TORONTO — While the first thought as the Golden State Warriors embark on their fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance is the explosive offensive firepower, this matchup with the Toronto Raptors presents a showcase for something that doesn’t get nearly as much attention.
The series will pit arguably the two best, most versatile defensive players in the game — Draymond Green of the Warriors and Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard against each other and really, against the entire opposing arsenals.
Both of them already have had their turns as NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and while they are similar in their skill set they are far different in demeanor. On media day, ahead of Thursday’s Game 1, both players spoke, but at dizzyingly different volumes. Leonard was measured in his words and Green was, well as he said, “I'm Draymond.”
The talk began earlier in the week when Green described himself as the best defender ever and he didn’t back down, but he wasn’t wrong in his approach either.
“I think as a competitor, if you're trying to do something meaningful, if you don't have the mindset that you're the best ever, you failed already,” Green said. “That's been my mindset since I can remember. That will be my mindset as long as I can remember anything — that I am the best ever at what I do. And every day that I step on the basketball floor I will strive to be that.
“But my mindset will always be as such, as I am the best to do what I do. And that will give me a shot at being the best. But before you can ever reach anything you have to believe it. You don't just mistakenly become great at something. You probably at one time or another believed that you can be great at that and then you work to get great at that and you reach that greatness. But you don't mistakenly become great. And then you start to believe, oh man, I'm great at that. No, you believed that before and you worked to get that. So I always believed that. And I work every day to reach that.”
Leonard, who will be a free agent at season’s end, may not be as bold, but he has plenty of supporters within the Raptors’ organization, a franchise he has been a part of for just one season after forcing his way out of San Antonio.
“Kawhi's quiet but he's relentless,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said, adding when asked about Leonard’s place as the best in the game — and the best in this series that will include Steph Curry and (injury permitting) Kevin Durant, “I don't know that any of those people will argue with me that he's the best two-way player in the NBA and when we talk about basketball, we're talking about playing on both ends.”
The Raptors may be making their first appearance in the NBA Finals, but the Warriors are familiar with his skills. Not only was Leonard the Finals MVP in 2014 — the season before the Warriors began their five-year stranglehold as Western Conference Champions, but it remains fresh in their minds what Leonard was doing in the 2017 Western Conference Finals when he had 24 points early in the third quarter and the Spurs were up by 23 points. And then Leonard came down awkwardly on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, re-injuring his ankle and sitting out the rest of the way as the Warriors came back in that game and swept the series.
If Leonard wants revenge over that, or if he feels slighted by Green’s declarations, he was remaining, as usual, soft-spoken.
“I think he should feel that way about himself,” Leonard said. “You have to come into these games confident and know what can you do on the floor. I don't know how to just compare myself against him. I don't really do that. Just for myself and what I bring to the game, I guess we both can switch one through four, one through five on the floor. Both bring energy to the game. We want to play defense. We want to stop the player in front of us. And that's pretty much it. He's leading them on that end of the floor as well.”