On Thursday night, NBA fans across the world witnessed history: the first-ever NBA Finals game played outside of the United States. Along with that, they saw what was likely the beginning of the first truly competitive finals since 2016, featuring eight recent, and current All-Stars, 3 MVP candidates, and 3 former defensive players of the year (5 if we’re counting Andrew Bogut and Chris Boucher of the NBL and the G-League!).
After the Toronto Raptors won Game 1 in a fairly convincing fashion over the 2-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, they seem to have finally earned the respect they deserve from media and fans across the league, but the job is not close to finished yet for either side. As the saying goes, while Canada is clearly on a wave right now, nobody remembers 2nd place. Kyle Lowry said it best at the beginning of the season with his emotions running high, “It’s championship or bust”, and at this stage, he is certainly correct.
With potentially, and quite possibly 6 games left to be played in this series, both teams will head back to the drawing board. Adjustments are a huge part of a playoff series, and are imperative to defining a great NBA coach versus a good NBA coach. Assuming Kevin Durant will not suit up for Game 2 on Sunday, Demarcus Cousins might begin to see more minutes, and OG Anunoby returns with a minutes restriction, here are some adjustments that both teams might look to make:
All post-season long, and quite frankly, all year long, the Warriors have not seen a defense like Harassic Park. The sheer length, versatility, and intangibles that the Raptors roster presents defensively from top to bottom are what everyone has been raving about since the Valanciunas-Gasol trade went down at the trade deadline. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson found that out firsthand Thursday night. Nick Nurse gameplanned to perfection, running the splash brothers off the three-point line, forcing them to take heavily contested shots in the paint. The two all-time great shooters combined to shoot 10-12 on their open looks, but an abysmal 6-23 when they were contested. With the way that the whole Warriors team moves so well off the ball, the very fact that the Raptors were able to contest 66% of Curry’s and Thompson’s shots is a credit to their rotations. The easiest solution to these quick closeouts, double teams, and blitzes would be to have role players hit their shots. Sadly, relying on poor shooters to shoot better is not an adjustment, and is the very reason that the 2017-2018 Coach Of The Year was fired (sorry, Dwane). Something we might see more of in Game 2 is for the Warriors to play Steph more off the ball, so he can run the offense through his cuts, and coming off screens rather than dealing with the initial blitz. While he looked a little slow, having Boogie play heavier minutes as a facilitator in the post, or from the top of the key would make such an adjustment easier. They may also look to run Draymond as the point-forward more, or use a two point guard lineup featuring Quinn Cook.
On the other end, there’s not much else one can do to stop a raw 25-year-old Siakam, but to put the “greatest defender of all time” on him, right? Wrong. Many times during the game, Draymond was guarding Siakam and over-anticipating his spin move, then getting burned on the straight line drive where Siakam would nail a layup. No one expects Siakam to shoot 14-17 again, but Draymond needs to trust his feet, and pay more attention to what’s in front of him rather than the scouting report. The Dubs had suffocating team defense on Kawhi, but as we know, superstars cannot be stopped, only slowed. Kawhi still broke through multiple times, and looked to facilitate, rather than score as the whole defense shifted toward him. This led to wide open shots for Siakam, Green, Gasol, McCaw, and VanVleet, and finally, the Raptors have begun to capitalize on their open looks. With such a strong secondary option now in Siakam, the Warriors can ill-afford to stick Draymond as the sole defender on Kawhi. Rather, an adjustment we might see is to play single coverage with Iguodala, or Thompson on Kawhi, then as soon as he beats the first defender, the second defender steps up before Kawhi can get downhill to the rim. It is exactly how the Raptors combatted Giannis Antetokounmpo in the last series, not allowing him anything easy inside. If the Warriors want to continue with their small ball lineup, they need to keep Kawhi away from the rim, and not draw the second and third defenders so late, leaving guys on the perimeter with wide open shots.
For the Raptors, there wasn’t too much room for improvement. The whole team played an excellent game on both ends of the floor. Aside from some spotty shooting from Kawhi and Kyle, the offense was a smooth operator. One general adjustment that might have to be made is getting Kawhi more rest. The Klaw played all but 4:57 in the first game of his third NBA Finals, but with the hopeful return of OG Anunoby, his load could come down to something like 38 minutes by Game 2. Regardless, it is the NBA Finals, and everyone will have 6 months of rest when it’s over. If he has to play 48 minutes for a win, and is physically capable of doing so, then so be it, but his tendinitis might be something for sports-science guru Alex McKechnie and Nurse to keep an eye on.
Also, to point out the obvious, the Raps need consistent scoring from non-Kawhi Players. Siakam was other-worldly, and hopefully won’t have to be again, but Gasol chipping in with 20, VanVleet with 15, and Finals Danny with 11 and three 3’s is a big part of why the Raptors pulled out the win.
The one key adjustment that Nurse will have to find his way around is defensive rebounding. The Warriors led 20-7 in second-chance points midway through the third quarter, and only had 2 more offensive rebounds than the Raptors in the whole game. With a team like the Warriors, they are way too dangerous to give up offensive rebounds, They will catch the defense scrambling, and find the shooters before the Raptors do. If not for this 13 point differential, Toronto could have won in a blowout. On the bright side, the Raptors went the final 10 minutes of the game not giving up any second chance points. Many thought this series would favour Ibaka over Gasol, but if the Spaniard keeps up this kind of play, Nurse might have to ride with him all the way to the parade.