In a game expected by some to be a “scheduled loss” for the Raptors — mainly because of tired legs and the absence of their franchise player — the Warriors instead fell into a trap that was masterfully laid and sprung by the new beasts from the East.
What the Warriors failed to take into account was that this Raptors team had an incredible 6-1 record without Kawhi Leonard. This is a team that is as legitimate as they come, mainly due to the incredible depth of their roster. Under the regime of first-year head coach Nick Nurse, the Raptors have become a two-way monster, having come a long way from the Dwane Casey coached teams and perennial playoff disappointments that have mostly been tortured by LeBron James.
But James has now moved out of the East and has taken his talents to another conference. With that mental detriment out of their way, the Raptors have become the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference, besting the likes of the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks through the first third of the season. They have done so with incredible two-way play — an offensive rating ranked second in the league, at 113.2 points scored per 100 possessions — and a defensive rating ranked seventh in the league, at 105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
While the Raptors were able to throw the Warriors’ defense around for a loop with a balanced attack from Kyle Lowry and several of their supporting cast, it was their defense that acted as an impenetrable wall that the normally-unstoppable force wasn’t able to break.
While Kevin Durant finished the night with 30 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were held to sub-par performances. While there were plenty of open shots that would normally be “BBQ chicken” for the Splash Brothers, it was simply a night where shots weren’t falling. For two of the best players in the league whose otherworldly proficiency in knocking down three-pointers are considered the main currency of their wealth as the world’s best shooters, they were stripped and robbed of their riches within the confines of their own home.
Curry’s gravity is often the culprit that allows his teammates to operate freely around him; it acts as the beacon that injects legitimacy into their motto of “Strength in Numbers.” Most opponents will attach themselves to Curry like a magnet, often to the detriment of the stability of their defensive scheme. But the Raptors are not like most teams.
The Warriors attempt to run a pin down for Curry, but that is well defended by Fred VanVleet, who sticks to Curry’s hip. The Warriors then flow into a second option, which is a Jonas Jerebko to Curry backdoor cut. Curry’s cut collapses the defense toward the paint, forcing Curry to pass out to Alfonzo McKinnie on the perimeter. In classic Curry fashion, he maintains a state of perpetual motion by relocating to the left corner. But where most teams fail to keep track of Curry after he gives up the ball, VanVleet does an excellent job of being cognizant as to where Curry has relocated. This allows him to catch up to Curry to contest the three-point shot, which misses.
In this possession, Curry sets an off-ball screen for Durant, who cuts toward the basket. This allows Durant to draw two defenders to him — and with a little help from Kevon Looney’s screen, Curry gets free for what seems to be a routine three-pointer. But Danny Green — who has always been considered an excellent perimeter defender — astutely recognizes that Curry is unmarked, and he quickly rotates over to contest the shot.
Having Draymond Green on the floor is, more often not, a big boost to the Warriors’ offense, thanks in huge part to his elite passing and playmaking skills. But he is a double-edged sword, mostly because of his lackluster three-point shooting. With Green handling the ball most of the time due to the Warriors running a plethora of off-ball actions for Curry and Thompson, defenses will try their best to stick to them like white on rice. Meanwhile, they can afford to sell out and allow Green some space on the perimeter, knowing that they will take their chances with him shooting the ball from deep — having a three-point percentage of 20.6 percent for the season is quite a reputation to have.
While Green has shown in the past that he can punish teams who dare him to shoot from the perimeter, that version of him has been absent for quite some time now.
Even off of a missed shot, the Raptors stay disciplined and force the Warriors into a stagnant and fruitless possession. Durant hauls in the rebound and is all alone on the strong side. Durant tries to force his way inside, but he is well covered by two defenders. Knowing that Serge Ibaka is behind him shadowing the paint, Pascal Siakam does an excellent job of forcing Durant to drive baseline. Ibaka steps up to cut off Durant’s drive to the rim, and it ultimately forces Durant to step on the line and turn the ball over.
Also, note the terrible spacing of the Warriors — the other four are closely packed together on the weak side, making the rest of the defenders’ jobs much easier. Furthermore, Lowry does a great job of boxing Looney away from the rim, preventing him from acting as a pressure release for Durant when he gets stifled.
In the following sequence, VanVleet sticks to Curry as soon as he gets the inbound, which is the live game equivalent of guarding Curry as soon as he steps off the team bus. Looking to get Curry free for a shot, the Warriors run a high pick for him. He does manage to get a momentary look at the rim, but VanVleet recovers from the pick to stay in close shot-blocking range from behind. Curry opts to drive inside against Ibaka, a brave move considering that Ibaka’s defensive competency exponentially rises as the action gets closer to the rim. Curry almost manages to get the ball into the rim and past the denial attempt from Ibaka, but it doesn’t fall. An unfortunate offensive goaltending call on Looney’s putback attempt results in a turnover.
The Raptors display their excellent off-ball defense in this possession. The Warriors try to run a low-post split, with Green being the usual distributor stationed on the left block. There are several things to take note of during this sequence:
1) Durant attempts to screen for Thompson, who flashes toward the three-point line. Danny Green and Siakam do a great job of quickly switching to deny Thompson any space to go up for a shot.
2) Having been denied, Thompson puts the ball down and tries to find an open look, while Durant crosses over to the other side. During this, Danny Green and Siakam switch again, to ensure that no mismatch occurs between Durant and Danny Green.
3) Curry tries to break free from VanVleet. He tries to use Livingston as a screener, but VanVleet can’t be shaken off, and Curry is ultimately rendered ineffective as an off-ball option.
Ultimately, the possession ends in a Livingston jumper that is well defended. Curry’s offensive rebound is all for naught when he misses the second-chance layup.
In addition, the Raptors forced the Warriors into several turnovers that killed any notion of an offensive burst at their inception. The last thing the Warriors needed was to commit turnover after turnover while trying to come back from a huge deficit. While the Warriors were getting stops themselves, they would fail to take advantage by allowing the Raptors to pounce on their mistakes:
1) Draymond Green’s attempted pass to Looney inside is read like a book by Lowry. However, the Warriors are bailed out by his missed three on the other end.
2) Curry’s drive inside draws several defenders into the paint, forcing him to make a kick out pass to Thompson on the other side. However, Siakam intercepts Curry’s pass, and another opportunity for the Warriors to build momentum is halted.
In this sequence, the Warriors opt to have Curry set a back screen for Durant, who cuts inside and gets the pass. With Ibaka gearing up to meet Durant at the rim, Durant makes the inside bounce pass to Looney, who goes up for what seems like an open dunk. But Ibaka does an excellent job of quickly rotating to Looney after Durant gives the ball up. Ibaka’s contest bothers Looney enough to force him to get blocked by the rim.
With Durant having a mini-run of his own, the Raptors adjust accordingly. The Warriors try to run another high pick-and-roll for Durant to get free for a mid-range shot or drive to the rim, but he is doubled by Danny Green and Greg Monroe. Durant resets and tries to drive inside, but VanVleet’s swipe makes Durant cough the ball up, resulting in a fastbreak layup for the Raptors on the other end.
With the kind of defensive effort that the Raptors showed against the Warriors — coupled with a balanced offensive attack that resulted in each of their starting five finishing the night with double-digit scoring — they loudly proclaimed to the rest of the league that they are perhaps the biggest threat to the Warriors’ quest for a third straight championship. To everyone else at large, the Raptors are the biggest hope of finally putting a halt to the Warriors’ path of destruction that has mostly run roughshod over the league.
The Raptors are blessed with a mix of talent that have come from all walks of NBA life. Leonard and Danny Green provide the kind of championship pedigree that is both inspiring and infectious; Ibaka and Lowry are veterans who have plenty of playoff experience; Siakam, VanVleet, and OG Anunoby are young players who have shown that they have what it takes to play at an extremely high level. In some ways, they are reminiscent of the newly-resurgent Warriors teams of a few years ago — a mixture of experience and youth that eventually came together to form an explosion of dominance and greatness.
Will the Raptors be the Warriors’ dance partner come June? It is still way too early to be completely certain. Injuries, slumps, and a dramatic turn of events are wild cards that have often been the banes of hype and heightened expectations.
But one thing is for certain: the Warriors will take this loss to heart — and while they will never face the Raptors again during the regular season, they will be much more prepared the next time that these two teams face off.
Twenty-nine down, 53 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.