Series Snapshot: Assessing the biggest takeaways from Raptors-Warriors as series heads to Oakland

Heads up, Friday Game 4 is our watch party in downtown Toronto – get your tickets.

If the opening two games of the NBA Finals were an indicator of things to come, we may be in for a long series.

There has been a little bit of everything so far: frenetic defence, scoring runs, injury woes, Drake controversies, and, of course, plenty of tactical adjustments.

I’m not nearly qualified enough to break down the intricacies of Drake’s trolling so I’ll stick to the stuff that happens on-court, and what we can expect as the series shifts to Oakland for games three and four.

The return of Boogie

Amidst the injuries to Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, DeMarcus Cousins became somewhat of an afterthought in the buildup to this series. His slothenly eight minute performance in Game 1 did nothing to deter that notion. However, ‘Boogie’ showed out emphatically in Game 2, notching 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists in 28 minutes of action.

If Cousins’ health allows him to play around the 25 minute range, then Toronto have a whole new wrinkle to address defensively. He displayed a level of playmaking out of the elbow and in post-ups that was eerily similar to his centre counterpart, Marc Gasol, which doesn’t require a clean bill of health to shred an opponent apart. It has to be disheartening from Toronto’s perspective that all six of Cousins’ assists came without even drawing in a second defender. Off-ball cutters were just skirting free one-on-one.

Although the Warriors’ health is rapidly disintegrating, they now possess two large hubs in Cousins and Draymond Green that can patiently dissect the Raptors defence. It also allows Stephen Curry even more opportunities to wreak havoc off-ball (something we will get to later). Cousins himself also presents a massive obstacle in off-ball scenarios, both literally and metaphorically. Defenders are now forced to navigate around his behemoth frame while chasing Curry and Klay Thompson, and he functions as an incredible release valve when either of them get trapped.

On the other side of the ball, Toronto went at Cousins hard on defence. The results were poor. However, I try not be in the business of results-oriented thinking; Leonard missed two open threes attacking him in the pick-and-roll and Cousins may have gotten away with some, well, overzealous defending in the opening quarter. I would surmise that Nick Nurse will ratchet up Cousins’ workload in the pick-and-roll in an attempt to coerce some silly fouls given backup centre Kevon Looney’s lingering ailment.

Yet, Cousins did show quick hands and length in tight areas that somewhat negated his slow footspeed. That’s why it may be even more advantageous to make him defend more open space. Running off-ball shooters off of Gasol screens will generate an advantage, it is the exact thing that Golden State are doing to stretch Gasol’s defensive capabilities. Cousins wants no part of chasing defenders that far out:

Toronto don’t have Curry and Thompson, but they do have good shooters off the catch. Even if a Warriors defender prevents the shooter from pulling the trigger, they can immediately go into a side pick-and-roll to stress Cousins even further. In the clip above, Leonard and Gasol have the entirety of the court cleared out on Leonard’s favourable right side if they wanted to use it.

It’s been well-documented that Kyle Lowry had a stinker. Everything was just off for the guy. It happens. But he was especially guilty of not applying enough pressure onto Cousins in the opening quarter. First Lowry settled for a mid-range pull-up in transition after getting Cousins in a cross-match, and then barreled into the lane allowing help defenders to join later in the quarter rather than pulling the ball out and making the gimped big man defend in space one-on-one.

Cousins is an All-NBA talent and showed out in Game 2. That should not stop the Raptors from mercilessly testing his physical limits throughout the series, especially given Golden State’s current injury woes.

Using Siakam as a screener

After his offensive explosion in the opener, Siakam came back down to earth in Game 2 posting a modest 12 points on 5 of 18 shooting. The totality of his game was not as poor as those numbers suggest, but Draymond Green was resolute in preventing Siakam from scoring in their individual matchup.

One resolution to being guarded by another All-Defender? Using Siakam even more as a screener for VanVleet and Lowry, especially in scenarios where the Raptors offence begins to stall after an initial action is snuffed out. The Warriors have switched on most non-Leonard pick-and-rolls, which offers Siakam some freedom from Green’s defensive hounding.

Siakam is too much to handle for Shaun Livingston in the clip above. Now, in a significant mismatch like this, Green will presumably help on Siakam given the free safety role Steve Kerr has put him in. However, Green is now helping off of a far more dangerous shooter in VanVleet than when he was when roaming away to leave Siakam open above the break threes. He is stuck in two minds.

Siakam has been a solid isolation scorer throughout the season against smaller defenders, bursting towards the paint and flicking in a collection of unorthodox runners and hook shots. Over the regular season, Siakam has averaged a strong 0.97 points per possession in isolation situations and was one of the best foul drawers in the league, 16 per cent of his drives in isolation resulted in a trip to the free throw line.

Even on this wayward attempt, Siakam’s aggression was a positive influence. Once he snakes by Alfonzo McKinnie, the Warriors last line of defence in Kevon Looney is forced to rotate over. As a result, there is no longer a centre readily available to box out Serge Ibaka for an easy tip-in. Siakam has blossomed as a playmaker in transition, readily identifying help defenders and kickout passes. If he can translate that into his isolation possessions — a far more difficult task — Toronto can strain the Warriors defence.

The Raptors were far too passive attacking the rim in Game 2. Using Siakam as a driving force more frequently may change that.

Testing the injured players

Kevin O’Connor broke down a great Golden State play in which they were one move ahead of Toronto. However, the Raptors also ran one great set to nullify Green’s presence on defence and simultaneously have a crack at their two most injured players.

A lot just happened there, so lets break ‘er down.

VanVleet recognizes that Green is guarding him early and subsequently darts across to the left corner of the court, bringing Green along with him to the strong side of the floor. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard has set an on-ball screen for Powell and rolls to the other side of the floor, bringing a great perimeter defender in Thompson away from the ball and under the rim while Iguodala switches onto the ball. One quick hand-off later, and VanVleet can now head up court with Iguodala and Cousins defending the pick-and-roll.

Green being dragged onto the strong side of the court ten seconds earlier now comes into play. Once VanVleet probes and makes that dish to Gasol, Green is now stuck as a spectator, unable to protect the rim. Instead, it is Thompson, who Leonard dragged to the dunker spot, who is now forced to try and contest the centre at the rim. Easy lay-up.

This was one of the cool wrinkles on the re-watch that went undetected in real time.

Throwing different looks at Kawhi

Leonard was reasonably good as a distributor in Game 1 when the Warriors aggressively sought to get the ball out of his hands. In Game 2 they changed up their looks and Leonard had a far tougher time. He was a beat slow on his reads and didn’t respond well to the later pressure thrown at him. Golden State frazzled Leonard a few times with traps near the sideline.

It is hard to take advantage of Curry defensively as the Warriors hide him so well, but the Raptors have to be more crisp when the opportunities present themselves.

In the clip above, Toronto finally have Curry guarding Lowry, something the Warriors have avoided most of the series. As expected, Curry aggressively hedges and recovers on the pick-and-roll to avoid being switched onto Leonard defensively. Leonard fails to capitalize and Iguodala recovers in time to thwart his drive, even after dealing with another Gasol screen.

Lowry and Leonard must be more effective here. In this example, they could use a trick out of James Harden’s playbook and flip the screen. Why would this work? Well Curry has flown up court to prevent Leonard from going right, and Iguodala has sold-out to get over there in time. Look at the direction of Iguodala’s feet and hips the moment Curry begins to backpedal.

His momentum is headed to the right side of the court and back is turned to any move in that direction. Iguodala does do a great job of being the aggressor in the screen battle, and almost moves Lowry around as he waits to fly back onto Leonard. If Lowry can swivel around and flip that screen Leonard has an unimpeded lane to the hoop, something he must be craving after two frustrating games. Leonard has also lacked that customary explosiveness to break apart this pressurized defence, hopefully two days of rest and film will aid this recovery.

It’s not easy to make the split-second maneuvers in the moments, especially against a team so well-oiled defensively as the Warriors. Leonard has his hands full with a myriad of defensive looks and is struggling to identify his countermove until it is too late– Golden State employed this unpredictable defensive tactic against Damian Lillard in the Western Conference Finals to great success. It takes a level of calm and poise in a environment that Golden State tries to make as frenetic as possible.

Given the Warriors injuries, there should be a defender for Leonard to take advantage of. In this clip, he does a far better job at dealing with hedge and recover to pressurize the weak link in the defence.

Leonard patiently waits for Jonas Jerebko (his intended prey) to drop back after hedging, then saunters to his right hand before viciously turning his dribble back left towards Jerebko. Gasol reads this pseudo ‘snaking’ move and sets a savvy back screen on Iguodala to aid Leonard’s pursuit of the helpless Jerebko enroute to the rim. The defence collapses and Toronto gets a wide-open three. Gasol and Leonard have built this unspoken chemistry across the playoffs, Gasol now needs to consistently deliver as the roller to unlock the Warriors stingy defence.

Curry’s Impact

It is ironic that Golden State lost the game that Curry filled the stat sheet and won the encounter where he went ice cold from deep. Nevertheless, Curry’s offensive impact was felt just as strongly in Game 2. The space he provides every other Warrior is just ridiculous. Golden State’s centres set higher ball screens to free up a massive mismatch as Curry would lob past the oncoming trap. Toronto must be much better at identifying if that rolling big man is a scoring threat himself or if they should remain on their matchup.

Interestingly, Curry still hasn’t relied heavily on his vaunted pick-and-roll with Green yet. The few times they did dip into the well, it offered a glimpse of how potent it can be. Toronto are going to have to hope that corner shooters remain off.

Curry’s gravity off-ball directly attributed to many of the Warriors’ backdoor cuts. Toronto were over pursuing him running to the three-point line and they struggled to negate the rolling screener on the split actions. Again, it is an incredibly difficult question that at times doesn’t have a right answer. VanVleet will likely continue the heavy workload chasing Curry as he has done a valiant job so far, the only definitive adjustment Nick Nurse will have to make is being less aggressive bringing Gasol up on ball screens that are being set near the logo.

I don’t like to make sweeping changes, especially to a starting lineup that has proven to be excellent during these playoffs. However, there may be a case to limit Danny Green’s minutes with Curry on the floor. Right now Curry is having a catnap while defending Green, conserving his energy to maximize his offensive game. In the Philadelphia series, I wrote about using Green as a screener to lure J.J. Redick out of hiding. The Raptors tested it then, and the results were middling at best. Green really cannot punish Curry in any meaningful way, especially not in post-ups.

VanVleet presents a more difficult defensive assignment. Granted, he is already receiving starter-level minutes and Lowry’s foul trouble forced extended time with Green on the floor, but VanVleet makes Curry stay alert with savvy off-ball movement for relocation threes. When the Raptors put VanVleet with the starters in the second quarter, the Warriors responded by putting Draymond Green on VanVleet for several possessions and finally leaving Curry on Lowry. It forced their hand and immediately put Curry under siege.

This is why Lowry needs to stay on the damn court and not pick up bonehead fouls!

After a deflating loss on Sunday evening, the Raptors have shifted back into their customary underdog role in the NBA Finals. However, the first two games have proven that neither team has much margin for error if they hope to prevail. Wednesday is going to be a whole lot of fun.

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