The 2019 NBA Finals have been excellent and with Games 3 and 4 in Oakland now taking center stage, the Golden State Warriors are in a position to win both games at home and take control of the series.
However, the Toronto Raptors won’t exactly go down without a fight – especially if Game 1 and 2 are anything to go by. They know better than anyone that tonight’s Game 3 is monumental for a team wishing to win the series, as according to NBA.com/stats, 81.6% of the time the winner of Game 3 wins it all.
So, ahead of Game 3 tonight, here are some of things the Raptors need in order to take a 2-1 series lead.
Maintaining focus in the heat of the moment
It seems like an obvious point to make, but the Raptors loss of focus in Game 2, especially during the third quarter, cost them the game and with it, the momentum of the series. And whilst all credit should be given to the Warriors for finding themselves, an 18-0 run simply shouldn’t happen on the games biggest stage.
The North had that game in the palm of their hands before the break, but the intensity with which they had entered the game was not to last, and like so many teams before them, the Raptors lost focus against a more engaged team. They simply weren’t ready for the overwhelming offensive onslaught which the Warriors used to get back into the game.
Now, they know what happens if they lose focus: if they go cold and miss multiple shots in a row. Now, they’ll adjust – just as they have done this entire postseason.
Tonight, Toronto must execute before the break and after it. They must lean upon their veteran talents and weather the storm, using whatever means necessary to find a basket. And if that means dumping the ball off to Kawhi Leonard, so he can drive to the rim and draw fouls, so be it. If that means using Marc Gasol as a traditional back-to-the-basket center, so be it. If that means using Pascal Siakam as a primary ball handler so that your superstar gets a mismatch under the rim, so be it.
It doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be smart, because in the Oracle Arena the consequences of playing to the moment are, more often than not, fatal.
Pascal Siakam shouldn’t shy away from what he does best, running wild
Siakam has been a surprise package this season and in Game 1 of the Finals he showed everyone exactly why he’s been so highly praised this year, as he took advantage of the Warriors double and triple teaming Kawhi on-the-catch, by posting one of the most efficient scoring games in Finals history – 32 points on 14-17 shooting.
Now, whilst no one expected Siakam to repeat his epic 32 point performance, going 5-for-18 in Game 2 is a tad worrying. A key contributing factor to the drop-off was undoubtedly the increased defensive attention the Warriors gave him, but perhaps more critcally, it was his inability to impact the game in transition and make the correct play in the halfcourt that truly hampered his performance.
He needs to make better decisions in the halfcourt, especially against this team.
In order for him to impact Game 3 he needs to cut to the rim more often, use his length to gain an advantage over his opponents and never stand still. He must play with a purpose and with the Warriors roster still missing Kevin Durant, Toronto needs him to run a little wild and bring a little unknown factor into the series.
Perhaps Toronto head coach Nick Nurse could play Siakam at the five, which would kind of do for the Raptors what Draymond Green does for the Warriors – force the situation and let Siakam thrive with the ball in his hands at the top of the key. At least then he’d have a mismatch defensively in DeMarcus Cousins. By forcing Cousins to defend someone with more skills on the perimeter, maybe Toronto can find itself on offense, especially if things start to slow down once again.
Marc Gasol must be a factor on both ends
Marc Gasol has played a catalytic role throughout the postseason and these Finals have been no different. Through their first 20 games this postseason, the Raptors are 8-1 when he scores 9 or more points, but just 5-6 when he scores anything less. He was a huge reason the Raptors won Game 1, and a huge reason why they lost Game 2.
In Game 1 he was a defensive mastermind. He didn’t overreact to the Warriors off-ball cuts, instead choosing to remain disciplined in his anchoring role – taking away the one thing the Warriors thrive on, space. He facilitated from the top of the key and not once appeared to be affected by Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell’s defense – whether he was defending in the post or taken out to the perimeter.
He hit big shots and made himself relevant on both ends of the court, as seen below.
Here you see Gasol set a good screen, which forces Stephen Curry to switch onto him. He doesn’t get impatient and knows his team recognises the mismatch, and when he finally gets the ball, there’s no hesitation in his shot.
Game 2 was a little different. Gone was the facilitator – smothered by a combination of physical defense from Andrew Bogut and the resurgence of Cousins – and gone was the defensive blitz package he had unleash to such a high impact in Game 1. Gasol effectively disappeared that night. He cannot do that again.
If Gasol from Game 1 shows up tonight, expect him to move the ball, play strong defense and take the open shots that are there for him. Look for him to play a critical role in stopping whoever is playing center for the Warriors and expect him to double team Klay Thompson and blitz Curry on the pick-and-roll. It is worth noting that Golden State big man Kevon Looney is out for the series, which should make life easier for the Spaniard in the paint, but that will mean Cousins plays 20-30 minutes.
Both of the above = winning
If Gasol and Siakam have good games, the Raptors tend to win. They did in the regular season and they have done in the postseason.
In Game 1, when they combined for 52 points on 20-27 shooting (including 4-7 from beyond the arc), they won.
In Game 2, when they combined for just 18 points on 7-25 FG (0-5 from deep), they lost.
It’s that simple.
These two bigs, in 2019, could define Game 3 and the outcome of this series.
Game 3 of the NBA Finals takes place tonight / Thursday morning (2am). You can catch it live on Sky Sports and NBA League Pass.
Feature photo – Toronto Star / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington