The Golden State Warriors survived Game 2 to take a tied series back home, despite losing both Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney to injuries. Here are the three most pressing questions facing the Toronto Raptors entering Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Which defense will Kawhi Leonard see in Game 3?
The Warriors blitzed Leonard in the pick and roll in Game 1, limiting his effectiveness (5-of-14 FG) but opening up the floor for the likes of Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Danny Green and Fred Van Vleet (29-of-44 FG). We wondered here after the series opener if Golden State coach Steve Kerr would be forced to leave his defenders on an island against Leonard and generate help on everyone else.
The Warriors did just that, and did so creatively. Andre Iguodala still served as the primary defender against Leonard in Game 2, but the Warriors also doubled former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green’s time on Kawhi and gave him a heavy dose of All-Defensive guard Klay Thompson, which in turn allowed Iguodala and Green — two brilliant decision-makers — to serve as help defenders in space.
The wide array of looks the Warriors offered Leonard may have helped create some confusion in a pivotal Game 2 victory, but Kawhi has now seen just about anything Golden State can send his way. He did get to the free-throw line 16 times and score 34 points in defeat, and he is smart and skilled enough to attack whatever the defense gives him, especially now that he should easily recognize both schemes.
This latest strategy led to fewer rotational mistakes, because the Warriors weren’t scrambling as much to recover from the double team (Leonard had five secondary assists in Game 1 and none in Game 2). Still, Toronto left seven potential Leonard assists on the table, per Synergy Sports, and Golden State may feel worse about that plan if the Raptors didn’t shoot 14-of-43 (9-of-31 3-pointers) on open or wide-open looks.
Can Toronto employ its box-and-one defense again?
Once Klay Thompson went down with a left hamstring injury with eight minutes left in Game 2, the Warriors were left with only Stephen Curry as a shot creator. The Raptors responded with a box-and-one defense against the two-time MVP, pinning VanVleet to Curry’s jersey and playing zone with the four remaining defenders.
It’s a strategy rarely used against NBA teams, much less the defending champs, because professionals are skilled enough to exploit the space inside and out of the box. But here’s the thing: It worked against the Warriors, for a handful of minutes at least, as Curry could not get a shot off and his teammates did not score for a 5:33 stretch late in the fourth quarter. The Raptors would be up 2-0 in this series as a result of coach Nick Nurse’s gamble, if only they could have scored themselves.
Andre Iguodala’s game-sealing 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds remaining ended the scoreless streak and was a perfect example of how risky it is to fully commit to the box-and-one. Siakam left his corner to help VanVleet double Curry, and Leonard nearly picked off Curry’s scrambling pass to Shaun Livingston, but Livingston saved the Warriors from disaster and found a wide-open Iguodala for the backbreaking three.
Toronto might actually employ the same strategy again if given the chance, because Siakam probably should have recovered onto Iguodala had he not started toward his own basket in anticipation of Leonard coming up with the steal.
Obviously, the return of Thompson and/or Durant erases the box-and-one from the game plan, because their ability to create and make shots renders most gimmicky defenses useless. But if both are no-go’s in Game 3 — or if their limitations force Kerr to play more minutes with Curry as his lone creator — it will be interesting to see if Nurse calls for it again and how Curry might respond now that he has seen it.
Can the Raptors make DeMarcus Cousins pay?
I was among those who thought Cousins might be unplayable in this series after watching him lumber through the opening minutes of Game 2, but he proved more useful than I could have possibly imagined as the game wore on. In 16:45 of the second half — twice his playing time from all of Game 1 — he finished a team-high plus-16, doling out five assists to one turnover, taking advantages of mismatches in the post and blocking a pair of shots while grabbing seven defensive rebounds.
Then, there was this play, where Cousins beat Serge Ibaka off the dribble and swung his 270-pound body around Kyle Lowry for a layup that should have been impossible for a guy who has missed 109 games in the past year with a pair of torn major tendons. The Raptors cannot afford for this to happen on so many levels.
Toronto can tighten its defense against Cousins without much heavy lifting. They just have to adjust their respect for him. Marc Gasol was solid defensively straight-up against Cousins, and the rest of the Raptors should be conscious of their men cutting when he has the ball. Half of Cousins’ six assists led to backdoor baskets.
Still, the fact that they can no longer soften their defense when he has the ball, for fear he could make a play, places more strain on a team that has enough problems to worry about once Thompson and god forbid Durant return to the lineup. VanVleet’s double-team on a fourth-quarter Cousins drive left Quinn Cook open for a clean three that pushed Golden State’s lead from four to seven with nine minutes left, and those are gambles the Raptors can even less afford when Curry is on the floor.
On the other end, Toronto must punish Cousins. He is a defensive liability, even if he turned away a couple shots on Sunday, and the Warriors have to be mindful of that.
According to Synergy Sports, Leonard is two points behind Damian Lillard and 25 ahead of everyone else for the most as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in the playoffs. Lowry is among the best with the ball in his hands, too, while Ibaka and Gasol are two of this postseason’s four most potent roll men. Gasol’s picks for Leonard, Lowry and VanVleet put Cousins in a blender early, leading to a ton of positive results en route to a 12-point second-quarter lead that should have been bigger.
The Raptors got away from attacking Cousins when the game tightened, in part because they were still generating good looks that just didn’t fall, but that came at the expense of building an All-NBA center’s confidence. Cousins committed five fouls in his 28 minutes, and it should have been more had Toronto targeted him more often. We have years worth of evidence to show how detrimental a disillusioned Cousins can be, and the Raptors would be wise to play into that.
Depending on the health of Kevon Looney, who left Game 2 with an upper-body injury, Cousins may be Golden State’s best big man option until Durant returns to unlock Draymond at center. Gasol, Ibaka and the Raptors squandered a chance to leverage what should be a beneficial matchup for them, and there may not be many more opportunities to maximize that advantage. In a series against a team that leaves the slimmest margins for error, you can’t make the same mistake twice.
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