The Toronto Raptors maintained a lead over the Golden State Warriors for nearly all of Game One. Due to Golden State’s shot-making ability, the lead never truly felt safe until the final two minutes. However, the game showed that this final will be extremely competitive. A couple of thoughts before we get into an analysis of what happened on the floor in Game One…
How good was the Eastern Conference this year?
NBA fans have become so accustomed to the superiority of the Western Conference that we may be glossing over the high-quality basketball teams at the top of the Eastern Conference this year. Toronto needed seven games and one of the all-time great game-winners from Kawhi Leonard to take down the Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons-led Philadelphia 76ers. They were also a few big Kawhi Leonard shots away from going down 3-1 in that series. Similarly, though the Raptors beat the Giannis’ Bucks in six games, they need a double overtime victory in game three to avoid a 3-0 deficit. If the Raptors can go six or seven games with the Warriors, or even win the series, basketball fans will have to consider the possibility that the top three teams in the Eastern Conference are superior to the top of the Western Conference. Of course, this summer’s free agent moves could change that in a hurry.
Is Draymond Green about to get dirty?
Draymond Green plays as hard as anyone, and his dedication to winning is unquestionable. He is so dedicated to winning, it seems, that any time the Warriors are challenged he resorts to dirty plays to hinder and intimidate the competition. In 2016, when the Oklahoma City Thunder looked poised to dethrone the Warriors as they held a 3-1 lead, Green resorted to kicking Steven Adams in the balls with inhumane force. He did this at least twice in that series. After the backlash that Draymond received for driving his knee and foot into other men’s balls, Draymond seems to have decided on a new tactic: eye-gouging. Last year in Game One of the NBA Finals, with LeBron James on his way to fifty-one points, Draymond poked him in the eye on a drive to the basket.
Similarly, during this year’s Western Conference Semifinals, he scratched James Harden’s eye not once, but twice! When the Warriors are being threatened, it does seem that Draymond resorts to dirty tactics. Given that they appear capable of dethroning the Warriors, should the Raptors come to Game Two with protective visors and jockstraps?
How good are the Warriors without home court advantage?
Since the Warriors began their historic run of five straight Finals appearances in the 2014-15 playoffs, they have begun exactly two series without home court advantage. The first was the 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets, which they won in seven games, despite trailing by thirteen points at halftime of game seven. The second is this year’s NBA Finals. There is a distinct possibility that the Warriors are tremendously vulnerable when they do not have the home court advantage.
Now, let’s take a look at some key factors in Game One…
The Toronto Raptors were able to close quarters
Even after playing a very good half of basketball, the Raptors only led the Warriors by one point with 3:30 to go in the 2ndquarter. The Warriors are notorious for their momentum-changing runs to close quarters, especially the 2ndand 3rdquarters, and it appeared that they were poised to do just that. However, that is not what happened. The Raptors closed the half on 15-6 run and went into halftime with momentum. Kawhi Leonard picked up his third foul with 1:28 to go in the half, yet, shockingly, Nick Nurse chose to keep him in the game. Why risk Kawhi picking up his fourth foul before the start of the 2ndhalf? Because Nick Nurse knows just how critical it is to close quarters against this explosive Warriors team.
The Raptors also managed to keep the Warriors from gaining the momentum at the end of the third quarter. The Warriors closed the gap to four with 1:20 to go in the third, yet the Raptors were able to increase the lead to seven (88-81) to end the quarter. To beat the Warriors, opponents have to close quarters strong. This will be something to keep an eye on for Game Two.
Warriors’ defensive game plan
To start the game, the Warriors aggressively double-teamed Leonard off of all handoffs and pick and rolls. Leonard handled the double teams with poise, finding Gasol on a short roll around the free throw, where he would proceed to pick apart the scrambling Warriors defense. With Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney in the game guarding Gasol or Ibaka, the Warriors were able to contain the Raptors ball-handlers well off of pick and rolls and handoffs. However, once Demarcus Cousins came in the game at the beginning of the second quarter, Leonard, VanVleet, and Lowry were able to go right around him when he was involved in guarding actions.
During the fourth quarter, the Warriors started switching pick and rolls with Leonard as the ball-handler. Twice, he made them pay by hitting a tough three over Kevon Looney and by drawing a two-shot foul on Looney.
Those who are not willing to put much stock in to the Raptors Game One victory may say that VanVleet, Siakam, and Gasol will not combine for 67 points again. However, a large reason that these players had big games is that the Warriors gave them open looks early by double-teaming Leonard. Would the Warriors have held Leonard to 23 points had they not made a concerted effort early in the game to get the ball out of his hands? Doubtful. The Warriors defensive strategy against Kawhi Leonard is something to keep an eye on in Game Two.
Warriors transition defense
Time and time again, the Raptors punished the Warriors for not getting back on defense by getting early layups and threes. After Game One, Steve Kerr said, “The biggest thing for me is our transition defense was just awful. And that’s the game, that’s the number one priority when you play Toronto. You have to take care of their transition, and we gave up twenty-four fast break points.” Toronto scored slightly less than a quarter of their points in transition, and several of these baskets were after taking the ball out of the net after a Warriors make, another way the Raptors thwarted the Warriors famous scoring runs.
How will the Warriors guard Kawhi Leonard? Will they make a concerted effort to get the ball out of his hands, or play him straight up? Will the Raptors continue to close quarters against the Warriors explosive offense? Can Siakam continue to, stunningly, have his way with Draymond Green? Game Two figures to be a nail-biter, but the Raptors seem to have the edge at the moment.
Prediction: Raptors win 102-98 and head to Oakland with a 2-0 series lead.