Golden State must answer questions about defense, halfcourt offense in Game 2

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The Toronto Raptors did more than just win Game 1 on Thursday night.

They laid out a roadmap for them to beat Golden State and win the NBA Finals.

That is what has Raptors fans so optimistic — the Raptors posed questions to the Warriors in Game 1 that will be difficult to answer in Game 2 (especially without Kevin Durant, who remains out). If Toronto can win Game 2, even if KD returns back in the Bay Area, you have to like Toronto’s chances.

The Warriors still have the confidence earned by champions, and they know what they need to do, they know the level of focus they need.

What the real confidence is is when you’ve been through everything and you’ve seen everything –you’ve won, you’ve lost, you’ve experienced every high, every low, then you know what this is about and you can dig into your reserve of experience to remember what’s necessary, which is really you just keep going back to the basics,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Saturday.

“It sounds boring, but transition defense, boxing out. Football coaches just say blocking and tackling. It’s the
same concept, but your ability to do that under pressure, when you’re in The Finals or in a big series, whatever, and everybody’s asking you a million questions, it’s can you focus on blocking and tackling? That’s what it comes down to.”

The Warriors need that focus in Game 2. Which means they need to do a couple of things much better, starting with improved halfcourt offense.

It seemed like Game 1 of the NBA Finals was played at a fast pace because both teams tried to push the ball up the court and get some easy transition buckets. The Raptors, in particular, went with some long passes up the court, and they exposed the Warriors’ transition defense to the tune of 24 fast break points.

More importantly, on the other end, Toronto also did a fantastic job of getting back, taking away those easy buckets from Golden State — there were only 97 possessions in this game. The Warriors want that into the triple digits at least, and Golden State had just 17 fast break points.

In the halfcourt, the Raptors defense locked the Warriors down — 0.84 points per possession (stats via Cleaning the Glass, which only counts the first shot toward that number). For comparison, in the regular season, the Warriors averaged over a point per possession in the halfcourt. What the Raptors did should not be a surprise, this is how they beat the Bucks in the last round.

With no Durant, it leads to one of the two big questions for the Warriors in Game 2 on Sunday night in Toronto:

Where are they going their points from?

Golden State got to the free throw line 31 times in Game 1, led by Stephen Curry going 14-of-14 from the stripe. Toronto will likely foul less in Game 2, which means the Warriors need to find a way to create mismatches, and come up with counters to plays the Raptors clearly were prepared for, to get cleaner looks. Klay Thompson had 21 points on 17 shots, he can do more, and Andre Iguodala hasn’t hit a three since the Houston series (literally) and they need him to get a few buckets. It can’t be just Curry and Thompson.

That said, the Warriors still had a 112.4 offensive rating for the game, slightly below their regular season average but still enough offense to win. Which leads to the bigger question for Golden State:

Can they get enough stops to win Game 2?

Golden State has to be flat-out better on that end of the court, starting with transition defense.

“The biggest thing for me was our transition defense was just awful and that’s the game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 1. “That’s the No. 1 priority when you play Toronto, you have to take care of their transition and we gave up 24 fast-break points, we turned it over 17 times. So that’s the game, really.”

For my money, an equally significant issue is the Warriors need better rim protection. The Raptors shot 20-of-28 within eight feet of the rim in Game 1 — they got inside and they scored. Those are the easy buckets the Warriors need to take away, both with Draymond Green and whoever is playing center (Jordan Bell, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney). Toronto can’t get that many good shots at the rim.

Expect Green to play a little more attention to Pascal Siakam, but the Raptors can get more offense out of Kawhi Leonard (who was happy to facilitate when trapped) and Kyle Lowry (who was just off). The Warriors need to do a better job of making the Raptors work for their buckets.

If not, Golden State is going to find itself in a place it has not in the Steve Kerr era — down 0-2 in the NBA Finals.