To quote the great Ron Burgundy: “Boy, that escalated quickly.” The first two games of the NBA Finals are already in the books after the defending champs kinda-sorta stole a road win in Game 2 Sunday night, downing the Raptors 109-104 based largely on a signature 37-12 Warriors’ run spanning parts of the second and third quarters. With the series knotted at one game apiece and the stage shifting to the Bay Area for Game 3 (Wednesday, 9 PM ET, ABC), what have we learned about how these two teams match up, and what does it mean going forward? Let’s get right to it.
The series is rapidly becoming a war of attrition. The Warriors took back the home court advantage with the win in Game 2, so things should be looking rosy for them. However, they are an absolute M.A.S.H. unit as they head back to Oakland. In addition to the cloak-and-dagger nature of Kevin Durant’s injury and the gradual re-integration of Boogie Cousins to the rotation, Golden State is still dealing with a hampered Andre Iguodala, along with new injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney. While Looney has been ruled out for the series, the severity of the Thompson injury is unclear (he is listed as questionable for Game 3 and is a famously tough player), Iggy looked spry on both ends Sunday, and Boogie was able to log 28 mostly useful minutes in Game 2 (partially out of necessity because of the Looney injury, but still). So they appear to be soldiering on, but an already-thin roster can only afford to take so many more dings before the levy breaks.
After Thompson went out on Sunday night, the Best Shooting Team in NBA History was so thin on the perimeter Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse deployed a “janky” Box-and-One defense on Steph Curry, and it almost worked! Curry took no shots and had a 0% Usage Rate in the fourth quarter. If not for timely buckets by Quinn Cook, Shaun Livingston, and Iguodala (along with the Raptors shooting 3-of-16 during those late-game minutes), we’d all be calling Nurse a genius for having the guts to bust out some gimmicky high school junk in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game. The point is, the Warriors were able to get away with having those guys prominently involved in the offense over a short period where they already had the lead, but if they are forced to rely on lesser players to knock down critical shots over the rest of the series, they are in serious trouble.
For the Raptors, the injury problem is not one of quantity, but quality. While Kawhi Leonard is still putting up big box score numbers (28/ 11/ 4 in 40 minutes a game), his shooting has been inconsistent and he clearly looks hampered getting up and down the floor. Leonard appears able to mostly get to his spots on offense despite the lingering knee injury, but a lot of his shots are coming up short (perhaps due to a lack of burst to finish), and he’s looked gimpy on a number of occasions following heavy contact or a strenuous play, which has likely limited his defensive effectiveness as well. The perfect distillation of the difference a fully healthy Leonard could make was visible on the scramble leading to Iguodala’s game-sealing triple Sunday night:
An unencumbered Kawhi almost certainly picks off that wounded duck from Curry and heads the other way for a game-tying layup (or gets fouled). As the pass was leaving Steph’s fingertips, the Raptors couldn’t have dreamed up a better scenario, yet somehow, it connected. [Credit to Livingston for coming to meet the ball, one of those tiny, fundamental basketball skills it’s easy to take for granted.] Basketballs tend to take funky bounces in these crucial moments (just ask the 2013 Spurs if you don’t believe me), but in the “Sliding Doors” universe where Kawhi — you know, only the most lethal ball hawk on the damn planet — isn’t a half-step slow in jumping the passing lane there, this might be a very different series right now. If Golden State ends up winning in protracted fashion, Toronto is going to rue letting Game 2 slip away, and Kawhi’s health is going to be a big part of the story. Perhaps load management isn’t such a panacea, after all.
So many of the main story lines of these Finals now revolve around health. Can Kawhi drag himself and his team to the finish line? How hurt is Klay? If he can’t go, can Iguodala continue to shoulder more of the load? Is Boogie in good enough shape to paper over the loss of Looney, and can he hold up on defense in big minutes? Will OG Anunoby be able to give Toronto anything? And oh yeah, what about Kevin Freaking Durant? The NBA title may come down to something as simple as which team can get (and keep) its most useful bodies out on the floor.
The Raptors have a Kyle Lowry/Fred VanVleet problem. I’m not here to dog on Kyle Lowry. The dude is a five-time All-Star and the heart and soul of the Raptors’ franchise. Watching him game-in and game-out during this postseason run has given me a new appreciation for the nuance in his game, the subtle but unmistakable way he seems to make a play at the exact moment his team needs it. He’s a brilliant basketball player. Even with all of that being true, he is a problem for Toronto right now. His shots aren’t falling, and as a result, the Warriors are starting to give him the Tony Allen/Andre Roberson treatment, which seems unfathomable for such an accomplished offensive player. In the second half, Golden State switched Draymond Green onto Lowry. The change allowed Green to roam off of him and patrol the paint, which helped spur the game-altering 18-0 run to start the third quarter. Until Lowry can start canning open shots, the Dubs will likely continue sagging off him and clogging up the lane against Leonard and Siakam. He could use the lack of defensive attention to his advantage by doing more cutting and screening, but with Siakam and Gasol already out there, the offense only needs so much of those skills.
Perhaps more importantly, Lowry appears to be having a much tougher time sticking with Steph Curry on defense than is his backup, Fred VanVleet. FVV’s on/off numbers are sterling so far, and the eye test lines up with the stats. He has been easily the more impactful player of the two on both ends, relentlessly hounding Curry into tough shots (or no shot at all) while effectively spacing the floor and getting to the rim on offense. After Leonard and Siakam, VanVleet has probably been Toronto’s third-best player through the first two games. While it’s fantastic to get such a contribution from a purported role player, it simultaneously speaks to how much production they aren’t getting from a primary guy like Lowry.
The problem cuts both ways. Are we to extrapolate from a scintillating four-game sample (going back to the end of the Milwaukee series) that this is who VanVleet is now, or is the regression monster lurking just around the corner? If it’s the latter, can Lowry, a player known for letting the game come to him, be aggressive and confident enough to pick up the slack, while also not giving those hypothetical gains back on defense? The Raptors have been able to get away with hiding Lowry on Iguodala when he and VanVleet share the floor, but if Lowry isn’t going to make shots, and he can’t handle a primary defensive responsibility (outside of his uncanny knack for taking charges), then all the veteran savvy and nuance in the world aren’t worth a whole lot. They simply have to get more out of him to have a shot in this series.
Both defenses are elite but tend to spring leaks. Despite being shorthanded, Golden State’s half court defense has been solid overall in both games. They’ve changed up the looks on Kawhi, blitzing him at times and playing him straight up at others. By and large, they have made him work for his buckets. Toronto won Game 1 because Siakam went ballistic and the transition defense of the Warriors was abysmal. They mostly plugged both leaks in Game 2 and the result flipped. They still gave up a few too many uncontested outside shots, but fortunately for Golden State, the Raptors shot poorly on those looks, especially in the second half. The Warriors may have problems if Toronto’s percentages normalize going forward, but it’s hard not to give up something to a team which moves the ball as well as the Raptors do.
Toronto’s defense was phenomenal in Game 1. They missed a few assignments and got beat backdoor a couple times (an issue which reared its ugly head even more in Game 2), but overall, they put the clamps on Golden State in the half court, much like we saw in the latter part of the Milwaukee series. The Warriors only had any real success in transition and off broken plays, neither of which are sustainable ways to win a series. In Game 2, they let Klay spring loose early, but otherwise were sound again to start the game, leading 47-35 with 5:16 left in the second quarter. Then it all fell apart. Curry got going, the Warriors did their usual “pull a couple buckets out of their asses right before halftime to keep the deficit manageable” routine, and then they were off to the races to start the third. The Raptors counted on Golden State’s role players to miss shots, and they didn’t, so again, there is some possible regression to the mean coming, though complementary guys tend to shoot better at home. Curry was devastating as a screener (he notched four screen assists in Game 2, all of which led to dunks/layups), so Toronto will need to figure out how to navigate those play types and take away the easy backdoor cuts while also preventing Steph from popping out to open triples. [Easier said than done, obviously. There’s a reason the Warriors are gunning for their fourth title in five years.] It becomes quite a bit easier if Klay is out, but if history is any guide, his hamstring would have to be physically detached from his body for him to miss any significant time.
These may seem like relatively minor strategic tweaks, but that’s where we are with these two teams. The big picture defensive principles for both are shipshape, so there’s nothing left to do but sweat the small stuff. Whichever team plugs the remaining holes will likely be the one to take home the title.
Draymond Green is EVERYWHERE. It’s a tough sell for a guy averaging only 13.5 ppg, but if Golden State wins the series, there’s a real chance Draymond could end up as the Finals MVP. He’s been that good in every aspect of the game outside of putting the ball through the hoop. [As a bonus, watching the talking heads lose their collective shit over Steph Curry being snubbed again would be kind of hilarious.] Dray is averaging a tick below a triple-double in the two games so far, and for the playoffs as a whole, he’s the leader in assists, 2nd in Defensive Box Plus/Minus, and 5th in Value Over Replacement Player. He’s the queen on the defensive chess board, able to control any individual matchup (Siakam’s Game 1 detonation notwithstanding) or take on a less threatening assignment and act as a free safety, using his otherworldly intelligence and anticipation to snuff out threats before they surface.
He hasn’t shot well and has been turnover-prone, but otherwise Green has filled in every conceivable crack for a team sporting an awful lot of them right now. If Durant can’t come back and Klay and Iggy remain limited, Draymond may have to step into the role of Kawhi stopper as the series progresses, and there’s no reason to think he won’t excel there as well. As Draymond freely admits, his role is vastly different without Durant in the lineup, so there could be some diminishing returns on his play if KD is somehow able to return and resume control of the offense. Until such a time, however, we are witnessing one of the all-time playoff glue guy performances. And Steve Kerr hasn’t even deployed him at center yet.
This thing is nip-and-tuck, and it’s probably going deep. After dropping the hammer on Cleveland in the last two Finals and a relative cakewalk through the West this year, it appears Golden State, regardless of how many injuries have been required, finally has a worthy adversary in Toronto. Even if they let Game 2 get away from them and Kawhi’s hardware isn’t going to be fully operational the rest of the way, the Raptors’ defense, collective basketball IQ, ball movement, and shot-making should keep them in nearly every game with the champs. Obviously, the complexion of the series totally changes if Durant is able to come back and be effective. The long layoffs between games boost the chances he returns at some point; if you’re reading this on Wednesday, a potential Game 7 is still an absurd eleven days away. Between now and then, we’re set to see the strategic and rotational adjustments of two tremendously bright coaches, a ton of tight, aggressive defense, and probably some crazy shots and bounces which will send the series off in a direction none of us anticipated. As another famous denizen of Jurassic Park once said:
Top Photo Credit: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP