The good, the bad, and the charging from Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Game 1: Raptors 118, Warriors 109
Loser: “The Warriors Don’t Need Kevin Durant”
Let’s go back to high school for a minute and talk about the scientific method. Here’s a quick refresher on how it works: First you ask a question, then hypothesize, experiment, collect data, analyze, and finally conclude. Going into Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the series’ crucial question was, “Do the Warriors need Kevin Durant?” The hypotheses varied from “They can win without him” to “They can’t” to everything in between. After Game 1, though, the conclusion appears to fall a lot closer to the company line that Steph Curry and Steve Kerr and every other Warrior preached leading up to the series: The Warriors absolutely need Kevin Durant—their best player, and the player who looked like the best in the world until he hurt his calf in a second-round series against the Rockets.
The Durant Debate was unquestionably the most interesting story line coming into this series, one that had the potential to flip the Finals in so many ways. Toronto is no Portland (sorry, Blazers). It isn’t a team that can be quickly dispatched by an older, worse version of the unit that started this current Warriors dynasty. Against the Raptors, the three-headed monster of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green may have the ability to take every contest, but it will be a much more difficult feat. When the game is in single digits late in the fourth quarter and the defenses are tighter—as we saw at times on Thursday night—there’s no bailout option if the shots aren’t falling for anyone but the Splash Brothers. Smart defenses like Toronto’s sell out to stop them, and without a gangly 7-footer lurking in the post who can rise above everyone and hit a clean look, there aren’t any other reliable shot creators.
As of now, there is no clarity on Durant’s injured calf. He traveled to Toronto with the Warriors, but maybe that was just to give his teammates high fives and inspirational words in the tunnel. Golden State may figure something out before Game 2 and solve the Raptors thanks to some Nick U’Ren–like suggestion, but that’s not a given. Game 1 certainly proved that this won’t be an easy series. But you know what would make it easier on the Warriors? Having Kevin Durant on the floor.
Winner: Pascal Siakam, Back From the Dead
The hype train that carried Siakam’s Most Improved Player campaign for most of this regular season ran out of coal by the time Toronto squared off against the Sixers and the Bucks in the past two rounds of the playoffs. His shots were flat, the aggression was long gone, and all the earlier hoopla about his leap from intriguing project to elite role player—perhaps even future star—was abruptly silenced. Excuses were made: Games are just more intense in the playoffs; he was seeing different matchups; it’s natural to expect a guy playing in the postseason for the first time to experience a cold streak. Many figured he’d come back even better next year and then we’d really see what he was capable of.
But why wait until next year? The Raptors are still kicking, and coming into this series, it seemed like the Finals could be determined by Kawhi Leonard’s supporting cast. In Game 1, Siakam was that guy: He shifted into high gear, scoring a team-high 32 points on an ultra-efficient 17 shots, and was the best player on the floor.
The third quarter presented the perfect opportunity for Siakam to turn this into his podium game. Kawhi was struggling (he finished with 23 points but made only five field goals), and though Marc Gasol (more on him in a bit) had been productive in the first half, scoring 14 points, Golden State’s halftime adjustments seemed sure to snuff some of that out. Someone else needed to step up, and who better than the player who was searching for a better conclusion to his playoff narrative? Siakam didn’t just step up, he stepped through the Warriors defense, shooting past Draymond Green like a sports car on a go-kart racetrack. It was a marriage of finesse and force—he was both a shotmaker and a shot creator—and a perfect display of the very skills that attracted many to Siakam’s potential in the first place. In that quarter alone, he scored 14 points and at one point made nine straight shots.
And don’t think this is a one-off performance. The Warriors tend to struggle with length and athleticism—Siakam added eight rebounds, five assists, and two blocks—especially when it’s coupled with scoring (he also made two of his three 3-point attempts on Thursday). Siakam was thought to be a player the Warriors could probably ignore on offense, but now he could be Toronto’s go-to inside target if Draymond can’t contain him. And on top of already worrying about Kawhi, that’s a lot to ask of the Warriors defense.
Winner: The In-Sync Raptors
In soccer, Barcelona is known for a style of play called “tiki-taka,” which implements perfect passing as a way to build up an attack. Patience, precision, and synergy are all essential pieces of that puzzle, and during Game 1, Toronto used many of those qualities to get easy baskets on the offensive end and crucial stops on defense. The play above is a perfect example, and the product of a team that has learned how to play seamlessly together despite adding Kawhi in the offseason and Gasol at the trade deadline (trust the Masai Ujiri touch). Gasol, in particular, was paramount in this regard on Thursday night.
The 7-foot-1 Spaniard often acts as Toronto’s most reliable conduit. Throughout the game, he’d set screens for Kawhi Leonard, watch as the Warriors trapped him with a double, and spring free as an outlet to keep the play going. He is the ultimate connector, but give him space and he can score too. When he was left open, he shot without hesitation and finished with 20 points, including two made 3s.
In a way, this is what the Warriors wanted. They refused to let Kawhi (who appeared to be nursing a leg injury) beat them, instead shifting the burden onto the other Raptors. Siakam did his part and so did Gasol, not just by scoring but by keeping the Raptors offense fluid and anchoring their stingy defense. This is Gasol’s first NBA Finals, but veteran savvy and experience drip off him like sweat. Golden State won’t be able to play him off the floor as easily as the other centers it’s faced so far in this postseason.
Loser: The Other Warriors
Here’s a not-so-secret secret about the Warriors: They have next to no depth. And that’s been the case all season. If we’re being honest, the team has five or six playable guys without Durant, and yet because Durant is out, Kerr had to play nine guys in the first 12 minutes of a Finals game, basically just hoping that someone would hit. He started Jordan Bell at center, but Bell scored only two points in 12 minutes. Kerr brought Kevon Looney off the bench, and though he scored nine points, he was minus-4 on the night. DeMarcus Cousins was active for the first time since he tore his quad in the first round of the playoffs, and he played eight minutes—but didn’t hit a field goal.
The Warriors bench outscored Toronto’s 36-25, but it took six Golden State players to surpass just four Raptors. Draymond Green had a triple-double, Curry scored 34 points, and Thompson had 21. They were their usual productive selves, but it wasn’t enough—only two non–Splash Brother players hit more than two field goals on the night, and if you take out Curry and Thompson’s seven made 3s, the rest of the team had just five. The Warriors’ Big Three were not without fault on Thursday: They combined for 11 of the team’s 16 turnovers. They’ll have to be less sloppy moving forward, but there’s also palpable pressure on them to do more with Durant out. Someone else has to step up, and at the moment, it’s unclear where the cavalry will come from.
Winner: Kyle Lowry, Charge God
Warriors have Draymond screen for Curry in the back court, trying to get him some space to get downhill and force the Raptors to come up to help. Siakam comes above the 3PT line, FVV recovers which leaves Draymond open rolling. Watch Lowry pull over to take a charge off Iguodala. pic.twitter.com/I7Dqhppi6Y— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 31, 2019
Lowry is a 6-foot-1, 196-pound guard, but you know that in his heart he believes he’s a 7-foot center who’s built like Zion. Combine that attitude with a willingness to get in front of a surging Draymond Green, and the footwork to get set in front of a bouldering Boogie Cousins, and you get two key charges in Game 1. Lowry leads the playoffs with 15 of them now. I think someone should buy him a plane ticket to Pamplona this summer, because I bet he wouldn’t be afraid of running with the bulls either.