TORONTO – So that’s it then?
The Golden State Warriors — the swaggering, three-peat chasing, Splash Brothers having, five straight Finals-going Golden State Warriors show up in your building for the first NBA Finals ever played outside the United States and you beat them like it was a Wednesday night in December (when the Raptors blew out the Warriors at Oracle Arena, but whatevs)?
It seemed improbable or too good to be true – at least according to Vegas oddsmakers who had the Raptors as full-blown underdogs against the two-time defending champions.
But that’s what happened in the Toronto Raptors 118-109 win at an energized Scotiabank Arena that picked up mid-roar from where the crowd left off after clinching their Finals berth with a win over the Milwaukee Bucks last Saturday.
But it can’t really be that easy, can it? These are the Warriors. They are going for their fourth championship in five years. The Raptors are a team thrown together in stages over the past 11 months playing only their 19th playoff game together. And yet it was the Raptors who won three of the four quarters; who got a range of secondary contributions and who, frankly, seemed more prepared for the task at hand.
It could be the Warriors took the Raptors lightly.
Check that, the Warriors did take the Raptors lightly. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr made it sound like the Raptors were playing in the EuroLeague rather than the NBA – these Eastern Conference teams are so exotic.
“I think that the biggest thing coming in is we really didn’t feel like we knew this team very well,” said Kerr. “Obviously we only play them two times a year, and this year’s team is different with Kawhi, and the two meetings that we had with them a lot of guys were missing, including Kawhi in Oakland. He didn’t play. And then I think Steph missed the game up here. Other guys were missing. So it’s going to be really good for us to have a game on tape where we can really pick it apart and see what we can do better.”
It’s like after four years of playing Cleveland in the NBA Finals, the Warriors are only now realizing they might have to do some homework.
“We got some tape now,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson. “And we’ll go to the drawing board and we’ll come back and be much better on Sunday.”
See? They have some game tape …. now? Sure the Raptors have turned over their roster since Toronto beat Golden State twice earlier in the season, but the Warriors somehow didn’t have access to any of the games the Raptors played against the Orlando Magic, or Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks?
It seemed that way because the Warriors gameplan appeared to be make life difficult for Kawhi Leonard – they had obviously heard of him because he used to play in the Western Conference – and then hope none of the other NBA players on the roster of the Eastern Conference champions would hurt them.
They handled Leonard well enough – he’s at the point now where 23 points on 14 shots in 43 minutes is kind of ho-hum.
But bad news for the Warriors: a lot of guys were ready to put the boots to them, starting with Pascal Siakam who made his Finals debut by scoring 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. For the first time in weeks he was able to sprint out and finish in transition. Next in line was Marc Gasol who scored 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting including 2-of-4 from deep, all of which were wide open. Then there was Fred VanVleet who scored 15 off the bench on eight shots. It helped too that Danny Green broke out of his ice-cold slump with three triples on seven attempts.
Those opportunities were there in part because the Raptors paid attention to how the Warriors played in the Western Conference Finals and extrapolated a little bit.
They were prepared.
“Well, if you watched the previous series against Portland they did that [send a second defender] with Damian Lillard and C.J. [McCollum],” said Gasol. “So we assumed that there was a chance they were going to blitz Kawhi. So we were understanding the spacing that we were going to have and what kind of shot was going to be open, what kind of rotations they were going to do. Now, we got to still improve in some areas and spacing and moving out of that, but overall I thought we did a decent job.”
Things could change in a hurry in Game 2, however. The Warriors could try harder, for example. Or wait for Kevin Durant (calf) to come back. But since that’s not settled, it might be better if they tried harder.
“I think we got to do a better job early on,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green, who is supposed to his team’s defensive conscience but wasn’t really. “Like, we gave Siakam a couple wide-open threes. We gave Gasol wide-open threes and like there was no rotation. So you give guys those type of shots they get comfortable and it’s a different beast.
“… We got to fly around a little bit more. And we got to stop them from getting out in transition.”
Said Curry of the open shots the Raptors had and were able to knock down – Toronto shot 50.6 per cent form the floor and 39.4 per cent from three:
“I’m definitely not smiling at [them] and saying, ‘Good job, guys.’ We can do things differently, a little bit better, be more physical on him, be more aware of where they are on the floor.
“Obviously Kawhi’s the nucleus of what they do,” said Curry. “[But] we didn’t rotate well enough and just make them think a little bit more. They’re really comfortable out there, stepping into open threes.”
The Raptors had the energy of their crowd behind them as they didn’t take for granted the experience of hosting their first Finals game. They were loud before the game started — the ‘Let’s Go Raptors’ chants started early and they even mixed in some ‘Paul Pierce Sucks’ chants aimed at the ESPN broadcaster who broke the Raptors hearts in Brooklyn and later Washington. The crowd remained energized as the Raptors jumped out to a 25-21 first quarter lead and 59-49 lead at the half.
“The fans obviously were great, they were loud, they were excited,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think they were into it and that’s the way it should be, man. That’s what home court is, and our fans deserve a bunch of credit for being a big part of that.”
The game was never really broken open, but the Raptors were never really threatened either. The Warriors cut what had been an 11-point lead to three early in the fourth quarter but Toronto responded with a quick 7-0 run to push it back to 10 and coasted from there.
Leonard sniffed out what the Warriors were planning and responded accordingly, having been prepared for the occasion apparently. “We played teams throughout the playoffs that’s playing similar defense, and I guess just learning from the experiences and guys being ready and just keep being aggressive, and make sure I make the right play and don’t try to be a hero out there. Just play basketball, that’s all I do.”
It was all he needed to do. The Warriors came to Toronto and figured that if they stopped Leonard the rest would come easily, or at least it looked that way.
It didn’t work and now the Warriors are trailing 1-0 in the Finals for the first time in five trips and for just the second time in 21 playoff series since their dynastic run began.
It promises to get harder for the Raptors from here, but they at least took care of the easy part. Presumably the Warriors will pay closer attention between now and Game 2, now that they have some game tape, and now that they know they’re in a series.