From the outset of Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals, it was clear that the Warriors wanted to make anybody other than the best and most dominant player in this postseason beat them. Whenever Kawhi Leonard caught the ball on Thursday, he found himself swarmed by blue-and-gold jerseys—blitzed in the pick-and-roll, doubled in the post, crowded by a third help defender lurking behind the initial trap, harassed at every turn. The Warriors wanted to make Leonard’s fellow Raptors prove that they were ready to perform under the brightest spotlight in the sport. Leonard—an increasingly patient and willing playmaker who dished 16 assists in the final two games of Toronto’s Eastern Conference finals win over the Bucks—wanted to give his teammates that chance.
“I mean, it’s a team game,” Leonard told reporters after the game. “If they’re going to play like that, then guys are going to play well, get wide-open shots.”
Knocking down those open shots hasn’t always been a given for the Raptors in these playoffs, but they drilled them on Thursday. While Pascal Siakam’s superstar turn stole the show, Toronto wouldn’t have scored a 118-109 win in the first NBA Finals game ever contested outside the United States without critical contributions from other sources, too—a performance that suggested maybe the depth advantage in this series might lie with the team that doesn’t favor the slogan #StrengthInNumbers.
“We’ve got good players—a lot of playmakers and a lot of talent,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who kept up his torrid play from the previous round with 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting off the Toronto bench. “We’ve got to step up and make plays. They’re going to send a lot of help and doubles to not make life easy for [Leonard]. They put their best defenders on him and try to make it as tough as possible for him. So the rest of us have got to step up, make shots, make extra plays, keep the ball flowing and moving.”
Leonard still made his presence felt, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and a steal in 43 minutes of work. But a quiet start for the All-Star forward spurred by Golden State’s extra defensive attention—just eight points on 2-for-7 shooting in the first half—put the onus on Toronto’s complementary pieces to seize the opportunities afforded them.
Earlier in the postseason, many of those pieces shuddered at such responsibility, preferring to move the ball in pursuit of a great look rather than taking the pretty good one the defense conceded. They betrayed no such hesitation in Game 1, though. When the Raptors took a timeout with 7:30 to go in the opening quarter, they’d already attempted eight 3-pointers, with six coming from the trio of Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry, whose shared pass-first mentality can sometimes stifle Toronto’s offensive rhythm, and Danny Green, who entered the Finals having not made a 3 since the fourth quarter of Game 3 against Milwaukee.
“I think we had taken eight of our first nine shots were 3s, but they were open,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 1. “And I love it, because the one thing that we must do in this series, that we need to do, is go for it.”
Going for it is good. Making the shots is even better. Green got his first one to drop just over a minute into the game, Gasol’s came almost exactly two minutes later, and the fans in the stands at Scotiabank Arena exploded for each of them. (Then again, they kind of exploded for everything on Thursday. Toronto was freaking ready for its Finals debut.)
Warriors coach Steve Kerr described the early looks that Golden State granted Toronto’s demure shooters as “dare shots.” Well, the Raptors took the dare, and cashed in, and seemed to swell with each success. Green popped for 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting, including three 3-pointers—the first time he’s made more than two shots in a game since Game 5 against Philly. Gasol, meanwhile, would finish with 20 points—the most he’s scored as a Raptor—on 6-for-10 shooting, with seven rebounds, two steals, an assist, and a block before fouling out late in the fourth, roundly outplaying Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney in his 30 minutes.
“If you’re open, you got to shoot them,” Gasol told reporters after the game. “Dare, no dare—like, you are open, you shoot them. And then we go from there. If they go in, great. If not, you keep taking them with confidence.”
That confidence carried over to the defensive end, where the Raptors—who entered the Finals with the postseason’s second-stingiest defense, behind only the Bucks team they beat in the East finals—clamped down on the league’s most explosive and efficient offense. VanVleet was a huge part of that, taking the bulk of the work on Stephen Curry whenever he shared the court with the two-time MVP.
VanVleet picked him up in the backcourt, chased him around every screen, tried to force him inside the 3-point arc when possible, and generally made Curry work for everything he got. He still got plenty—a game-high 34 points, with 14 of them coming at the foul line—but not so many on the Wichita State product. According to Second Spectrum’s matchup data, Curry scored just four points on 1-for-6 shooting on 33 possessions on which VanVleet was his primary defender in Game 1; add that to the numbers from Curry’s lone regular-season game against the Raptors, and VanVleet has now held Steph to a measly eight points on 2-for-12 shooting in 72 total possessions of work in 2018-19.
Gasol loomed large in the defensive effort, too. Against a Warriors side that has thrived over the years by going small and playing opposing big men off the floor, the 34-year-old Spaniard looked more lithe than lumbering, coming out high on the floor to block the paths of Curry and Klay Thompson as they skittered around screens. Gasol stepped into the right spaces, unfurled his massive arms at the right times, and helped break up enough plays to keep Golden State from ever really getting into an offensive groove. The Warriors shot just 43.6 percent from the field, committed 17 turnovers that led to 17 Raptors points, and scored a dismal 0.84 points per possession in the half court, miles below their league-best regular-season and playoff efficiency numbers, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Raptors bringing the same defensive mindset to the Finals. Watch as Curry comes off the high P&R. Tries to reject but Gasol is above the 3PT line to not just contest a 3 but catch the drive early. Lowry helps off Iguodala, Kawhi helps on the drive, Gasol deflects the pass. pic.twitter.com/3w7OdNMoxj— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 31, 2019
But while Gasol’s basketball IQ and desire to prove his mettle in the first Finals appearance of his 11-year career were certainly factors in his ability to stay on the court in Game 1, so too was the fact that, as presently constituted, the Warriors don’t really have the personnel to play him off the floor. Kevin Durant, as you might have heard, isn’t available, which takes Golden State’s best lineups off the table and forces Kerr to replace them with remixes like this:
Klay Thompson— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) May 31, 2019
The new Warriors Death Lineup.
Making matters worse, Andre Iguodala—who won Finals MVP honors in the Warriors’ first NBA title run and remains their premier perimeter defender, and their first choice to check Leonard—appeared to hurt his left leg on the landing after making a short hook shot in the fourth quarter. Kerr said after the game that he thought Iguodala was “doing OK,” and the man himself said he won’t be missing Game 2. But a compromised Iguodala would put even further stress on a Warriors wing rotation that’s already stretched so thin you could poke through it with a pencil, pressing the likes of Alfonzo McKinnie, Shaun Livingston, and possibly even little-used rookie Jacob Evans into larger roles than would seem advisable against an opponent as good as Toronto.
If they can’t make the Raptors pay by going small, the Warriors will have to find another way. The return of DeMarcus Cousins on Thursday could provide a path to playing bigger, but eight minutes of floor time without a field goal or a rebound suggests that the All-Star center isn’t quite prepared for prime-time production after a month and a half on the shelf with a torn left quadriceps. If Cousins isn’t ready to offer an offensive jolt, and Durant—who’s yet to even fully return to practice three weeks after straining his right calf—isn’t on the way to turn the tide, then Kerr will have to do some serious searching for answers. The good news: He’s always rummaging through his rotation for something that works, anyway.
“Yeah, our bench was great [in Game 1],” he told reporters. “Jonas [Jerebko] hit a couple 3s. Quinn Cook came in, did a nice job, and the way we have played our bench, we have, since Kevin and DeMarcus have been out, we play a lot of guys, but they don’t play big minutes. So we’re trying to find combinations, we’re trying to find guys who can step out on the floor for a few minutes, make a shot, make a play, and I thought the bench did a fantastic job tonight. They were really good, they kept us in the game.”
Maybe Kerr doesn’t need some sort of drastic lineup shake-up to get Golden State on the right track. The Warriors were within two possessions a handful of times in the second half, after all, and if a few wild Raptors shots don’t find the bottom of the net, maybe they’re even closer than that. Clean up the turnovers, do a better job of getting back in transition to keep Siakam from getting layup after layup, shake off the rust that accumulated during a nine-day post–Western Conference finals layoff, thwart a few of those “dare shots” with sharp rotations and solid contests, and maybe they’re in business, Durant or no Durant.
“I don’t think it’s that complicated what we need to do differently,” Curry said after the game. “It’s just: Play better, take away the easy buckets for them, and control the momentum a little bit better. And we’re definitely capable of doing that, no matter who is out there on the floor.”
Which is to say: Don’t depend on a KD ex machina to come through to save the day.
“If [Durant is] out there, he’s pretty good, but if he’s not out there, we play with the guys we have,” Kerr said. “And we have got enough.”
Maybe they do. You got the sense watching Game 1, though, that the Raptors might just have more. With Gasol, VanVleet, and Green all looking great, with Norman Powell still available and Patrick McCaw suddenly out of mothballs, and with OG Anunoby’s return perhaps imminent, it’s Toronto that looks like the team with strength in numbers—and the Warriors who look like they might be in danger of being played out of options.