Toronto’s Defense Proved Itself (Again) in Game 1

It was a true team effort for the Toronto Raptors during their Game 1 win over the Golden State Warriors.

On a night when Kawhi Leonard wasn’t quite himself—though he still had a very good showing with 23 points on 20 shooting possessions—the rest of the Raptors elevated their games and kept the Warriors at bay for long stretches of the second half before walking away with a 118-109 victory.

On both ends of the floor, Toronto executed in the halfcourt, holding down the Warriors’ beautiful attack defensively and scraping together enough buckets to boost their offensive output well ahead of what Golden State was able to do in the same situations.

As it was against Milwaukee, Toronto’s halfcourt defense was terrific on Thursday night. Golden State scored 83.9 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt for the full game, an extremely good mark for the Raptors, especially against this Warriors team.

Golden State figured some things out in the second half, as their halftime halfcourt offensive rating was a very dismal 57.8. Yet, Nick Nurse and his coaching staff had their Raptors extremely well-prepared for the matchup with the two-time defending champions.

The help came from the right spots and there were rarely communication mistakes when guarding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson—the Warriors’ only true outside threats in most lineups.

May 30, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) drives to the basket against Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka (9) during the second quarter in game one of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green were given free rein to spend as much time outside the three-point line as they liked; Toronto was going to pay them no mind and hope they shot as often as their hearts desired.

Even when Green, in particular, did catch the ball on the perimeter, his defender wasn’t even closing out to him. Instead, he was closing out to the space right next to Green, where Curry or Thompson was going to appear after Green’s favored quick dribble handoff (DHO) in spot-up situations.

The Warriors were able to burn the Raptors a few times with fake DHOs, but that strategy worked in the aggregate.

All that help manifested itself in two key advantages for the Raptors: turnovers and Golden State’s finishing. Toronto’s roster features one strong defender after the next, and their collective length was on full display, harassing Warriors ball handlers all over the court to the tune of 16 turnovers.

Golden State’s four best distributors combined for 13 of those 16 as the Raptors had their hands in passing lanes, deflecting at the point of origin, and speeding up the Warriors offense in a way the champions haven’t seen since last year’s Western Conference Finals series against the Houston Rockets.

Toronto had Golden State’s pick-and-roll attack locked up for large swaths of time in Game 1, leading to a number of mistakes. Curry was tagged for all three of his turnovers in pick-and-roll, with Marc Gasol proving himself quite capable of putting Curry off his game in ball-screen actions:

The Warriors didn’t have a ton of trouble getting to the rim, but their finishing was subpar when they did.

Gasol’s length and the sheer number of defenders in the painted area on nearly every drive bothered Golden State into 15-for-25 shooting at the rim, while Toronto hit 16 of its 21 attempts on the other end while also drawing three more fouls than the visitors. Green struggled from the field, shooting 2-for-9 while not holding up very well at the rim against Gasol and others.

He also committed six turnovers and five fouls on his way to an uncharacteristically poor performance.

There were positives for the Warriors, however: They cut the Toronto lead to just 3 points early in the fourth quarter before a Raptors run put things back out of touch. Leonard had his own issues from the field, though he was able to add 10-for-12 free throws to salvage his relatively poor shooting night.

He wasn’t particularly explosive, mirroring a lot of what we saw in the Milwaukee series last round after he came up limping and played through tendinitis. The lack of vertical explosiveness hurt him in the paint, where he finished just 2-for-5.

Leonard also had some hit-and-miss moments in pick-and-roll, where he mostly operated with Gasol.

May 30, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (5) during the fourth quarter in game one of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Golden State switched the first Leonard-Gasol ball screen, but went to a hard trap after that, throwing two guys at Leonard and relying on their communication and collective intelligence to hold up behind the play.

A few times, Leonard was able to find Gasol on the short roll, where he was able to put his strong playmaking skills to good use and carve up the Warriors defense. But when he was forced to go elsewhere with the ball, passes were either floating ducks that gave Golden State time to fully recover or never came at all, stalling out the Raptors’ attack and forcing them into late-clock madness.

Perhaps the largest takeaway from Game 1 was just how much the Warriors do, in fact, miss Kevin Durant’s offensive contributions against high-end defenses.

As great as Curry is within the Warriors’ beautiful game, the spacing just isn’t there without Durant on the floor and Golden State’s safety valve is no longer in place. Curry is perhaps the most devastating offensive force in NBA history. But when he can’t get the pick-and-roll game working with Green or isn’t finding space with his off-ball movement, Golden State could previously dump the ball to Durant and let him go to work, knowing that even a fallaway mid-range jumper has a decent chance of going in because of his unreal combination of height, length, and skill.

Having that sort of offensive floor is important to Golden State and would have been a steadying force for a halfcourt offense that significantly underperformed against an incredible Raptors defense.

Adjustments and adjustments to those adjustments are forthcoming from both sides, as there were areas each team can clean up in order to give themselves a better chance to win. But with Game 1 in the books, Toronto can be confident that its defensive strategies and personnel are strong enough to make things extremely difficult for a Golden State team that doesn’t often see its own offense bottled up to this degree.

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