SAN FRANCISCO — You have to say this about watching the Golden State Warriors play basketball: it’s fun as hell.
The ball moves. Cuts are made. Passes fly and shots go down. Even after all these years and even with the Warriors in the midst of a strangely blah season — by their elite standards — they can still play the game beautifully and in the most entertaining way possible.
Of course, fun is a relative thing. The Toronto Raptors would surely have been happy to play a grind-it-out, muck-it-up game at the Chase Center on Friday night, put everyone to sleep and win the contest. A highly entertaining loss is still just that in the standings.
The Raptors got a full taste of the Warriors experience — the full volume crowd and the dizzying ball and player movement. Toronto answered with some impressive shot-making of their own.
The Raptors were in the game until the final minutes. But the Warriors eventually cracked them, fittingly with a flurry of assisted baskets from all corners of the floor before Steph Curry split the defence and kept it all the way to the rim to put the Warriors up 10 with 1:17 to play in what ended up being a 129-117 win.
How Warriors were the Warriors? Well, maybe seeing their 2018-19 Finals opponents (the Raptors will always have that) brought out their best as Golden State finished with an astounding 40 assists on 50 made baskets while shooting 55.6 per cent from the floor. It was the Warriors’ season-high assist total and the second-highest in the NBA this year. The Raptors had just 24 assists on their 46 made shots on 45.5 per cent shooting. Not bad numbers, but the Warriors’ were elite.
Early on the Warriors were finding teammates cutting to the rim, later it was for wide-open threes. The Warriors made 18-of-43 threes — after starting 6-of-22 — to the Raptors’ 12-of-33.
The Warriors outscored the Raptors 20-12 in the final six minutes to break open a two-point game and at one point scored six straight assisted baskets.
“The level and quantity of shooter and the speed that they run and cut, no one else [in the league] has that when they’re rolling,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after the game.
The Raptors got 28 points and 10 assists from Fred VanVleet and 24 points and five assists from Scottie Barnes. Precious Achiuwa had 17 points and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes off the bench. He’s now scored in double figures in nine of his past 10 games and six straight in the strongest run of play of his career.
Curry led the Warriors with 35 points on 13-of-21 shooting while adding 11 assists. Klay Thompson had 29 points and was 6-of-14 from deep and Donte DiVincenzo chipped in with 13 points and a career-high 11 assists off the bench for the Dubs.
The biggest loss of the night may have come early in the second quarter when Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby left the game with a sprained left wrist.
The big wing drove hard to his right and tried to dunk on JaMychal Green, who fouled him at the peak of his jump and sent Anunoby crashing to the wood. He tried to break his fall with his left arm. Anunoby stayed in the game to shoot his free throws – he’s right-handed – but was clearly favouring his left hand and was subbed out after making 1-of-2. He was later ruled out for the night with a sprained wrist — X-rays were negative — and will get additional testing on Saturday. How injured he is and how long he’s out could have an impact on the Raptors’ chances of making a playoff push and potentially the NBA trade market if they decide to go that route, with Anunoby featured prominently in trade speculation league wide.
The Raptors fell to 22-28 with the loss and are in 12th place in the East. The Warriors improved to 25-24 and are seventh in the West.
The defending champions haven’t exactly come out with all cylinders firing in defence of their fourth NBA title in eight years. Before tipping off against the Raptors, Golden State was at .500. From their pre-season drama with Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole to injuries to some stretches of indifferent play, it’s mostly been on merit.
“I think we’re 16th in offensive rating and 14th in defensive rating, and that averages out to 15th. There are 30 teams in the league. I did the math. It turned out we’re just average,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, joking but not really. “We just haven’t been able to string together a really good stretch of two-way basketball. That’s the biggest thing. We’re either struggling offensively or defensively, and one’s affecting the other. I think that’s the key for any good team, to be a team that is connected, to where your defence is leading to good transition for yourself and where your offence — taking care of the ball, executing — is leading to good defence and fewer easy opportunities for your opponent. And we just haven’t been able to do that consistently.”
All of that said, they remain the Warriors. Curry is still Curry. Thompson is beginning to return to his career averages — he’s shooting 39 per cent from three on 10 attempts a game — after two missed seasons due to injury and Draymond Green remains the best passing big man this side of Nikola Jokic. They can dominate the game from the three-point line, and the threat just opens up the back side of the defence for an endless array of back cuts and misdirection plays.
The Raptors could see it coming.
“Their layups, cuts, dunks, passes, assists — all those are really high and super-high percentage shots,” said Nurse before the game. “So there’s a lot of speed to deal with up the floor, and then the pace and in the half court.”
But knowing it’s coming and doing something about it are different things.
In the first half, the Raptors were helpless against the Warriors’ sharp cuts and quick passes. Golden State had 24 points in the paint in the first quarter, scoring on 12-of-15 attempts and 38 for the half on 19-of-25 shooting. Add in that they had 21 assists on 26 made field goals and you get the picture.
“When you move the ball and you cut, you’re going to get some openings, especially with the type of pressure they put on the perimeter,” said Kerr afterwards. “They’re not a huge shot-blocking team. They’re more of a steals team, a forced turnover team, but if you can execute and get the ball into the paint, there are openings there.”
If it wasn’t Green finding a cutting Curry, it was Curry finding a rolling Green. They combined for 10 assists in the first 24 minutes. More than once, just the possibility of the Warriors’ movement had the Raptors flat-footed and confused, which led to Thompson — no one’s idea of a speedster at this stage of his career — taking the ball unmolested to the rim for lay-ups. The only thing missing from the Warriors’ attack was their three-point shooting as they were just 6-of-22 in the first half.
“I mean, you definitely got to give them credit and respect the game, respect the opponent. They’re defending champion for a reason and one of the best teams in the league again,” said VanVleet. “But that being said, we didn’t make it as hard on them as we needed to and this is certainly not the team you want to make a bunch of mistakes against, defensively. We just made them at the wrong times.”
The Raptors — with VanVleet leading the way — at least had their long-range shooting going as they were five-of-seven from deep in the first quarter, with the point guard making all three of his looks. The visitors also tried to take advantage of their size at times, with Barnes especially looking to drive the ball into deep post-ups and find passes if the help came. He scored seven points in first quarter and looked like a more athletic version of Green when he drove the lane out of a pick-and-roll and found a cutting Achiuwa for an alley-oop.
The Raptors led 36-34 after the first quarter and opened up a little bit of daylight early in second quarter, going up seven on a Barnes step-back three. But the Warriors subbed their starters back in and were able to reverse the momentum on the strength of a pair of threes by Thompson and fastbreak lay-up by Curry that put the home side up four before going into halftime leading 63-62.
On the bright side, Achiuwa looks perfectly ready to soak up all the minutes he can get. He benefitted against Sacramento when Anunoby had to leave the game after being poked in the eye and gave the Raptors a huge lift in the third on Friday after Anunoby went down. Achiuwa had eight points and four rebounds in the third and was already at 14 points and 11 rebounds through 24 minutes to start the fourth quarter. It was back-and-forth for the entire period before threes by Curry and Jonathan Kuminga — sandwiching and nice lay-up on a cut by Achiuwa — put the Warriors up 98-94 to start the fourth quarter.
From there, the Warriors kept doing what they do best, and the Raptors fell short, as many teams have before when Golden State is at its best.
The Raptors’ road odyssey continues. They flew out after the game for Portland where they will play the Trail Blazers in their third game in four nights to open a season-long, seven-game road trip.
The fun is only beginning.