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Raptors pick on the wrong Warrior

The Golden State Warriors have received plenty of mockery for their slogan Strength in Numbers. Who needs numbers when a team boasts more Team USA members, past or present, than can be played on the court at one time? Yet the Warriors’ game two win over the Toronto Raptors was a win for their slogan; the supporting cast, especially four-time all-star DeMarcus Cousins, helped steal a win for the short-handed Warriors.

“[Strength in Numbers] is not something you just throw out there to have nice shirts and give out to the crowd at Oracle and have all this marketing stuff,” said Steph Curry. “It’s literally how we approach every day from training camp to June.”

Numbers helped the Warriors keep from falling behind too early. A variety of players and coaches said after game two that it felt like the Raptors should have been up by more than five points at halftime. Toronto had decisively beaten the Warriors for the first 24 minutes of play, defending brilliantly while creating generally excellent shots. Somehow they only led by five at halftime.

Game two saw plenty of decisive moments. There was the final play, where the Raptors seemed to have a steal before Shaun Livingston jumped in front of Kawhi Leonard and saved the ball, dishing to Andre Iguodala for the backbreaking triple.

“I would like to go back and try that again about ten times, and see if one of them doesn’t go our way,” said Nick Nurse.

There was the five-minute stretch to begin the third quarter, where the Raptors gave up an 18 run and seemingly forgot how to play the game of basketball.

“Yeah, I mean, it was the big point in the game,” said Steve Kerr of the Warriors’ run to start the third quarter.

But just as significant, if not as discussed or visible, was Toronto’s strange start to the game. Because they scored only five points in the first eight minutes of the game, Toronto was unable to create any separation from the Warriors. The first play of the game saw Kawhi Leonard receive a handoff from Marc Gasol and attempt to attack the lane. The Warriors tipped the ball away, and the broken play ended in a Kyle Lowry missed 3. On the next play, Leonard received an off-ball screen from Gasol, and he caught the ball and attacked, kicking the rock to Pascal Siakam after Siakam’s defender pinched in on the drive. On the third play, Leonard used an on-ball screen from Gasol to attack, Golden State blitzed him, and Leonard drew a foul above the arc.

The commonality between all three plays? Each specifically attacked DeMarcus Cousins, who is recently returned from a quad injury expected initially to keep him out of the entire playoffs. Another similarity was that none resulted in points for Toronto.

Cousins’ lateral movement sure seems to be limited at the moment, and he declined to share how healthy he is currently. As Cousins is the Warriors’ only starter to have never seen time in the NBA Finals, Toronto questioned his defensive awareness, as well as his mobility and conditioning. Perhaps they were taking their cue from Draymond Green, who colourfully described Cousins’ situation in these finals on media day.

“You start to talk playoff experience, where you and I both know the intensity level is completely different than a regular season game, and he doesn’t have much playoff experience,” said Green. “And then you get dropped in the NBA Finals. It’s kind of like some kid who grew up in the suburbs going to private school and then one day you just got dropped in the hood and was told to survive. You got to figure that out. It’s very similar to that.”

The Raptors sure picked on Cousins like he was in the wrong neighborhood. It was a far cry from Nick Nurse’s detailed description on Saturday about how the Raptors wouldn’t change their offensive gameplan to hunt mismatches.

“We use a term ‘keep playing’ on offense,” said Nurse. “That means that we don’t like to react a lot of times to switches. When there’s a switch made, as I mentioned, we have a switch offense that we play. But a lot of it is to just keep playing, and not let a switch stop your offense and try to overanalyze a mismatch or bog down and wait 10 seconds to try to post feed against a smaller guy or whatever, because all it does is send you into a low-shot clock situation, which are low-percentage situations. We like to just keep playing.”

Of course, it wasn’t switching that kept Toronto attacking one player. It was merely Cousins’ presence on the court that sparked such behavior. Cousins’ playing was such an affront to Leonard that he mercilessly tried to expose him, attacking at every possible opportunity.

The only problem was, it didn’t work.

When Cousins finally went to the bench with 6:56 remaining in the first quarter, the Raptors had run 13 offensive plays. Only two did not directly involve DeMarcus Cousins. One was a transition layup attempted from Pascal Siakam, with Cousins not even in the frame. The other was a Danny Green post-up, wherein Green threw the ball directly to the Warriors. Only three saw the ball even touch the paint, which is Toronto’s preferred way to manufacture a jumper from behind the arc. For their efforts, the Raptors scored seven points during that five-minute stretch, putting them on pace to score fewer than 70 in the game. Toronto defended brilliantly, yet they practically threw away several offensive possessions with wasted choices and poor execution. They couldn’t build a big enough lead at halftime, and the Warriors’ eventual run put Toronto in too big a hole. But everything on a basketball court is connected, and Toronto’s insistence to attack Cousins – with no success to show for it – proved significant.

Cousins eventually finished the game a team-high +12, meaning the Warriors outscored the Raptors by 12 points when Cousins was on the floor. Even though he seemed to have trouble moving horizontally, the Raptors couldn’t score when he was on the court. He finished with a game-low 75.4 defensive rating. The next closest was Danny Green, at 87.3.

“Obviously they want to attack [Cousins] on the defensive end, but you watch the film, he didn’t give up much on the defensive end in Game 1,” said Draymond Green. “Similar to tonight, he was great on both ends as well.”

Cousins was indeed great on both ends, but his defense was especially integral to Toronto’s demise.  Even though the short stretch after half seemed to doom the Raptors to the loss, a series of poor choices throughout the game contributed to Toronto falling short. Now, even though Toronto has outplayed Golden State for 90 of 96 minutes, the series is tied 1-1 and going to Golden State. Kevin Durant may soon be returning. No injury can keep Klay Thompson off the court. The Raptors have not squandered their chance, but they have made it more difficult. The Warriors may soon have their numbers at full strength.

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