Raptors' defense in question ahead of critical Game 3

ABS-CBN Sports on Jun 05, 2019 07:41 PM
Raptors' defense in question ahead of critical Game 3
Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, left, speaks with Kawhi Leonard during practice for the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. Game 3 of the NBA Finals is Wednesday, June 5, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

OAKLAND, Calif. – The Toronto Raptors already regret what they didn’t get done against the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Squandering an even better opportunity in Game 3 might crash their confidence completely.

That’s how the game Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time) at Oracle Arena is setting up, with Golden State’s list of injured players growing. Center Kevon Looney is done for the series with a costal cartilage injury to his upper chest. Forward Kevin Durant has been ruled out in his recovery from a calf strain (he might be able to play in Game 4).

Guard Klay Thompson is famously resilient, but his status with a hamstring pull won’t be known until close to tipoff.

All of which means the Raptors might not get a better chance to beat the defending champions on their home court than this one.

The flip side of that, though, is pressure not to fail. The Warriors might start getting healthier as the series goes on, and the Raptors — who fell into a funk when they got outscored 18-0 in the first six minutes of the second half Sunday (Monday, PHL time), and could find a half dozen plays they could have executed better in the 109-104 loss— could soon take another dose of regret right into summer.

That’s why, understandably, they weren’t about to raise the expectations further. Just a greater height from which to fall if it doesn’t go their way.

“I think we come into a sense of urgency, period,” Toronto’s Kyle Lowry said. “No matter the situation. We want to be the first to four, and every game is an urgent game... They still have professional basketball players down there.”

Speaking of professional, a lot of questions directed at the Raptors on Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) dwelled on the novelty defense coach Nick Nurse deployed only briefly in the fourth quarter Sunday (Monday, PHL time). The box-and-1 — a zone defense built from four players, with the fifth assigned to chase around the opponents’ greatest scoring threat, in this case Stephen Curry — is more likely to be seen in college or high school competition.

Comments from both sides on the off day ranged from praising Nurse for having the guts to try the box-and-1 to implied eye rolls over a strategy that doesn’t seem NBA-worthy, never mind NBA Finals quality.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr credited the tactic for achieving its goal briefly, but got laughs when he talked about facing it as a ninth-grade player.

Nurse explained his decision, which at least showed a willingness to innovate as needed and to think, er, outside the box.

“We were having trouble getting our defense set up," he said. "We were having trouble at the basket a little bit. We were having trouble with the rhythm of the game there.

“We played some zone during the regular season, and usually you do it when the game is funky and there's a bad rhythm and maybe you can change it just by slowing them down or stopping some of their cutting or whatever. It seemed to protect the rim better for us and stop some of their cutting.  And it was good. I don't know, I was just trying to come up with something to stop them.”

When Kawhi Leonard was asked if he thinks that strategy could work for stretches moving forward, he rolled off a "probably not."

"Klay definitely wasn't on the floor at that time," Leonard said. "There's no telling when KD's going to come back either, so I don't think it will work."

Said Lowry: “Sometimes when your coach draws something up, you just kind of go with it.”

The Warriors did get stuck on 106 points for five minutes late in the game, until Andre Iguodala’s three-pointer with 5.9 seconds left, and Curry was unusually ineffective in the fourth quarter.

That — and the memory of the monstrous scoring drought before and after halftime (a 24-1 stretch) — had several Raptors more concerned about their team’s offense than its defense. They scored 14 fewer points in the second game, a decline blamed on poor shooting, not enough transition baskets and a reluctance in some cases to take shots that presented themselves, shrinking in the moment.

“Our defense has been pretty solid for most of the year,” veteran guard Danny Green said. “It's not been the problem for us. For us, it's offense. The reason why our defense, I guess, has had some lulls is because the offense has been bad in terms of turning the ball over or getting bad shots, which doesn't allow the defense to get set.”

Lowry had a hot mess of a Game 2, fouling out deep into the fourth quarter. Fred VanVleet has been a force off Toronto’s bench, his minutes dialed up by Nurse in response.

Green, familiar with The Finals setting from his time with San Antonio, feels he can do better than his 44 percent shooting and 9.5 ppg. He almost needs to, because he’s the one Kerr has used Curry on, allowing his valuable point guard to coast some defensively.

Can the Raptors make Curry work harder on that end?

“We have done a decent job,” Green said. “We could obviously do better. I think the biggest key is to continue to chase him and try to keep him off the free throw line. He's got a ton of free throws [22-of-23 so far] that we shouldn't allow him to get. Play him without fouling him.

“But on our end of the floor offensively, we could probably do a better job.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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