Heading into these NBA Finals the Golden State Warriors looked dead set to win their third straight title. Even with Kevin Durant sidelined by a calf injury and DeMarcus Cousins rehabbing after a quad tear, the odds seemed to be stacked in their favour.
Now though, with the Toronto Raptors 2-1 up, Durant ruled out for Game 4, Klay Thompson’s fitness in question and Cousins still battling back, things are looking less certain.
Not least because this top heavy team had to play Game 3 with only two fully-fit members of its core. Now, most teams would be delighted to have Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in their starting five, but the Warriors entire system is built around having more.
This is a byproduct of going all in on Durant. And, once the embodiment of their slogan ‘Strength in Numbers’, it became apparent during Wednesday’s Game 2 that this team’s strength no longer resides in depth. They still have plenty of moderately talented role players to call upon, but very few of them truly offer a scoring threat.
Just look at the box score from Game 3. It took something of a superhuman effort from Curry just to keep the Warriors within touching distance in Wednesday night’s affair. He finished with 47 points, while only two of his teammates (Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala) made double figures. As for the other seven players who saw playing time? They combined for just 37 points.
And the lack of potent scoring options was evident throughout Game 3. Possession after possession, Warrior after Warrior passed up decent looks to try and get the ball to Steph. It wasn’t a terrible approach, given Curry’s talent for taking over a game, but in truth the Warriors never really looked likely to win it.
For their fans (hardcore and bandwagon alike), this would have made for unpleasant viewing. After half a decade of dominating the NBA, the team finally looks vulnerable – albeit because of a spate of unfortunate injuries. And while Raptors fans are undoubtedly rubbing their hands together with glee, the neutrals amongst us are (probably) experiencing a sense of disappointment.
This stems from the fact that it wasn’t supposed to play out this way.
Here, after all, is an opponent that, if not for a blip in Game 2, should be out of sight in these Finals by now. And make no mistake, these Raptors are far more capable of giving the Warriors a fair fight than LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers ever were.
This stems largely from the fact that their roster comprises a combination of long, rangy, versatile players who shoot the ball well – much like the Warriors own does. That length translates well on the defensive end too, as the Raptors finished the regular season with a defensive rating of 106.8 – fifth best in the league. That’s improved to 103.6 in the postseason (third best), while they’re registering a rating of 110.5 in the Finals, compared to the Warriors 116.2. Over three games they’ve looked organised and characteristically determined on that end of the floor, chasing Golden State’s shooters off the three point line, while making it difficult for their bigs to get clean looks in the paint.
As the ever reliable Michael Pina of SBNation pointed out in a recent article: “According to subscription stat site Cleaning the Glass, Golden State had only faced a top-five regular-season defense four times in five years before the Raptors. (One of those four was the 2016-17 Spurs, who did not have Kawhi Leonard after the first half of Game 1.) By contrast, Golden State has squared up against 10 teams ranked in the bottom half of regular-season defensive efficiency that season. The Raptors ranked fifth in defensive efficiency this season and third since acquiring Marc Gasol at the trade deadline.”
This was a problem for the Warriors even before they found themselves 2-1 down in the series. And now, banged up as they are, their ability to compete over however many games remains hinges on whether Thompson and Durant can not only battle back from injury, but make a sizeable contribution having done so. And if what we’ve seen from Cousins so far is anything to go by, said contributions (particularly from Durant) are likely to be inconsistent at best.
So what can the Warriors do?
Well, for starters, they can look to get more production from everyone who’s out on the floor with Curry.
It will also make a huge difference if Klay Thompson is able to play in Game 4. This may seem obvious, but simply having the double-headed monster that is a Curry-Klay backcourt on the floor in this series gives the Warriors a chance.
We all know about his three-point shooting (ah, that quick release). And without him, Warriors not named Curry combined for just 6-for-22 shooting from 3-point range in Game 3.
In his absence, the Raptors were in a position to decide whether to try and stop Curry, or to focus on stopping his teammates. They didn’t exactly ignore Steph, but they knew that by limiting the contributions made by the team’s other scoring options on the night they would have enough firepower to prevail. And so it proved.
Add Thompson to the mix and things become a lot more complicated for the Raptors. If only because with him on the floor they have to limit both of the Warriors All-Star shooters as well as the likes of Green, Cousins and Iggy. Having that extra shooter proved invaluable in Game 2, not least because the spacing enabled the Warriors bigs to combine for 36 points. Comparatively, without Klay in Game 3, they managed just 23.
They missed him on the defensive end too, as Klay spent time guarding both Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard over the first two games. Both made substantial offensive contributions in Game 3 (Lowry notched 23 points and nine assists, while Leonard scored 30 points on 17 shots), while the Raptors shot 52 percent from the floor, going 17-for-38 from deep.
Per this video from ESPN, Klay expects to play in Game 4. Assuming he does and his shooting motion and mobility are unaffected by the injury, the Warriors have a very good chance of tying the series ahead of a crucial Game 5.
If they’re able to do that, they will have weathered the toughest storm of this magnificent five-year Finals stretch (losing to Cleveland aside), with the prospect that Kevin Durant returns to help out before the series is done still (just about) intact. It’s far from ideal, but the bottom line is that it’s too early to worry about these Warriors just yet.
Feature photo – Logan Murdock / NBC / CBS SF / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington