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The Three Steve Kerr Adjustments That Tipped the NBA Finals Back in the Warriors’ Favor

Toronto had the perfect chance to take a commanding 2-0 lead on Sunday. A trio of key decisions made by the Golden State coach prevented that from happening—and set the tone for the rest of the series.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Coaches can control only so much. The ball can bounce a certain way. Heck, the ball can bounce on the rim four times! Opponents can make heroic plays that ruin the perfect plan. Injuries can happen, too, sometimes in bunches. Still, coaching adjustments greatly influence a team’s success or failure. That’s particularly true in the postseason, when teams can focus on one opponent and have multiple days off to watch film, practice, and rest.

With two days between games 1 and 2 of this year’s NBA Finals, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr showed his work. Here’s a look at three adjustments he made that helped the Warriors beat the Raptors 109-104 on Sunday to even the series at one game apiece and give Golden State home-court advantage heading into the rest of the Finals.

Turning the NBA Finals Into a Hockey Game

Toronto exploited Golden State’s lack of shooting in Game 1 by sagging off below-average shooters like Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green and pressuring Steph Curry and Klay Thompson instead. As a result, the Warriors crumbled in the half court, scoring only 0.84 points per play, according to Cleaning the Glass—a number that was worse than what the Knicks put up during the 2018-19 regular season. In Game 2, however, the Warriors used the Raptors’ aggressive scheme against them, setting high screens and forcing Toronto into long defensive rotations that led to multiple cuts for layups and alley-oops.

In Game 1, the Warriors set the majority of their on-ball screens close to the 3-point line. On Sunday, they set many of them near the logo, including in the play above. By setting ball screens closer to half court, the Warriors paid homage to their Canadian hosts by creating the basketball equivalent of a hockey power play. Notice how both Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol are removed from the play after trapping Curry. The Warriors have a momentary four-on-three, and once Andrew Bogut passes to a cutting Shaun Livingston, it’s over. Toronto’s Fred VanVleet has no choice but to recover to stop Livingston’s drive, leading to the alley-oop layup for Green.

Before Bogut screened for Curry, Green did. That’s why VanVleet was positioned inside and not Leonard. The Raptors willingly switch Leonard onto Curry, and the Warriors used that against them on Sunday night, too. Basketball is like chess, and the Warriors were thinking one move ahead.

Late in the fourth quarter, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made an adjustment of his own by utilizing a box-and-one defense—something rarely seen in the NBA, but regularly seen in middle-school gyms, when one talented scorer is surrounded by four kids whose parents forced them to play. The Warriors were that middle-school team: Only Quinn Cook—of all players!—seemed to be able to help Curry score in the waning minutes. Yet while Golden State’s offense sputtered late, the Warriors escaped with the win. Getting Thompson (who left Game 2 with hamstring tightness) or Kevin Durant (who’s been out since the second round with a right calf strain) back would prevent the Raptors from using such an uncommon defense. If Thompson and KD can’t suit up in Game 3, Kerr will need to be ready to adjust again.

Going From Small Ball to Boogie Ball

The Death Lineup and the Hamptons Five have gained notoriety as Golden State’s two most lethal lineups. They have shooting, passing, versatility, and star power. Those lineups are deserving of fancy nicknames, and helped the Warriors win three of the past four championships.

But the truth is that just having Curry at point guard, Green at center, and anyone else out on the floor makes the Warriors a headache for opposing defenses. Since 2014-15, the Warriors have outscored teams by 13.9 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs when Curry and Green have been in the game without another big man alongside them, per PBP Stats. Especially following Durant’s injury, you’d think that Kerr would lean on this duo as much as possible in the Finals, but Draymond didn’t play a single minute at center in Game 1. Entering Game 2, the expectation was that Kerr would unleash it. Nah. Instead, Kerr featured Green at center for only three minutes (and the Warriors were outscored 8-5) and went about supersizing Golden State’s lineups.

DeMarcus Cousins started Game 2 and played 28 minutes, tallying 11 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. Bogut came off the bench and went 3-for-3 from the field in seven quality minutes. Kerr often screws around at the center position, starting Bogut or Jordan Bell over Kevon Looney, who’s his team’s best option there. Starting Cousins seemed like the coach’s next goofy choice. But Boogie’s playmaking in the post quickly made it apparent why Kerr went this direction.

The Warriors logged 34 assists on 38 makes—good for the highest assist percentage in the Finals over at least the past 40 years, according to Basketball-Reference. The ball was whipping around the floor all game, thanks in large part to Cousins.

Game 2 provided evidence that Cousins remains one of the game’s best playmakers at his position. Even if he’s not fully healthy and moves and jumps like he has anchors tied to his feet, his eyes and brain remain nimble. The three assists above are plays that Bell couldn’t dream of making; as good as Looney is, he’s not a standout passer. Quick decisions add up. Thompson’s timely cuts to the rim probably would’ve gone unrewarded if Cousins wasn’t on the floor, and maybe those possessions would’ve turned into points going the other way.

For a team that so famously popularized small ball, Cousins gives the Warriors the ability to go big with traditional-sized lineups. That’s something they couldn’t have done to this extent since the pre-KD days, when Bogut was still in his late prime. There’s no reason to expect Kerr to turn away from Cousins now, considering that he survived defensively and added value on offense. However, it’s hard not to wonder whether Kerr is just saving his best weapon—Green at center, Curry at the point—for a time when he really, really needs it. What a luxury.

Putting Draymond in Position to Thrive on Help D

Nurse must find better ways for the Raptors to attack Cousins on defense moving forward, but it’s not like he didn’t try in Game 2. Toronto ran countless pick-and-rolls against Boogie, but the Warriors neutralized their effect by dropping the big man and happily allowing Gasol to shoot from deep. Gasol often hesitated, and even if the Raptors attacked the paint, Cousins had help as a result of Kerr’s other changes.

The Warriors opened the second half with Thompson defending Leonard, either Iguodala or Draymond guarding Kyle Lowry, and whoever wasn’t on Lowry sagging off Pascal Siakam. It worked wonderfully: Lowry can shoot but is an infrequent cutter, so two defenders as intelligent as Iggy and Green were able to successfully help off the ball to halt other players’ drives, keep track of Lowry, and afford themselves enough time to recover.

Here the Raptors have Danny Green screen for Lowry, and the Warriors switch as Green dives to the rim. Since Draymond isn’t worried about Siakam spotting up from above the break, an area from which Siakam hit just 27 percent of his 3s during the regular season, he can crash into the paint to pressure the Raptors wing. It results in a turnover. The next possession, Golden State had similar success.

This time Draymond is on Lowry and rotates to stop Gasol’s roll to the rim, while Iguodala and Curry shift to prevent a lob to Siakam. Lowry and Danny Green are open on the weak side, but Kawhi has a tough angle to pass to them and instead settles for a contested 2-pointer. This is standard defensive coverage against Toronto’s side pick-and-roll, and in differing circumstances it could have led to Kawhi finding an open driving lane against Cousins. But Kerr’s matchup choices put two of the Warriors’ best defenders in positions to help, influencing Kawhi to take the jumper.

Here’s one more example of Green’s off-ball defensive brilliance from later in the third quarter.

Draymond begins the possession defending VanVleet, who cuts baseline and forces the Warriors to switch. Curry takes VanVleet; Green takes Lowry. But as Green spins around he recognizes that the down screen is coming from Siakam and signals the switch by pointing his arm—and likely vocalizing it. Green then uses his strength and length to stop Siakam in his tracks, giving Cousins the time to close in for a block. If almost any other player on the planet is defending that play, the Raptors probably end up with an open layup, an open 3 for Lowry, or a drawn foul for Siakam. But Draymond can do it all.

Kerr had to adjust again when Thompson exited with an injury midway through the fourth quarter. Instead of having Iguodala defend Leonard like he did in Game 1, the coach turned to Draymond.

Green continued his monster performance. While the Raptors shut down the Warriors with the box-and-one defense, Golden State did enough to contain Toronto to hold on for the victory. In the play above, Green is quick enough to rotate to Gasol and then back to Leonard before moving laterally to contest Kawhi’s drive. When Green defended Leonard, the Warriors were a tad less aggressive with their help defense. They normally shade toward Kawhi by roaming off Siakam, Gasol, and even Lowry. This prevents Leonard from easily getting to the rim, forcing him into passes or contested jumpers—it’s not dissimilar to the defense Golden State has used in the past against LeBron James.

The key to everything was Draymond, though, whether he was defending Leonard on the ball or wreaking havoc off the ball. On paper, Golden State should have lost Game 2. Yet the Warriors used a group effort to pull out the win, and when we eventually look back at this series, this could be the game that was most pivotal for a Warriors three-peat.

Many fans, pundits, and people working in the league like to claim that the Warriors are unbeatable unless the perfect storm of circumstances happen. Game 2 was exactly the situation they’re talking about. The Raptors were at home. Durant still isn’t in uniform. Curry was sick and shot just 6-for-17. Iguodala hobbled in the first half; Looney suffered a left chest contusion and played only 10 minutes; Thompson got hurt in the fourth quarter; Cousins was pushed to his limit for 28 out-of-shape minutes in only his second game back from a serious quad problem. The Warriors won anyway. And now instead of staring down a daunting deficit, they head back to the Bay with the home-court edge.

Through the years, Kerr’s adjustments in the postseason have been the secret sauce of the Warriors’ juggernaut recipe. The players deserve most of the credit for Game 2’s win, as they executed the high ball screens, Cousins played quarterback from the post, and Draymond was seemingly everywhere on defense. Facing adversity on the road with an injured team, however, Kerr and his staff proved pivotal in putting those players in positions to succeed. The coach set the Warriors up, and the Warriors followed through.