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Friday, May 31, 2019

Raptors Control Game One, Defeat Warriors 118-109

The Toronto Raptors sucked the "gravity" out of the Golden State Warriors and took a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals with a 118-109 win. Prior to this series, there has been a lot of talk about Stephen Curry being better than Kevin Durant because of the "gravity" that Curry creates with his shooting skills and relentless movement without the ball--but in game one, Curry's Warriors trailed for most of the game, scored just 49 first half points and shot just .436 from the field.

Pascal Siakam scored a game-high 32 points for the Raptors, shooting a blistering 14-17 from the field. Siakam shot 6-6 from the field during the third quarter, part of a stretch during which he made 11 consecutive field goals without a miss--the longest such streak during the NBA Finals in 20 years. He also had eight rebounds and five assists. Kawhi Leonard had a poor shooting night from the field (5-14) but his huge fingerprints were all over this game as he scored 23 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished five assists and tied for game-high honors with a +11 plus/minus number during a game-high 43 minutes. If anyone displayed "gravity" and an impact that went beyond field goals made then it was Leonard, not Curry; the Warriors focused a lot of defensive attention on Leonard, and Leonard's teammates took advantage of the opportunities that this created. It was also nice to see no "load management" for Leonard during this game!

Marc Gasol scored 20 points, had seven rebounds and played a major role defensively by pressuring Curry whenever the Warriors forced a switch. Kyle Lowry shot poorly from the field (seven points on 2-9 field goal shooting) but he led the Raptors with nine assists, he had six rebounds and he tied for game-high honors with a +11 plus/minus number that reflects his intangible contributions. Yes, Lowry must shoot better if the Raptors are going to continue to be successful but he had a better game than his shooting numbers suggest. Fred VanVleet scored 15 points off of the bench and tied Leonard and Lowry with a +11 plus/minus number. The Raptors shot .506 from the field in addition to slowing down the Warriors' vaunted offense.

Meanwhile, Curry scored a game-high 34 points but his -9 plus/minus number was worse than the plus/minus number of every player other than Klay Thompson, who had a -10 plus/minus number despite scoring 21 points on 8-17 field goal shooting. Curry scored 13 first half points on 3-10 field goal shooting while amassing a -12 plus/minus number that was caused not only by his poor shooting but also the way that the Raptors targeted his defense.

It should not be surprising that Toronto's ability to throw multiple larger players at Curry--including bigs who can stay with Curry on switches, in addition to long-armed defenders at the point of attack--wore Curry down. This is a classic example of why Curry is not as good or valuable of a player as Kevin Durant is. Durant can shoot or pass over almost any trapping defense, but Curry is too small to do that. ABC's Mark Jackson put it well and succinctly: "Hopefully, this stops the chatter that this is a better basketball team without Kevin Durant." His co-analyst Jeff Van Gundy referred to the "absurdity of the discussion involving Kevin Durant." Those who either blindly love Curry and/or blindly hate Durant will not be swayed by any evidence but those who watch basketball objectively understand what they are seeing. It is possible for a clear-thinking person to simultaneously (1) think that Durant's move to Golden State from a contending Oklahoma City team was soft, (2) appreciate how great Durant has played since joining the Warriors and (3) believe that Curry is a great and special player who nevertheless is not as good or as valuable as Durant is.

Draymond Green had a triple double, but 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on 2-9 field goal shooting is not quite the level of overall impact that the Warriors expect and need from him. 

DeMarcus Cousins returned to the Warriors' lineup after missing 14 games due to a torn left quadriceps, scoring three points and passing for two assists in eight minutes. If Cousins' conditioning will permit him to play more minutes, he could be an important factor in this series, especially if Durant is not able to come back; Cousins can score on the block, he is a good passer and he provides some much-needed size in the paint. Cousins is a former All-Star, and the notion that Golden State is better without him or does not need him is almost as absurd as the nonsense about Curry being better than Durant.

All of that being said, one game does not make or break a series. While it is true that game one winners overwhelmingly tend to win NBA playoff series, if there is any team that can overcome a 1-0 deficit it is the two-time defending champion Warriors. Durant made this team into a nearly unbeatable dynasty but even without Durant and with a limited Cousins the Warriors are still a legitimate championship contender; they could very well win game two on the road and then take two games at home to grab control of the series. The Warriors are capable of winning the championship, but without Durant the path to a title is arduous and does not have much margin for error.

Game two will provide answers to some questions that will foretell the outcome of the series--specifically, are the Warriors a bit rusty after having an extended layoff, or are they just not quite good enough without Durant? If the Warriors were just rusty, then they will win game two and change the dynamic of this series by taking home court advantage. One thing that is evident is that Masai Ujiri has built a tough, defensive-minded Toronto team. He not only acquired Leonard after the San Antonio Spurs misdiagnosed Leonard's injury and then breached Leonard's trust by badmouthing him, but Ujiri surrounded Leonard with smart, tough two-way players. The Raptors are the "anti-Rockets"; the Rockets are full of bluster and "analytics" and flawed strategies that they refuse to adjust even when they miss 27 straight three pointers, while the Raptors are well-constructed, they keep their mouths shut (no whining, no complaining, no flopping) and they play a smart, tough brand of basketball that is well-suited to playoff competition.

So, am I changing my prediction of a Golden State series victory? No. That prediction may turn out to be incorrect, but I do not change my picks after every game, and I do not issue "hot takes." When I do a series preview I do not just predict the outcome but I explain what each team needs to do to win. The Raptors followed their recipe for success--two-way Leonard impact, supported by contributions from multiple members of the supporting cast--while the Warriors did not display their usual focus and composure. Without Durant, the Warriors are good enough to win but their margin for error is greatly diminished. We saw all of those features in game one. Game two may have a different outcome but as long as Durant is out we can expect a competitive series that will likely last for six or seven games; if Durant returns and is anywhere close to his typical form then the series shifts dramatically and decisively in Golden State's favor.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM



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