'Defense' or 'defence'? However you spell it, Raptors brought it

NBA.com Global on May 31, 2019 06:15 PM
'Defense' or 'defence'? Spelling aside, Raptors brought it
Toronto Raptors logo

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

TORONTO — The Raptors weren’t aided by help from the hyper and chilly residents of Jurassic Park huddled outside Scotiabank Arena, or the entire country of Canada, or a certain courtside rapper who gets fidgety after the ball goes up. It only seemed that way each time one of the Warriors had the ball Thursday (Friday, PHL time) and looked up to see a swarm.

And so the start of The Finals was known for a stop. Plenty of them, actually.

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The two-time defending champs were effectively defended in Game 1 — hounded, pressed, pestered and essentially handled in a way they haven’t seen this postseason. Here in The North they spell it ‘defence’ and the Raptors played it to near perfection in their 118-109 victory, triggering a detectable amount of intrigue to start the series.

“Their defense was great and it wasn’t our night,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They deserved to win and we’ve got to play better if we’re going to beat them. They’re long and athletic, they get after you and they play well together.”

The first peek at the strategies and developments of The Finals were revealing and perhaps dropped hints of what’s to come. The Warriors will force Kawhi Leonard to surrender the ball and take their chances with his teammates. That gamble made sense … and it backfired when Marc Gasol (20 points) hit open jumpers, and especially when Pascal Siakam assumed the Kawhi role, making 14-of-17 shots for 32 points.

“If you watched the previous series against Portland, they did the same with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, so we assumed there was a chance they were going to blitz Kawhi,” said Gasol.

It was a matter of players assuming larger roles and coming through for Toronto. But will Gasol, timid through much of the postseason, stay this aggressive and effective? And can Siakam, a late bloomer from Cameroon who had a breakout season, keep having this level of success against Draymond Green, the self-proclaimed Greatest Defensive Player Of All Time?

Instead, what could determine the outcome is Toronto’s ability to keep the Warriors, and especially Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, from causing damage. Because the Raptors fully know that Curry and Thompson, racing off screens and constantly being fed by their teammates, represent the engine of the offense and that Kevin Durant isn’t expected to suit up before Game 3 at the earliest — if at all.

Outside of that splashy backcourt, which combined for the quietest 55 points you ever saw, what or who else can the Warriors rely on to take control of the series? Certainly none of that was apparent in Game 1, mainly because the Raptors made sure of that.

This sense of scoring vulnerability minus Durant didn’t cause the Warriors any grief in their final game against the Rockets in the second round or at any point against the Blazers. But those teams don’t offer the same level of resistance as Toronto, and that could make all the difference.

“They’ve got a lot of versatility,” Kerr said. “I think they’re actually a lot like our team. They can switch and guard different positions. So they did a really good job.”

The Warriors were frazzled. For much of the game, they shot 40 percent. They coughed up 17 turnovers, which cost them 17 points, mostly on fast breaks where Siakam flourished as a finisher. While the Warriors trailed by 17 twice and 18 once in the Western Conference finals, the Raptors never allowed them to scrap back into the game, never eased up defensively, never became victims of the kind of Warriors’ harsh responses and blizzard runs that steal the soul of opposing teams.

“You’ve got to continue to play defense throughout the game,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, “even when you’re trying really hard and they will come down and make you look silly.”

Kawhi is an aggressive and pressing man-to-man defender who can shut down bigger players and quicker players, but he isn’t the only Raptor who brings impressive defensive credentials. Gasol was voted the league’s top defender in 2013 and hasn’t forgotten much since. He caused shots to be diverted or bypassed when various Warriors ventured into the paint and came up with a pair of steals.

Siakam is rubbery and long and uses that reach to block shots; he had two. Fred VanVleet has the toughest assignment — Curry is his main concern — and made a two-time MVP work up a sweat. And there’s Danny Green — check the film when he guarded LeBron James in a pair of Finals not long ago — willing and able to slow the roll of most shooters.

What the Raptors did was throw traps for Curry and Thompson but also rotate swiftly enough when others were open as a result. Problem for the Warriors is they didn’t have a “step-up” player in the mold of Gasol or Siakam.

They had Draymond Green, who was sloppy and reckless, with six turnovers along with seven misses in nine shot attempts. Green appeared thrown, totally unlike his dominant showing against the Trail Blazers. Andre Iguodala missed all four of his three-pointers — and all four were wide open — then appeared to re-injure his leg late in the game.

Finally, there was DeMarcus Cousins, playing his first game in two months after resting his injured quad. As expected for someone who only had a few full reps in practice, Cousins was rusty and unsure and struggled with his confidence, forcing the issue a few times and bypassing shots on others in his eight minutes.

All of this played right into the Raptors’ greedy hands and allowed them to take a rare game when neither Leonard or Kyle Lowry, who combined for seven baskets, were big factors. In that sense, this was sort of a bonus win.

The Raptors now know who can rise up when Kawhi surrenders the ball. Siakam will either win the Kia Most Improved Player Award this season or come close; he was that much of a revelation after developing into a dependable No. 2 option and stretching his shooting range. What was impressive in Game 1 was his composure on such a big stage.

Green gave a “my bad” reaction for his work on Siakam, which came one day after Green puffed up his own defensive credentials in historic terms. So his timing was faulty, too.

“I’ve got to do a better job of taking his rhythm away,” said Green, “and I will. That’s on me.”

How far has Siakam come from when he was a raw, unknown prospect six years ago from the Basketball Without Borders program? He now has his own logo.

As for the Warriors, this was the first time they missed Durant in earnest.

“It doesn’t matter until he’s out there,” said Kerr. “If he’s not out there, we play with the guys we have, and we have got enough. We’ll see what happens.”

They claim to be unmoved by the opener, even though they’re down 1-0 in The Finals for the first time in the Kerr era. Maybe there are reasons for this: They had a nine-day break and were perhaps rusty; they aren’t too familiar with the Raptors; they just won five straight without Durant; it was just one of those nights.

Curry: “We’ve proven our resiliency and ability to win games we need to. Our confidence remains the same.”

Green: “Now that we’ve got a feel for them, we have a tape to watch. We know what we can do better. I like where we’re at. We leave this game feeling as good as you can possibly feel, knowing that, yeah, we lost, but I think we figured some things out, and we’ll be better next game.”

Yet maybe the Raptors will, too.

This wasn’t exactly a must-have game for Toronto, but it was much needed. This was the first NBA Finals game in Canada, played before a city swelling with basketball pride, backed by much of — if not the entire — country, and inside a sold-out arena where the fans only took a few breaths. This win was a confidence builder and could only serve to fortify and intensify Game 2.

If it’ll require two wins for the Raptors to sense, deep in their hearts, that they can win this series, then they’re halfway there. And that starts with defense — or is it defence?

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.

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