The Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals, 118-109, on Thursday night in Canada. It was a monumental victory for the Raptors, and Pascal Siakam had the game of his life, scoring 32 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists.
One of Toronto’s most important players, Siakam led a defensive charge for the Raptors that wasn’t apparent just by looking at the box score. And while the story of Game 1 will probably be about Siakam’s offensive explosion for 32 points, it was the Raptors defense that led them to the first Finals win on Canadian soil.
More switchable and more athletically able to match up with Golden State than the Portland Trail Blazers did in the Western Conference Finals, the Raptors shut down just about everything be defending Champions did correctly in their last playoff series.
Split cuts? Gone.
The ability of the Raptors to simply stay home and not get overactive fighting around screens was crucial. Portland made the mistake of being too antsy to stop the Warriors shooters last round, and it led to Golden State getting easy assists as their screeners cut early toward the basket for open looks.
Nick Nurse and his staff clearly prepared his team on how to combat perhaps the most recognizable sequence in the Warriors’ offense. It helped that both Danny Green and Siakam were able to fight through screens while guarding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Portland guards did a poor job of getting around Golden State’s picks, but with more length on their side, Toronto narrowed the space available and added over-the-top pressure on Warriors shooters.
Siakam played a critical role, both in defending Curry on-ball and against Draymond Green. The Golden State forward dismantled the Trail Blazers in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals by taking defensive rebounds all the way to the other end of the floor as a one man fastbreak. The result was that Portland was often left with smaller players like CJ McCollum defending the larger Green, creating an imbalance that allowed the Warriors to score with ease.
Thanks to his 6-foot-8 stature and nearly nine-foot standing reach, Siakam was able to pose a larger threat to Green as well as act as a better vertical on-ball defender at the rim.
The net effect of Toronto’s strategy was significant. Golden State shot just 60 percent at the rim — a poor mark for this postseason — and just 27.8 percent on non-corner threes, according to CleaningTheGlass.com. The Raptors were also able to limit the amount of 3-pointers taken by the Warriors stars. While Golden State shot 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, Curry shot just nine times from deep and Thompson six.
The Raptors were able to easily turn turnovers into points, scoring 24 of their 118 in transition. Golden State turned the ball over 16 times, which Warriors head coach Steve Kerr pointed out as his team’s biggest issue.
“Our transition defense was just awful,” Kerr said after the loss. “That’s the game, really.”
Toronto was a team that was led by one man over the first round and parts of the second. Leonard appeared to be doing it all himself, and the team atmosphere around the Raptors was no longer the talk in Canada. But since this team’s Eastern Conference Finals win over the Milwaukee Bucks, that narrative has shifted. So too has the reason for Toronto’s playoff success, with Nurse cooking up a special solution against probable league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Just as it was in the ECF, the Raptors are a capital “T” Team once again, and defense was at the core of their first-ever NBA Finals win. It might be an impossible task to beat the Warriors over a seven-game series, but smart coaching and excellent execution from top to bottom has us thinking the Larry O’Brien landing outside the U.S. this June might not be so crazy after all.
Game 2 is on Sunday at 5:00 p.m. PST.