Entering the NBA Finals, the biggest question for the Raptors centered around Stephen Curry. How would Toronto defend the Warriors’ star guard in pick-and-rolls—the play that ultimately spelled doom for the Rockets and Blazers? Golden State isn’t a pure pick-and-roll team, but it’s a crutch Steve Kerr is more than happy to lean on in critical moments, particularly when playing without Kevin Durant. In their 118–109 Game 1 win, the Raptors defended Curry and the Warriors incredibly well, and it was one of the biggest keys in Toronto taking a 1–0 lead in the series.
Before we start, it’s worth noting Golden State wasn’t exactly shut down Thursday night. The Warriors finished Game 1 with a 115.8 offensive rating, but that number was buttressed by a big night at the free-throw line. The Dubs also picked up a lot of points from broken plays and offensive rebounds, but they lacked execution in the halfcourt, where Toronto especially thrived.
I had doubts about Marc Gasol’s usefulness in this series. It wasn’t too long ago Curry was sending Gasol tumbling with a devastating ankle breaker off a switch, the kind of symbolic play that’s come to illustrate what Curry has done to centers this decade. Gasol was spectacular defensively in Game 1. The Raptors trusted him to play with Curry at the three-point line, and he delivered in that role. Gasol was mostly asked to hedge hard when Curry came off a screen and hound with high hands until the original defender could catch up to the play. Gasol wasn’t alone, but his traps on the perimeter forced the ball out of Curry’s hands, and Toronto’s backline rotations prevented the easy buckets that situation often creates.
Durant’s absence is forcing the Warriors to keep non-shooters on the floor, and the Raptors took advantage. Golden State couldn’t force Gasol into switches, and Toronto could cheat off guys like Andre Iguodala, Jordan Bell and Draymond Green to take away easy looks in the paint. Golden State tried to counter by changing the rhythms of the screens it set for Curry, like having Green set a pick for him in the backcourt, or drawing the defense out well beyond the three-point line. But the Warriors simply didn’t have the perimeter threats to take advantage of those situations. Even when Curry would start to slither free to draw multiple defenders, the paint was packed, with Kyle Lowry ready to take a charge, and Steph didn’t have great options to kick out to.
When the Warriors are at their best, they need their big, or whoever screens for Curry, to make the defense pay as a roll man. Bell and Kevon Looney weren’t up to that task in Game 1. Bell started, but was a nonfactor in 12 minutes, scoring two points and collecting only one assist. Looney, an unsung hero in the conference finals, played 28 minutes Thursday. He played 17 of those alongside Curry, Iguodala, Green and Klay Thompson, and Golden State had a minus-15.0 net rating in those minutes. Golden State’s bigs weren't effective as rollers or offensive rebounders, and that set the Warriors back considerably even as the Raptors’ defense was scrambling.
This development allowed the Raptors to keep a capable defender on Green. That means if Kerr called on the typically devastating Curry-Green pick-and-roll, Toronto could switch and live with the resulting matchup. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t tasked with hounding Curry in Game 1, but the moments he or Pascal Siakam were matched up with Green in the halfcourt discouraged the Warriors from using him as a screener. If the Warriors can’t take advantage of Gasol, then Durant’s absence will hurt them much more than it did in the conference finals.
After shooting 49% from the field against the Blazers, Golden State shot only 43.6% in Game 1 of the Finals. The Warriors entered this series hitting 42.2 field goals per game; they sunk only 34 on Thursday—their lowest output of the postseason. Outside of Curry and Thompson, no one else in Golden State’s starting lineup hit a three-pointer. Jonas Jerebko, Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie combined to shoot 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, but the Raptors will certainly live with those players shooting as the series continues.
The source of the Warriors’ offensive problems started at the top of the key, with Toronto’s bigs—specifically Gasol, as well as Siakam and Serge Ibaka—stepping up to the challenge defensively. As long as Golden State doesn’t have shooting elsewhere on the floor, if the Dubs can’t take advantage of Toronto’s frontcourt, they won’t find the easy buckets they’re accustomed to in the halfcourt.