In the first NBA Finals game in franchise history, the Raptors took a 1-0 lead over Golden State behind a career game from Pascal Siakam.
The Raptors won both of their regular-season meetings with the Warriors — one in a thrilling overtime finish and one in a blowout — but the results proved no more instructive than a pair of preseason games might. Steph Curry missed a late-November matchup in Toronto with a strained groin before Kawhi Leonard (load management) sat out in Oakland two weeks later; both games were played before Toronto acquired Marc Gasol. Any data points from last season were rendered irrelevant the moment Leonard became a Raptor. These two teams hadn’t faced each other in their present iterations until now, making it difficult to calibrate expectations for the first fresh Finals matchup in half a decade. Thursday night, the two teams got properly acquainted with one another as Toronto pushed past the defending champs, 118-109, to claim an early series lead.
The Raptors, who were punched in the mouth by Orlando, pushed to the brink by Philadelphia and thrown for a loop by Milwaukee, were clearly ready for this — the stage, the intensity, the scrutiny of it all — despite the franchise never having previously reached the Finals. They matched — and occasionally even exceeded — Golden State’s fervor and demeanor from the jump, even as Kawhi Leonard hobbled through a slow night. Toronto just kept coming with assaults on the rim, timely 3-pointers and counters to the Warriors’ best stuff that the champs clearly didn’t anticipate.
Pascal Siakam was omnipresent. Kevin Durant’s absence levels the playing field of star talent in this series, bringing the two teams to a virtual draw in that department. In those sorts of series, it is often the contributions of role players that make the difference, and on Thursday, Siakam made all the difference. Siakam didn’t wait for his Finals Moment to come; he took complete control of the moment and stretched it into something more meaningful. It wasn’t just that the third-year forward delivered a team-high 32 points in his first ever Finals game, it was the fashion in which he did it. To only note the fact that Siakam tallied 14 points in the third quarter and made 11 consecutive shots at one point would ignore the rest of his positive contributions — five assists, eight rebounds, sterling efficiency and manic defense across practically every position.
Game 1 was representative of all the transformation Siakam underwent this season. He will win the Most Improved Player award not because he improved his all-around game to become a better version of himself, but because he became an altogether different version of himself. This wasn’t an instance of a defensive specialist coming up with several timely steals or a bit player capitalizing on the gravity of his teammates. Toronto repeatedly called Siakam’s number on offense and trusted him to slide between Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala on defense. The Raptors made a point all game of getting him the ball against mismatches on Curry or whatever poor guard had the misfortune of switching onto him. He determined what spot he wanted to get to and patiently worked his way to them.
It would have been easy for Siakam to develop tunnel vision in the midst of a game like that, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance was how naturally it all seemed to come. Save for a couple of unlikely makes, none of Siakam’s shots were out of the context of Toronto’s offense, and he managed to keep his head up enough to find shooters and cutters when extra defenders attempted to quell his scoring efforts.
The Raptors may not be able to count on another game like this from Siakam, even if the substance of it was genuine. But they may also find Leonard more assertive in the rest of the series and Lowry more efficient. The threat that Siakam could repeat this sort of performance may be all Toronto needs for its other stars to announce their presence in similar fashions.
Toronto won the pace and possession battles. A team as overwhelming as the Warriors must be slowed somehow, and Toronto managed that in Game 1 by grinding the game to as close to a halt as possible and playing with the sort of discipline it takes to outlast a dominant team that keeps on coming. Each team had roughly 94 possessions to work with, and the Raptors gave away only 10 of them via turnovers. The Warriors, despite shooting roughly the same number of field goals, 3s and free throws as Toronto, squandered 17 possessions and gave up 17 points off of turnovers. Neither side had much of an opportunity to run, but when they did, the Raptors scored a whopping 1.82 points per possession in transition (per Cleaning the Glass).
The Raptors never managed to build up an enormous lead, but they subdued each of Golden State’s runs to get back into the game by maintaining their composure and discipline. Kyle Lowry had just seven points on 2-of-9 shooting, but spread out nine assists and kept the offense moving with just the right pace and energy. Marc Gasol quietly had 20 points on 10 shots, and his one assist belies the impact his passing had on the game. Siakam was everywhere, and Leonard was there to steady the offense when necessary. The Warriors have routed teams for years by speeding them up and capitalizing on the mistakes that accompany playing an uncomfortable speed. The Raptors refused to be baited into that ruse and played the game on their own terms.
The Death Lineup was inaccessible. Durant’s absence is evident not only in the way Golden State’s offense reorients around Curry and Green, but in the lineup combinations available to Steve Kerr. What was once 40 reliable, dominant minutes become the work of lesser and completely different players. No single Warrior can fill that time on his own, and Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are only capable of taking on so much. As a result, Kerr never used Green at center in Game 1, opting instead to play Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney and DeMarcus Cousins a combined 48 minutes.
True, the Death Lineup isn’t itself without Durant (or Harrison Barnes!), but the Warriors can produce some close facsimiles without him. Livingston and Alfonso McKinnie have both logged significant time on the wing with Green at center, though both have their own flaws and limitations that sap those units of some power. Toronto also has the tools to counter those looks. Nick Nurse has been saving Siakam-at-center lineups all season; perhaps Kerr was uncertain how effective his small units could be against the Raptors. Still, those small, fast groups have been Golden State’s best lineups for the better part of a half-decade and a defining characteristic of an era. Kerr shouldn’t hesitate to break them out.