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Analysis: How the Raptors slowed Steph and Klay in Game 1, and more

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The Raptors struck first in the NBA Finals, finding a way to slow the Warriors’ attack and even extend their bench a bit. Did it all work? Let’s look into the numbers.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This series, a Finals showdown with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, is one of the hardest to prepare for. The Warriors can be such a different team depending on how hard they feel they need to try, so projecting anything from the regular season, or their performance in terms of metrics, is an impossible task.

So we’ll just take each game as an opportunity to reflect on what worked and what didn’t in that specific contest, and hope those trends hold up if the Raptors try to learn from them.

Extended Bench

Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before the game that he wanted to run out ten guys and see who stuck. With OG Anunoby still out for at least Game 1, though hopefully available for Game 2, Nurse went with a nine-man rotation: the obvious eight from last series, plus Patrick McCaw.

Now, as I warned before Game 1, extending the bench to include even OG comes with risks — if Toronto plays too many bench players together, they’re asking for trouble. Thankfully, although Nurse increased the number of players who stepped on the court, he essentially ran an eight-man rotation, just with McCaw taking over Powell’s minutes early in the second quarter.

This left Powell with about five minutes played, and McCaw with seven.

Now, why Nurse did this is a mystery to me. Perhaps he simply wanted to give the ex-Warrior a shot against his former team. Perhaps he wanted to try as many potentially viable bench players as possible to see what could work. Perhaps he thought McCaw was the better defensive option against the Warriors.

In any case, the results were not promising. Although McCaw stepped into the role Norm had been playing in (and holding his own in, with the team a +2 in Norm’s five minutes), the Raps lost McCaw’s minutes by three. A lot of that might well be noise, but it’s not a surprise that such a result might happen with that swap.

Norm has struggled at times this year, but even he looks great compared to McCaw. The Raptors were eight points worse per 100 possessions (in terms of point differential) with Norm on the court than off this season. With McCaw? That’s a 15 point swing (again in the wrong direction).

Meanwhile, Norm had just come off another famous Playoff Norm series, where the Raptors were 16 points better with him on the court than off. The decision to go away from him (even in a game where he had struggled for the first few minutes) seems a little odd.

In small minutes this seems like a fairly harmless choice, but I suspect I only feel that way because the Raptors won fairly comfortably by the end. If this was a one point loss... well, we’ll deal with that if and when we need to.

In any case, Anunoby should be back soon, and that will further complicate this thought process. I’d hope that if Nurse doesn’t trust Powell to play those minutes, Anunoby takes over all of the eighth man minutes.

Guarding the Warriors

Much has been made of Fred VanVleet’s defensive effort on Steph Curry. We’ll touch on it again here, and take a look at some of the other successes (and lack thereof) the Raptors found defensively.

The Warriors’ top scorers in this game were Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the only players to break double digit scoring. Let’s take a look at their top matchups (any defensive matchup with more than five defended possessions).

ORTG: Offensive rating: team points scored per 100 possessions.

Curry Defender | Possessions | Curry Points | GSW ORTG
VanVleet: 33 poss, 4 points, 82 ORTG
Lowry: 16 poss, 10 points, 113 ORTG
Green: 12 poss, 3 points, 58 ORTG
Siakam: 8 poss, 7 points, 175 ORTG
Leonard: 6 poss, 5 points, 217 ORTG

So, yeah, 48 minutes of VanVleet and Danny Green with that assignment looks real good. Inevitably there will be switches that are forced, but starting out this way seems like a recipe for success.

Thompson Defender | Possessions | Thompson Points | GSW ORTG
Green: 26 poss, 4 points, 138 ORTG
Siakam: 19 poss, 2 points, 111 ORTG
Lowry: 15 poss, 6 points, 100 ORTG
Leonard: 7 poss, 0 points, 100 ORTG

Another set of obvious ones to avoid. Now, with the Warriors, it is so important to get back in transition and find a man. There will continue to be a lot of possessions where there won’t be a ton of control over matchups. But after made baskets or dead balls, it would make a lot of sense to let Kyle Lowry chase Klay, and freely switch any Kawhi Leonard-Lowry defensive screen plays, leaving Green free to chase Curry.

Green Defender | Possessions | Green Points | GSW ORTG
Leonard: 30 poss, 6 points, 83 ORTG
Siakam: 25 poss, 4 points, 116 ORTG
Green: 9 poss, 0 points, 178 ORTG

You can see they already made an effort to avoid getting any smalls switched onto Draymond for long. But you can also see when they had to, the Warriors made them pay. As a note, in five possessions guarding Draymond, Lowry did hold his own a bit, with the Warriors scoring just six points on those possessions.

So, pretty straighforward. VanVleet and Green on Curry, 48 minutes of that coverage. Lowry on Klay, ideally minutes matched, though Kawhi can cover him if need be. And Kawhi on Draymond Green, again minutes matched where possible, but with a willingness to switch on Klay/Draymond actions, more so than on Curry actions.

That all leaves Gasol to just do his thing guarding whatever nominal centre the Warriors have on the court, and Siakam to roam off of the extra, mostly non-threatening role player on the floor with the Warriors’ stars.

Now all they have to do is keep all that straight with the Warriors trying to run the ball down their throats in transition and then running screen after screen trying to get Steph Curry or Klay Thompson a few inches of space. Good luck, guys!

All stats per NBA.com