The Golden State Warriors played the best defense of their season in the first half of Game 4. They had no other choice but to do so — being down 2-1 against the Toronto Raptors made playing near-flawless defense a necessity. They had the tools to accomplish such a feat — Klay Thompson was back from his hamstring strain, and Kevon Looney made a miraculous recovery from his collarbone fracture, a surprising development given that it seemed like he was going to be sidelined for the rest of the season.
With Thompson returning to shore up the Warriors defense — one that gave an abysmal defensive performance in Game 3 with a 124.2 defensive rating — the defending champs put the clamps on the Raptors during the first half, limiting them to 42 points, 34.1 percent shooting from the field, and a 2-for-17 clip from 3-point range (11.8 percent).
The Warriors came out of the gates with the kind of urgency you would expect from a team with their backs to a corner. Their defensive intensity to start the game needed to be at an all-time high, and they fulfilled that requirement in the 1st quarter.
Andre Iguodala was on point, playing great individual defense against Kawhi Leonard. The Warriors’ plan of refusing to let Leonard dictate the offense succeeded in the sequence above, and it resulted in a timely double team of Pascal Siakam and a forced turnover that led to a Stephen Curry jumper on the other end.
There was a stark difference in how the Warriors played defense in the first half compared to Game 3, especially with both Thompson and Looney returning. Switches were more seamless. Rotations were quicker, since the Warriors were able to send out a nimbler defensive lineup. And most importantly, the effort reached the necessary levels it needed to reach in order to put a wrench into the Raptors’ carefully orchestrated offense.
Just look at how Thompson made a difference above — with Leonard as his assignment, he is able to stay on him at all times, preventing an easy backdoor layup from happening and altogether keeping Leonard out of the equation. Draymond Green, whose ability to act as a help defender was severely limited in Game 3, was fully unleashed from his cage, flying around and forcing the Raptors to reset and find seams that were closing with each and every pass they made.
After the first half, the Warriors’ lack of firepower garnered them a 46-point half, which made their excellent defensive showing all the more important. They were able to hold the Raptors to an offensive rating of 85.7. Both teams were holding each other in check, despite signs of Leonard heating up and Thompson shouldering the burden amid another shooting struggle by Curry, who finished the half with 8 points and missed all of his 5 attempts from beyond the arc.
At that point, it was safe to assume that the game was virtually a staring contest, and the first team to blink would end up losing control, losing the game, and possibly lose their one chance at winning the championship.
At the start of the 3rd quarter, it was painfully obvious that that team was the Warriors. The defensive intensity they started out with virtually disappeared, and they let a superstar hungry for another ring to add to his collection run roughshod all over them.
The Warriors tried their best to hang on, but the Raptors kept nipping at their heels. It was obvious that at this point, this Toronto team was built differently than all of the teams the Warriors had faced beforehand. Whereas those other teams would wilt and fade under the immense pressure of the Warriors’ inevitability, the Raptors stood tough and managed to maintain their composure. Confidence rarely came up in short supply for them. Much like the man they placed their hopes and dreams upon, their focus was robotic, immune to any outside noise and absolutely unrelenting until the task at hand was accomplished.
Often used to breaking the will of whoever was placed in front of them, the Warriors now had the script flipped against them. It was their collective will that was in danger of being broken. And as their defensive effort during the second half showed, they wilted under the immense pressure that their opponents slowly applied to them. With each tightening of the noose, their focus on defense loosened, and their composure eventually became non-existent.
Desperate to find an answer to their predicament, the Warriors — who started with the lead to open the half but eventually lost it to the surging Raptors — started switching as an answer to the Raptors’ pick-and-roll attack. Often seamless and virtually spotless with every switch they make, the Warriors’ often-lauded execution of this strategy left a lot to be desired.
Whatever the cause of the defensive breakdown as shown in the sequence above — a switch that wasn’t communicated properly to Quinn Cook, who instead tried to go over Serge Ibaka’s screen and thereby giving him a free lane to roll toward the basket; or an ill-advised attempt to play drop coverage by Iguodala — it was clear that the Raptors were primed to take advantage of such breakdowns.
As such, they took advantage of another gaffe by the Warriors later on in the half.
It’s jarring to see the Warriors repeat their mistakes over and over again, but that is exactly what they did against another pick-and-roll sequence from the Raptors. Iguodala fights over Siakam’s screen, with Looney trying to contain Kyle Lowry. Like Ibaka before him, Siakam is given a free lane to roll toward the rim as a result of Iguodala trailing behind, and Lowry is all too eager to feed Siakam for the wide-open layup.
The mistakes were deadly, but the prospect of having to stop an all-world, all-time great, and truly elite superstar was even more daunting. Leonard’s back-to-back 3s to start the half lit a flame under him that was impossible to douse, even for a proven dynasty such as the Warriors.
But even more important and crucial to the fate of both teams was the performance of their respective supporting casts. Those Raptors not named Kawhi Leonard — Lowry, Siakam, Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Danny Green — defeated the Warriors at their own game of achieving harmony and victory through Strength in Numbers.
On the other hand, everyone else not named Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson on the Warriors were hard-pressed to contribute offensively. Draymond Green nearly garnered a triple-double, but his 10 points weren’t enough to offset the team’s neutered offense. Kevon Looney’s comeback effort was noble, but he didn’t do enough on both ends of the floor to make a significant difference. DeMarcus Cousins was exploited on the defensive end by the Raptors, all while unnecessarily forcing shots and looking severely limited on offense. Quinn Cook failed to be that additional scoring punch off the bench, missing all 5 of his shot attempts including three wide-open 3s — a symptom of a game-wide illness that plagued the Warriors offense, one that took the form of a 0-for-8 clip from beyond the arc from the non-Splash Brothers contingent.
A tale of two different halves resulted in a tale of two different teams. A defensive rating of 85.7 from the Warriors turned into 140.0 in the second half, shattered by Leonard’s 22 second half points and the Raptors’ 21-for-42 shooting clip from the field. The Warriors’ offensive rating of 92.0 in the first half — in and of itself an abysmal performance offensively — didn’t improve immensely in the second half, with only a 97.9 rating to close out the second half.
The Warriors’ habit of egregiously turning the ball over too often came back to haunt them. Their 17 turnovers, as compared to the Raptors’ 9, contributed to the Raptors having more possessions, more opportunities with which to score and stick the dagger deeper and deeper into their opponent’s chest.
It was also telling of the difference in terms of discipline these two teams had. The Warriors have always thrived in organized chaos, but that chaos has always run the risk of being uncontrollable, a glass cannon that has the potential to do massive damage but is always in danger of being shattered. The Raptors, on the other hand, value each and every possession by playing in a controlled manner. Seemingly never in panic, they patiently find holes in the defense, and once they find that weakness, they mercilessly batter it until the defense finally relents and breaks.
But the most glaring difference between these teams may simply be a question of which of them is simply better. On paper, the Warriors are more talented (albeit without Kevin Durant, whose playing status for the rest of the series is still up in the air). But talent can only take them so far. There has to be that hunger, that desire, that fire within that cultivates that talent and translates it to a tangible kind of success. Otherwise, it is talent that goes for naught.
The Raptors, on the other hand, are simply more wanting of this opportunity, if only to erase years of disappointment and heartbreak. The stars aligned in their favor — their beloved star was replaced with a transcendent superstar, one who was capable of taking them to the promised land. He was then surrounded by a supporting cast capable of giving him the help he needed to lead them to victory after victory, with each one giving them more confidence to achieve their greater goal. And they are now staring at a championship that is theirs for the taking, close to toppling an establishment that has dominated the league for several years.
Sounds familiar? It should. Because the Raptors of today share many similarities to the Warriors of yesterday.
Two different teams. Two different personalities. And two different organizations at differing points of history, a fact that should hammer down an evergreen fact: The cycle of NBA success is still working as it always has. Dominance doesn’t last forever. Greatness will eventually meet its endpoint. Empires will eventually fall.
For the Golden State Warriors, the twilight of their dynasty might finally be upon them.
Thirteen wins down, 3 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.