’s absence against Los Angeles, to go with seven assists.
Since Curry returned to the lineup in Detroit, Golden State is 4-1. With Green back in the mix, the Warriors’ offense has been crisper, more dynamic and faster.
Over the last three games, Durant is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc (9-for-20). It’s a small sample size, and Durant chided local media for bringing it up, but it’s encouraging.
“Ah, don’t jinx me! Relax and chill, just give me five or six more games,” Durant said. “I’m leaving my arm up a little bit more maybe, holding my follow through up, staying into my shot instead of fading. I think that little bit of fade can pull the ball back and makes it a short 3-point shot. Just sticking to my fundamentals. Hopefully, it continues.”
Last time the two teams faced off, Curry and Green were on the bench with injury (Curry with a groin, Green with a toe). Durant had 51 points, but Golden State had 27 assists on 50 field goals (54 percent). Since Curry’s return, the Warriors are assisting on 67.5 percent of their field goals.
“A lot has changed with our team,” Durant said. “Having Steph and Draymond back now, it gives us our full team. Looking forward to seeing how we can build some momentum, especially after the last four wins. Let’s see if we can take it into tonight.”