2019 NBA Finals: Game 3 Preview
Courtesy of the Toronto Star.
Before taking the dive and making some predictions for Game 3, it might be prudent to reflect on some of the results of Game 2. Conventional basketball wisdom tends to say that each game in the Finals is a unique entity, but in some cases, momentum can indeed bleed over and certain habits may be uncovered.
The Golden State Warriors eeked out a 109-104 win in Game 2, but this victory didn’t come without consequence. Klay Thompson left the game in the third quarter with what was described as left hamstring tightness after overextending his left leg on a three-point attempt. Kevon Looney suffered a broken collar bone and missed the remainder of the game after exiting in the first half. It is unclear how long both will be out, but either missing any time is clearly detrimental to the Warriors chances going forward.
The Warriors came out of the halftime break down 54-59 after playing a subpar first half. The Raptors had played fantastic defense during the first half and seemed confident, coming out of halftime up 5, but nonetheless had their share of offensive struggles. Golden State then proceeded to open the third quarter on an 18-0 run, taking a 72-59 lead, and never really relenting after that. The Raptors, not a team to lie down and quit, slowly chipped the defecit down to two points, when Danny Green hit a three to make it 104-106 with 26.9 seconds left in the game. The Raptors then had a choice to make: either foul and send one of the Warriors to the free throw line, or play out the possession and hope to either create a turnover or missed shot. They decided to play out the possession and almost had a successful trap on Stephen Curry; No. 30 floated a pass for Shaun Livingston that looked like it was going to be swallowed up by Kawhi Leonard, but Livingston was able to corral the pass and find a wide-open Andre Iguodala, who drilled the dagger three to put Golden State up 109-104 with 7.0 seconds remaining.
The rhythm that Golden State was able to get into during that 18-0 run was something the Raptors had prevented in Game 1. The longest run the Warriors went on in Game 1 was an 8-0 quick burn during the first quarter. Third quarter bombardments like the one featured in Game 2 have become routine of the Warriors under Steve Kerr. He has always been able to rally this team at halftime and make the right adjustments, press the right buttons, and say the magic words. The Raptors ability to weather runs like this will ultimately determine the series, and even though tonight didn’t go their way… if I’m a Raptors fan, I’m not too worried. The Raptors were able to generate a number of good-to-great looks from their half-court sets, but just couldn’t find the bottom of the basket to start the third.
The tactical adjustments that both teams made for and during this game were very telling. The Warriors started setting very high off ball screens for Steph Curry when he was guarded by Fred VanVleet, to get Kawhi Leonard switched on to Curry. While this may seem counterintuitive by fans who perceive Leonard as the more dominant defender, VanVleet has done an exceptional job in the first two games of the Finals, and was hounding Curry every possession he was on the floor. VanVleet has guarded Curry on 71 possessions during these first two games and has held the two time MVP to 13 points on 2/10 shooting, 1/6 from three, and forced 2 turnovers. While Kawhi Leonard is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA when he is healthy, he was late on multiple closeouts on Curry on a couple occasions when Golden State ran their patented high PnR with Curry and Draymond Green; Curry was, unsurprisingly, able to hit threes on those possessions. The Warriors were willing to take their chances with Kawhi on Curry, not VanVleet, and that says a lot about the amount of respect the Warriors coaches have for FVV.
Another adjustment I liked came via the Raptors coaches. I really liked the adjustment of putting Pascal Siakam on Klay Thompson. This is an adjustment they tried for a short period of time during Game 1, and one I highlighted in my “Thoughts on Game 2” piece that I thought the Raptors should explore more frequently. Siakam has the speed to chase Thompson around the numerous screens the Warriors set for him and the length to challenge his jump shots at every release point.
The one thing that this adjustment resulted in that I didn’t particularly like was Kyle Lowry having to guard Draymond Green for an excruciatingly long part of the game. Kawhi Leonard was the primary matchup on Green, but on more than a few possessions, Lowry was the Raptor who ended up defending Green. Dray was able to attack in transition during a couple of these possessions, and was able to get to the rim easily due to miscommunication between Raptors players on those transition opportunities, in addition to the sheer size advantage he has over Lowry.
One possession that left a serious mental imprint was when Draymond got the ball on the block with Lowry guarding him, took two hard dribbles, got right past Lowry and had an open layup but it happened to rim out. Green is far too smart of a player to put a small point guard on, even if Lowry is one of the stronger and feistier PG defenders in the league, and you don’t want to have to help off of him because of the talented shooters the Warriors employ. Draymond is just going to punish that matchup either by scoring in the post, in transition, or by taking advantage of his height and passing over Lowry.
The most jarring adjustment was made by the Raptors coaching staff at about the halfway point of the fourth quarter. Nick Nurse burned a timeout at the 5:39 mark of the fourth after Andrew Bogut’s third successful alley-oop score of the half that put the Warriors up 12. The Raptors were having immense trouble on the Warriors back cuts, especially when Steph Curry was the screener (Curry led the game with 4 screen assists), and were having trouble communicating on defense which was leading to easy baskets around the hoop for Golden State. Toronto emerged from that timeout and employed the infamous “box-and-one” defense. The “box-and-one” is a hybrid between zone and man-to-man coverage’s. This particular defensive scheme has your two frontcourt player’s cover opposite side of the foul line near the baseline, protecting the hoop and watching for backdoor cuts. The other two perimeter defenders stand at the top of the foul line near the top of the arc and they protect the perimeter. Then you are left over with one defender who plays man-to-man on whomever you are employing the “box-and-one” to stop.
That was Steph Curry in this instance. The Raptors employed Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam as their low rim protectors on the baseline, and Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard as their high perimeter defenders. Those four formed a very restraining box on the Warriors as Fred VanVleet hounded Steph Curry for 94 feet vertically and 50 feet horizontally. The Raptors were also trapping Curry very aggressively as soon as he crossed half court, with FVV and either Lowry or Leonard, depending on which direction Curry decided to come down the floor on. The Raptors were only able to employ this funky defensive scheme because Klay Thompson had left the game with an injury and was out for the remainder of the game. The “box-and-one” was only successful in this instance because Curry was the only shooter on the floor the Raptors were worried about. Some combination of Draymond Green, Quinn Cook, Demarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston accompanied Curry on the floor for the remainder of the fourth and the Raptors were happy to let any of them try their luck from outside.
This strategy did pay off for the Raptors. They were down by 12 when they implemented it at the 5:39 mark of the fourth and were able to hold the Warriors scoreless until Igoudala’s three with 7.0 seconds remaining. Holding the defending champs scoreless for north of five minutes is extremely impressive in and of itself, but the holes and miscommunication the Raptors had in their usually stout half-court defense provides a bit of cause for concern.
Going into Game 3, I don’t foresee the Raptors going back to the “box-and-one” unless the same circumstances from Game 2 arise with Klay missing time and their defense just in utter shambles. The Raptors really have to discuss and game plan for what they are going to do to stop the easy back door cut layups and dunks that absolutely killed their momentum during the second half. As I said before, Curry’s presence of mind on those opportunities is second to none, and Toronto must decide as a group to either start switching those actions or send an early rotation to protect the rim in those scenarios.
Last but not least Marc Gasol has to regain his Game 1 form, and must outplay Cousins, or whoever is deployed at center for the Warriors during his minutes. Center is one of the few areas the Raptors have a perceptible advantage, and thus Gasol must have a better performance in Game 3. He finished Game 2 with 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists in 31 minutes. That is simply not good enough. He and Siakam both went the whole contest without hitting a three (Gasol 0/2, Siakam 0/3) after they each got open looks. They have to make the Warriors respect them out to the three to open up space for a half-court offense that has had its share of struggles throughout these playoffs.