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For the first time in the Steve Kerr era, the Golden State Warriors are the ones who must counter after falling into a 1-0 series hole. These are the three most pressing questions lingering from their Game 1 loss to the Toronto Raptors that the two-time defending champions must answer going into Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals.
Is DeMarcus Cousins even playable?
Cousins was not a complete disaster in his return from a torn left quadriceps to Game 1 of the NBA Finals, finishing minus-1 in eight minutes. He earned two trips to the free-throw line by finding favorable matchups, even if the first resulted from the Raptors feeling comfortable defending him in the post with Fred VanVleet and the other came in transition after he should have been called for a kicked ball.
The two-time All-NBA center made two great passes — one to Klay Thompson on a backdoor cut and the other to a wide-open Jonas Jerebko for a corner 3-pointer — that may give Warriors coach Steve Kerr some optimism he can run his offense through Cousins when his stars need rest at the turn of the first and third quarters.
For every positive, his presence raised some concerns offensively — mainly that the Raptors had no issue letting his assignment roam and leave him open for 3s. That generates obvious issues for a team that prides itself on creating space.
Cousins poses bigger problems defensively, where he was lost at times and disengaged at others. Kerr specifically cited his team’s porous transition defense as reason for their Game 1 demise, and a steps-too-slow Cousins did them no favors.
The Warriors out-rebounded the Raptors for the game but were beat on the boards by a 7-3 margin in the eight minutes that Cousins was on the floor. It was not the sort of boost Golden State may have hoped for by reinserting a talented 7-footer.
This is all understandable, given Cousins has never been a great defender and has missed 109 of his teams’ last 142 games with torn tendons in his 270-pound body. What he was doing in a close game to start the fourth quarter is a real question.
Kevon Looney is clearly Golden State’s best true center option at this point, and while he played 28 minutes of Game 1 — scoring nine points on five shots and committing five personal fouls — the Warriors may need more from him in Game 2.
As SB Nation’s Michael Pina pointed out, the Warriors also did not play a single minute of Game 1 with Draymond Green manning the center position. Those units have always been Golden State’s most dangerous, and while Kevin Durant’s ability to play the power forward position is a big reason for that, the Warriors also had some success with Jonas Jerebko manning the four spot during the regular season.
The problem for Kerr is that the Raptors can play either Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka or both to deflect Golden State’s counterpunches, but you have to imagine we will see some Green at center in the next two games and a lot of it once Durant returns. That may come at the expense of the eight minutes Cousins was allotted in Game 1, which is a real shame given how much he has longed to perform in the playoffs.
What to do with even a single-digit minutes limit for Cousins may not seem so important in the grand scheme of things, but in a series where it sure looks like the margin for error for either team could be minuscule, every possession is vital.
Do the Warriors continue to trap Kawhi Leonard?
The most encouraging aspect of the Warriors’ defensive performance was their strategy against Leonard. They threw both defenders his way every time someone set a pick for him, flooded the paint when he drove and even sent an extra defender at him before he started his attack. That plan resulted in Leonard’s least efficient shooting night of the playoffs (5 for 14 from the field). It also led to 12 free throws.
For the most part, Leonard made the right read and found someone in space, setting Golden State’s defense into rotation and manufacturing good looks for the likes of Gasol, VanVleet and Danny Green, who combined for 46 points on 27 shots. Even old Warriors friend Pat McCaw benefited from the attention paid to Leonard.
Now, the Warriors may see Toronto’s role-playing production as a fluke and employ the same scheme to limit Leonard in Game 2. Of course, they then must also consider Pascal Siakam’s 32 points (14 of 17 shooting) a fluke. Draymond called on himself to prevent that from happening again, but if Toronto’s second option looks like a primary scorer again, the strain on Golden State may just break its defense.
There is another option to consider. Leonard looked limited in Game 1 by the leg issues that left him limping through Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. Could they dare him to beat Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala (if he’s healthy) in individual matchups and stay home on Toronto’s other threats? That may be too risky a play, given how even a limited Leonard eviscerated the Milwaukee Bucks in the final four games of their series, but what else are you supposed to do if a handful of guys are going off as a result of your compulsion to stop Kawhi?
Can the Warriors find a third scorer?
Golden State got 55 points on 66 percent true shooting (7 of 15 from 3, 16 free throws) from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who were their entire offense at times in a halfcourt setting. It even took nine offensive rebounds to help them work free from Toronto’s long-armed defenders and get clean looks on the offensive end.
Now, those are two pretty damn good options, but when they’re facing a team that is operating at an elite level on both sides of the ball, even the two-time defending champions need more than the Splash Brothers to keep pace. The Raptors paid little attention to Iguodala and Green, who missed all six of their 3-point attempts as Toronto instead crowded Curry and Thompson. The result was, as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted, a dismal 0.84 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt.
This is where Durant’s absence was so glaring. Unsurprisingly, Golden State was 14.6 points per 100 possessions better in the halfcourt when Durant was on the floor, which was the league’s greatest high-volume discrepancy during the regular season, according to Cleaning the Glass. Per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, Durant is not likely to return until Game 4, when the Warriors better hope it’s not too late.
In the meantime, the Warriors must find offense from someone other than Curry or Thompson. They survived without much help elsewhere in the Western Conference finals (non-Splash Bros shot 9 for 34 from 3 in the series), but Green was great as a facilitator and Looney cleaned up against a porous Portland Trail Blazers defense.
The Raptors are a different beast, and it’s a tall order to ask Draymond to amp up his game on both ends to offset every resulting problem from Game 1. Jerebko, Alfonzo McKinnie and Quinn Cook were a combined 5 for 7 from distance in the Finals opener, and maybe Kerr must trust them more in Game 2, but then a dynasty depends on some suspect characters to help deliver a fourth ring in five years.
These are the difficult questions Kerr now faces after having few answers on Thursday. We have ourselves a series, and the Raptors threw the first punch. Now, we’ll find out if the Warriors still have the championship mettle to respond.
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