Raptors find no answers for uniquely unsolvable problems Warriors present

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, is defended by Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

What to do about a team like the Golden State Warriors, and a player like Stephen Curry?

Once again that’s the brain tease that’s folding NBA coaching staffs inside on themselves. After a couple of seasons’ respite when Curry was hurt or the Warriors as a group weren’t quite as potent as they had been in their dynasty years, it’s like old times again.

Curry is the most dangerous offensive force in the game and the Warriors are playing at another level than the rest of the league on both sides of the ball, reminiscent of their 2014-15 season when they led the NBA in scoring, had the league’s best defence, and Curry won his first MVP award.

The Toronto Raptors‘ solution to a problem that’s almost never been solved?

Take Fred VanVleet, park him in Curry’s lap and never leave. And then pay Curry some more attention. It worked well during the NBA Finals in 2019, when the Raptors were able to at least slow Curry down on their way to the NBA title – the most glaring example of how the Raptors have been able to thwart, limit or nullify some the league’s top offensive threats over the years.

But one of the reasons the Warriors are so good again this year is not only because Curry is having another MVP-level season, but also because the amount of attention he generates with his off-ball movement draws eyes and bodies and creates room for the rest of Curry’s teammates.

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The Raptors won the game within the game on Sunday night at the Chase Center in San Francisco. VanVleet made his case for all-defence recognition by staying closer to Curry than after-shave lotion. Everywhere the two-time MVP went, VanVleet followed. Curry was held to a season-low 2-of-12 shooting.

But the Warriors still won fairly easily, as the 119-104 result suggests. Sure, Curry shot 1-of-6 from deep, but the rest of the Warriors were 21-of-39. Even if Curry didn’t put up big numbers, everyone benefited from his presence, and having Draymond Green (10 assists) to orchestrate things when Curry doesn’t have the ball helps too.

Andrew Wiggins had 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting and went 6-of-8 from deep, while Jordan Poole had 33 points while going 8-of-11 from deep. Curry made their lives easier, even while VanVleet was making Curry’s difficult.

“Normally I’d say, ‘Jeez, we didn’t plan on those guys coming in and making those shots,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “But I think they were just too open. Guys that were hot were getting too many … [but] they certainly benefit from [Curry]. Not only him, but Green. He’s firing it all over the place once he touches it, giving them on-target passes. He’s coming down and looking one way and zipping it the other.”

The impact Curry can have without scoring was evident in the game’s deciding moments.

A pair of VanVleet triples mid-way through the fourth quarter pulled the Raptors to within 10 points with 7:16 to play. There was some reason for hope.

But the Warriors responded immediately with an 8-0 run that had Curry’s fingerprints all over it, even if he never took a shot. A faked dribble hand-off with Green moved the Raptors’ defence just enough that Poole had a wide-open look from three that he cashed. Then Curry drove the lane, gave up the ball and set a screen for Otto Porter (5-of-9 from three) for another three. Finally, Curry simply ran the lane hard on the break, before peeling hard to the corner with VanVleet in tow. Wiggins attacked the vacated space and scored an easy lay-up.

The box score says Curry had an off night – and he did, buy the standards of someone who averages 29 points a game. But is there any chance Wiggins goes off without Curry sucking up so much attention?

The answer is no.

“They’re a really difficult team to defend, they have so much firepower,” said Raptors centre Precious Achiuwa, who had 12 points and eight rebounds off the bench. “You’re paying a lot of [attention to] Steph and Draymond and they just have guys that can make the plays. Everybody down their roster can come in and make plays and make shots and that’s the game right there. Once you take out one guy then the other guy starts hitting shots, it’s gonna be a tough game. I think we did a good job defensively but when they start hitting shots like that, everyone starts hitting shots it’s tough to defend.”

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after shooting a 3-point basket against the Toronto Raptors during the first half. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Meanwhile the Raptors struggled to score effectively for long stretches. Their fourth-quarter flurry aside, the Warriors and their league-leading defence held the Raptors to 39 per cent shooting, though their 17 offensive rebounds helped take the edge off that.

The challenge of selling out on Curry became evident in the first quarter. Instead of the NBA’s leading scorer doing damage it was Wiggins and Poole.

A perfect example: Curry runs baseline with all eyes on him, but instead of flashing for the ball he stops short and sets a back screen on Gary Trent Jr., who is guarding Wiggins. Wiggins cuts to the basket, both Wiggins and Trent Jr. watch Curry and Wiggins gets a lay-up.

Or Curry runs laps around the half-court, all the Raptors getting pulled into his orbit, until the ball gets swung to weak side and Wiggins is wide open for a three.

Or the Raptors extend their defence after a made basket, in part to deny Curry, only to have the ball rocket 90 feet in three passes and fewer seconds, finding a wide-open Wiggins in the corner for another three. The former No.1 overall pick from Vaughan, Ont., had 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting in his first eight minutes on the floor, while Poole had 10 on 3-of-4 shooting and the Warriors led 36-24.

Curry? He had six on 1-of-4 shooting, but two assists and no worries. It’s not like the Warriors haven’t seen this before. They’ve seen everything.

Part of the reason for why the Warriors don’t stress too much when teams put everything into slowing down Curry is that, even if it works, their secret – or at least less heralded – weapon is their defence.

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You know the way the Raptors want to have five guys on the floor who can guard multiple positions and switch any action, thus keeping the ball stalled on the perimeter for long chunks of the shot clock?

The Warriors want to do that too, only they are more accomplished at it. It helps to have Green laying back, anticipating an opponent’s every play, but the Warriors aren’t just a pretty basketball team.

They’re smart, and they compete.

So many Raptors possessions in the early going looked the same: the ball would get advanced to into the front court and Toronto would begin moving bodies and the ball to get the Warriors to bite, over-commit or maybe get caught napping. Most of the time, it didn’t happen. The Warriors would switch, keep the ball in front and the Raptors would come to a standstill until the last quarter of the 24-second shot clock would be used to play one-on-one against a set, balanced defence. The Raptors shot 37 per cent in the first half and generated just 10 assists on 17 made field goals.

Curry had just six points in the first half on 1-of-6 shooting, but the Warriors led 61-47 regardless.

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse reacts during the second half of his team’s NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

And by the way, following Curry all over the floor is as demanding as it gets. VanVleet is the hub of the Raptors offence too, and it has to take something out of his legs to put all that effort in on defence. Then he would turn around and have to find his way around the six-foot-eight Wiggins or the occasional trap with Green. The Raptors’ second-leading scorer had just four points on 1-of-6 shooting at the half himself on his way to 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting – an off-night for him. Pascal Siakam led the Raptors with 21 points on 8-of-17 from the floor.

The second half started similarly to the first. Wiggins hit a pair of early threes – one assisted by Curry and another when Curry was playing decoy. Curry then found Kevon Looney at the rim after the Raptors trapped Curry off a screen. A lovely back cut and a surgical bounce pass by Green gave Wiggins 25 points for the night and a 19-point lead midway through the third.

If there was a bright spot at that point it was that Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes – who hasn’t had his early season spark the last few games – stepped into and made a pair of threes in the third quarter, something the Raptors coaching staff has been encouraging him to do recently. Those baskets, and threes by VanVleet and Chris Boucher, kept Toronto within sight of the Warriors at least, trailing 92-77. Barnes finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds on 3-of-11 shooting.

The loss dropped Toronto to 8-10 on the season and 1-3 on their lengthy road trip as the Warriors improved to 15-2, the best record in the NBA.

Next stop for Toronto is Memphis on Wednesday before they head to Indiana on Friday.

Both teams will present their challenges, but neither like the ones Curry and the Warriors do. They are unique, and they are back.

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