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Tactical Issues: How will the Raptors and Warriors adjust in Game 5?

The Warriors face a do-or-die game, and with Kevin Durant’s return imminent, so do the Raptors. Can Toronto close the NBA Finals at home, or will the Warriors extend the series?

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors and their fans took over the Oracle Arena in Game 4, and are now one game away from their first ever NBA championship.

The Golden State Warriors came out firing and pushing the pace, and seemed poised to take control or at least be within striking distance the entire game. Fortunately for the Raptors, their resiliency, focus, and adjustments worked out for them.

Nick Nurse threw the book at the Warriors in Game 4 — random box-and-1, twin towers, Fred VanVleet to start the second half and almost play the entire game, zone defense, switching/no-switching, and excellent use of timeouts. As the game went on, Steve Kerr and the Warriors had no counters and were left with hoping and praying that Kevin Durant can come back and rescue the team from extinction.

Let’s look at some of the strategies that were employed, and predict what could come next for Game 5 — with the title on the line.

For the Raptors

Break It Down from the Inside-and-Out

It’s been happening since Game 3, but it was more apparent in Game 4. The Raptors have moved from outside-and-in to inside-and-out attack mode. With Kawhi Leonard’s and Pascal Siakam’s isolation attack somewhat neutralized, the Raptors have been unable to collapse their opponent’s defense via drive-and-kick.

Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry faced the same issue in the previous series, and the Raptors had to lean on Kawhi to do most of the heavy lifting on the offense.

Well, not this time.

Nick Nurse and the Raptors were much more prepared this time, and the way they match up against the Warriors made it possible. The Raptors attacked the paint via:

  • Marc Gasol posting up on DeMarcus Cousins or Kevon Looney;
  • Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet keeping their dribble alive, probing in and around the basket;
  • Using Gasol as a facilitator on the elbow;
  • Bigs rolling hard to the paint on high pick-and-rolls; and
  • Getting the ball to the bigs in the baseline around the dunker’s spot.

Will We See This Again: Definitely.

Drag Curry

One of my biggest pet peeves during the Dwane Casey era in the postseason is how easily opposing teams could get to their spots when executing their offense. Well, not this postseason — and not since Steph Curry’s 47-point explosion.

Whether it’s Fred VanVleet or Danny Green hounding him, the Raptors are making sure that Curry is making an extra effort to get into his routes. He’s getting bumped by either Green or VanVleet, and any other Raptors that he comes across.

With the short turnaround time from Game 3 to Game 4, and the amount of effort Curry had to exert, it’s not surprising to see him struggle.

Will We See This Again: Yes, even if the Warriors knock VanVleet cold. Will it be as effective as it was in Game 4? Time will tell.

Diversifying Kawhi’s Looks

Kawhi Leonard had 35 points, but did you know that he had zero turnovers?

In Game 4, Kawhi got to his 35 points easily, and while it looked like it was a one-man effort, the Raptors put a lot of thought into it. The Raptors diversified the way they got the ball to Kawhi, and in turn, it made his moves unpredictable, and the offense less stagnant. There were few chances for the Warriors to force turnovers and score the other way.

Here’s some of the ways the Raptors got the ball to Kawhi:

  • Cutting to the basket while Lowry probed the paint;
  • Catch and shoot in the perimeter/midrange;
  • Decisive drives to the basket on the catch;
  • Spot up 3 off a swing pass;
  • Post ups; and
  • Dunker’s spot.

I could be wrong, but the first time I saw the Warriors blitz Kawhi on an ISO was near the end of the second quarter. That’s a huge change from what we’ve seen before in this post-season.

Will We See This Again: 100 percent.

Potential Adjustments for the Raptors

Prepare for Kevin Durant

The Raptors undoubtedly have a contingency plan for Kevin Durant in Game 5. It’ll likely mean attacking Durant on both sides of the floor and making him feel like he’ll need to push himself to be able to help his team. A fully healthy Durant would be a problem for Toronto; it’s possible a hampered KD would be just a nuisance.

Still, KD’s presence will draw the attention of Kawhi, and vice versa, as both are ideally suited to stopping each other. Unfortunately for the Warriors, Kawhi is (relatively) healthy, and this would be Durant’s first game since the second round.

Also to note: could we also sese OG Anunoby make his postseason debut if KD plays? He’s a much better fit defensively than Norman Powell or Patrick McCaw, but it still feels chancy to bring him in.

Will We See This: It’s sounding more and more like Durant will try to play. Kawhi and the Raptors have to be ready to attack him.

For the Warriors

Klay in the Post

Klay Thompson’s minutes mileage is well-documented, with a leg injury, he’s unable to move around as much as we’re accustomed to. As a result, the Warriors put Klay in excellent post position against smaller Raptors like Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, where he can turn around and shoot over them.

The Warriors also prepared a counter if Klay gets doubled. In Game 4 his passing from the post was used to break down the Raptors defense. The bigs that Marc Gasol left to double Klay positioned themselves near the basket to create 2-on-1 situations which led to easy baskets.

Will We See This Again: If Klay hasn’t fully recovered yet, expect to see this move again.

Push the Pace

The Warriors came out firing, trying to push the pace as often as possible. They have every incentive to do so; they’re trying to avoid the Raptors half court set defense. The result? they doubled their average fastbreak points in the series. The tactic got Curry and Thompson a combined 20 fastbreak points.

Unfortunately, the Warriors did not have enough personnel to sustain this style of play. It’s easy to see Boogie Cousins, Andrew Bogut, and even Andre Iguodala huffing and puffing at times in dead ball situations.

Will We See This Again: I still say yes, because it’s in the Warriors’ DNA to push the pace, but for how long is an open question.

Potential Adjustments for the Warriors

Start Looney

I repeat: the Warriors are in a do-or-die situation. That means they can’t afford any risks, especially if there’s historical data that suggests a certain personnel choice is a mistake.

Kerr likes to have Looney come off the bench, a role in which he’s been effective for the Warriors. But the team has been bleeding points with Cousins on the floor, so why not mitigate the risk and start with your best lineup? It remains to be seen how many minutes Looney can give Golden State — he’s injured too — but he’s shown himself to be a better option over the long haul than Cousins.

Will We See This: My money is on Looney starting if Durant does not play.

What About Boogie?

DeMarcus Cousins’ drive and willingness to play through injuries, risking his value in the open market next year is admirable. Boogie looked great in spot minutes in Game 2; however, he’s been bad since. So bad, that in Game 4, he looked unplayable.

Partly because of his health/fitness, and partly because of how the Raptors have attacked him. On top of that, the way the Warriors pushed the pace in Game 4 was not a good fit for Cousins’ game, and it contributed to the fast deterioration of his play.

As I mentioned above, the Warriors should start Kevon Looney. So where does Boogie fit in the Warriors rotation? Should they give him a DNP or is he the first big off the bench?

If the Warriors are to play Cousins, it would have to be off the bench, and in the small pocket of minutes when one of Steph Curry or Klay Thompson go for a breather. The Warriors can slow the game and keep it simple by dumping the ball to him in the post. His value there, or as a spot up shooter, is about all Cousins can do now.

Will We See This: It feels likely we’ll see him a bit, but Kerr’s trust in Cousins has to be at an all-time low now.

The Durant Factor

If not now, when?

Kevin Durant practiced yesterday, but at what capacity? Shooting drills? Defensive schemes? Offensive schemes? 1-on-1? 2-on-2? Full scrimmage?

Reportedly, Kevin Durant is cleared to play, regardless if he’s at 60 percent (or whatever), he’s a better alternative than the Quinn Cook, Alfonso McKinnie, Boogie Cousins combo the Warriors were forced to work with off the bench. Durant’s gravity alone could impact the game and open up the Warriors offense.

But would Durant risk aggravating an injury, and perhaps his next season as well? Or would it look great for him to come back and rescue the Warriors after all the mockery that he got from his own organization and fanbase since winning the title last year? Even his own teammate (Draymond Green) was ready to pack his bags earlier this season. Could this all fire Durant up?

Will We See This: KD is coming.