TORONTO — When you are champions, you stick with what got you here. For the Golden State Warriors, the formula in these 2019 playoffs had been fairly transparent: identify the best player on the opposing team — see James Harden and Damian Lillard — and harangue him into a night of frustration and disappointment.
Thus, the blueprint against the Toronto Raptors was to reduce Kawhi Leonard‘s basketball life to misery, or at the very least considerable discomfort. Blitz him, double him, triple him if necessary, force him to give up the ball and dare the others to beat you.
It was a sound strategy on paper — except the “others” were not only expecting it, they were aiming to exploit it. So, it was a collection of “complementary” Raptors who vaulted Toronto to win Game 1 of the NBA Finals 118-109 in a raucous Scotiabank Arena, delivering a roundhouse right to a team that so often has seemed invincible.
On a night when Leonard, who had been the most transcendent player in the playoffs, was a mere mortal, players such as Pascal Siakam happily filled the void. Siakam, the 24-year old forward who once was on a path to the priesthood — until a visit, on a lark, to a summer basketball camp in his native Cameroon detoured him on an improbable basketball journey — scored 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. It was a prolific performance that would have been unthinkable two short years ago, when he was a raw, unpolished player who couldn’t shoot.
“I was joking with him the other day,” teammate Fred VanVleet told ESPN. “We used to shoot together in my rookie year, and me and the guy rebounding used to duck sometimes because his shots would come off the rim so hard.
“He had some bad misses. But what you are seeing now is the result of a lot of hard work. You can just see his confidence soaring.”
The same can be said of VanVleet, who struggled mightily in earlier rounds of the playoffs but, following the birth of his young son, has re-discovered his shooting stroke.
Then there’s center Marc Gasol, who heard all the chatter about how this was a poor matchup for him, particularly if DeMarcus Cousins found his way onto the court (he did, in an unremarkable 8-minute cameo). Gasol was also a benefactor of the exorbitant amount of attention paid to Leonard, scoring 20 points and stretching the floor for his teammates on what Warriors coach Steve Kerr termed “dare shots.”
“Dare, no dare, if you are open, you shoot them,” Gasol said.
“Kawhi has been having such an unbelievable playoff run, I think it would have been disrespectful not to give him a lot of attention,” VanVleet explained. “We know that. We’ve been dealing with that all of these playoffs.
“You can see teams try to balance it — ‘should we help too much, are we not helping enough?’ For the rest of us, it means we’ve got to be ready for the opportunity when the kick outs come.”
Even Danny Green, who hadn’t drilled a 3-pointer since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, hit three of them Thursday night.
And yet, in a spirited Raptors locker room after the game, the topic of discussion was not their marksmen, but a collective defensive effort that held a terrifying Golden State lineup in check.
“We’ve tried to hang our hat on our defense all year,” Kyle Lowry said. “One thing about Golden State is you can’t give them space. When we did, Steph and Klay made every shot.”
It was Curry’s 11 first-quarter points that kept Golden State within striking distance in the opening frame. In fact, for all the good vibes the Raptors shooters were experiencing, the Warriors were constantly lurking. Because the defending champions can score so quickly and in such explosive fashion, even when Toronto pushed the lead to double-digits, it never quite felt safe.
But as Siakam continued to wreak havoc in transition, the Raptors were able to maintain its lead wire-to-wire.
The most critical shot of the night came courtesy of VanVleet with 3:20 to play, shortly after the Warriors had cut the deficit to 10, 108-98. With the shot clock ticking down, VanVleet found himself pinned in the corner and let it fly. The shot rolled halfway down, halfway back up, and finally settled on counting after all.
“Klay didn’t leave me as much as I thought he would, so I didn’t have a clean look right away,” VanVleet said. “By the time I thought about it, there was only one second left, so I got a little separation, a little look, a little bit of luck.
“About time, you know? I was in a little slump, but now I’ve got some of those in the bank.”
The Warriors were hardly devastated by the events of Game 1, though they were most certainly irritated by them. They once again exhibited their maddening tendency to be careless with the basketball, and the Raptors transformed their 16 turnovers into 17 points.
Golden State also recognizes it needs to do a better job of limiting Siakam in the open floor and identifying Toronto’s shooters.
“Our transition D was horrible,” noted Draymond Green. “You give guys those type of shots, they get comfortable and it’s a different beast.” “You can’t give [Siakam] any dare shots, and you can’t give him any straight-line drives to the basket,” Curry added. “That’s just an effort thing we all can be more mindful of.”
No coach wants to hear their players admit they need to be mindful about more effort; the Warriors swagger has always been their greatest strength — and their greatest weakness. And while acknowledging being up 1-0 is better than being down 1-0 — something this group has never experienced in the Finals — Shaun Livingston insisted his team embraces these moments. “I like the vibe,” Curry added.
The Game 1 loss did one thing, for sure: It quelled the notion the Warriors will cruise to a title with or without Kevin Durant, who will likely miss Game 2 as he continues to heal from his calf strain. Toronto expects to see KD at some point in the series — and will plan accordingly. As Leonard pointed out, “[Durant] can score 30 in his sleep.”
After tonight, the Raptors can be sure of one thing: The champions might have been slumbering before. But they are most definitely awake now.