Heading into these 2019 Finals, very few people backed the Toronto Raptors to dethrone the Golden State Warriors en route to their first NBA title. But after a thrilling Game 1 that saw the underdog strike the first blow, public opinion may just have shifted slightly.
In their inaugural Finals appearance, the Raptors looked unphased, using a combination of stifling defense and intelligent, well executed offense to make their storied opponents look decidedly average on Thursday night.
That’s no mean feat, given that the Warriors possess the best backcourt in the NBA, perhaps its most versatile forwards in Draymond Green, and a solid supporting cast that’s already won multiple rings. What they don’t have though is quite the same level of depth they’ve had in previous years, or Kevin Durant. His absence was undoubtedly telling in Game 1, but to attribute the outcome solely to the fact that he didn’t play is to do the Raptors a great disservice.
They, after all, entered this postseason with a reputation for bottling it when it matters – something they instantly reinforced by losing the first game of their opening round series against the Orlando Magic (sorry, but I had to reference that!). Entering Thursday’s game, they were a measly 3-15 in Game 1s, dating back to their very first playoff appearance in 2000. But you wouldn’t have known it, given how confidently they played.
In fact, anyone watching their first NBA game would have probably assumed that the Raptors were the perennial champs, so impressive was their performance.
Looking at the numbers doesn’t reveal a great deal (the Raptors shot over 50 percent from the field and committed fewer turnovers), but the manner in which they approached this game in front of a fervent home crowd tells us everything we need to know about the culture shift this franchise has undergone since acquiring Kawhi Leonard and how far it has grown throughout the postseason.
Leonard had a fairly quiet outing by his standards (23 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists), doubled and occasionally tripled as he was nearly every time he got the ball. But while the Warriors swarmed all over him, trapping him every time he came off a screen, Pascal Siakam stepped into a starring role (becoming just the 7th player in NBA Finals history to score 30+ points on 80+ field goal percentage). Additionally, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Danny Green all helped keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Head coach Nick Nurse clearly knew what to expect from the Warriors defensively, as his team adjusted adeptly (something they’ve done well throughout this postseason). Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in how the Raptors overcame the trap, as explained on NBA TV here:
— NBA TV (@NBATV) June 1, 2019
On the other end of the floor, VanVleet was quietly exceptional. Per the regular season, he drew the toughest assignment of the night: guarding Stephen Curry. And as per the regular season, he did an excellent job, something Rodger Sherman illustrates in his homage to the ‘Playoff God’ in his latest piece for The Ringer: “Curry played 80 offensive possessions Thursday night,” he writes. “On the 47 possessions when other Raptors guarded him, he had 30 points while shooting 7-for-12 from the field and 4-for-6 from 3. On the 33 possessions VanVleet guarded him, he had four while shooting 1-for-6 from the field, missing all three 3s he attempted.”
As he points out, VanVleet is such a tough matchup for Curry because he’s quick enough to keep up and tracks him like a shadow on every single defensive possession, fighting through screens like few other guards can. This makes it tough for Curry to create the space he needs to knock down shots and in turn gives the Raptors a notable competitive advantage.
Speaking of competitive advantages, the Raptors bigs gave them a huge one on Thursday. Siakam and Gasol in particular, as they combined for 52 points while helping limit the Warriors to just 32 points in the paint. While they’re unlikely to play this well consistently throughout the series, between them they have the two-way talents to limit the effectiveness of the Warriors small ball approach, forcing their opponents to keep either Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney or DeMarcus Cousins on the floor at all times to try and limit their offensive output.
WARRIORS LEFT WANTING
Coming off a 9-day break, the Warriors struggled to establish a flow in Game 1. Their offense wasn’t as fluid as we’ve come to expect it to be, while their defense was lacklustre and occasionally non-existent. Early on, it became apparent that they’d set up to stop Kawhi, forcing his teammates to try and beat them. And they obliged by knocking down open shots, or by getting into the paint while the Warriors were left wanting.
In his postgame presser, Steve Kerr referred to the open looks the Warriors gave up as ‘dare shots’, giving the Raptors plenty of credit for knocking them down. On the face of it, the set up seemed risky, particularly as the Raptors ended up shooting 50.7 percent from the field.
But, as Shane Young pointed out on Twitter, the number of contested shots the two teams took was actually quite similar; Toronto just did a better job of making theirs:
Contested shots in Game 1:
Warriors — 15/36 (41.7%)
Raptors — 20/32 (62.5%)
Warriors — 19/42 (45.2%)
Raptors — 19/45 (42.2%)
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) June 1, 2019
The real issue for the Warriors was turnovers, as they committed 17 in total, resulting in 17 Raptors points, 24 total in transition. Despite this carelessness, the Warriors actually made the Raptors work for most of their points. This is something John Schuhmann illustrated in a Tweet in which he said that the ‘Warriors forced TOR to take 23 FGA in the *last* six seconds of the shot clock’. But the problem, as he pointed out, was that ‘TOR shot an amazing 15-for-23 (5-for-9 from 3) on those shots’.
No doubt the Warriors can console themselves with the fact that they will work to take better care of the ball in Game 2, thus giving fewer fastbreak opportunities to the Raptors. Speaking generally, they will also need to work that little bit harder on defense too. The likelihood is that Toronto won’t shoot the ball anywhere near as well as they did in Game 1, but by rotating more effectively and reducing the number of ‘dare shots’ they allow the Raptors to take, they should give themselves a far better chance of levelling the series.
The other problem they face, weirdly, is scoring. Despite VanVleet’s valiant effort to contain him, Curry put up a respectable 32 points, but the rest of Warriors starters combined for just 39 in total. Without Kevin Durant, who is set to miss Game 2, the Warriors are going to need to get other guys going. Klay Thompson can certainly do more than he did on Thursday, but quite where the other improvements come from is uncertain. The most likely options are Green, Andre Iguodala (whose fitness is questionable after he was hobbled near the end of Game 1) and Cousins, who we know is working his way back from injury. The rest of the roster seems incapable of putting up big numers highlighting the importance of their #strengthinnumbers approach and the need for Durant to get back on the court as soon as possible.
ON TO THE NEXT ONE
As Stephen Curry rightly pointed out to the media: “One game doesn’t define a series”.
The Raptors did what the team with home court advantage is supposed to do in Game 1: win. But if this is to be the year that they succeed in winning their first ever NBA title, you feel they’ll need to take Game 2 as well. If they don’t and go out on the road with the series tied, there’s a very good chance that they’ll find themselves trailing by the time it swings back to Toronto for Game 5.
They should be feeling good about what they achieved on Thursday, but they’re playing the best team in basketball and will need to apply themselves just as well over however many games this series produces if they’re to come out on top.
Bring on Game 2.
Feature photo – Toronto Raptors via Twitter / Getty Images / Frank Gunn / Canadian Press / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington