For the majority of these NBA Finals, most of the questions surrounding the defensive strategy of the Golden State Warriors were shaped around Kawhi Leonard. And for two games, they made it clear they were going to let anyone but him beat them.
On Wednesday night, with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney all out of action, the conversation shifted to how the Toronto Raptors would defend Steph Curry all by himself.
Nick Nurse went with an unconventional box-and-one zone coverage for the final eight minutes of Game 2 that almost helped the Raptors pull off an improbable comeback, but there was nothing that seemed to work Wednesday.
Curry scored 17 of the 22 points the starters managed for Golden State in the first quarter, and had 25 at the half — the most he’s ever had after 24 minutes of a Finals game — before Nurse had seen enough.
Despite strong shooting and rebounding in the first half, the Raptors head coach elected to sit Danny Green for Fred VanVleet— who has had as much success defending Curry as anyone could hope for — coming out of the break and Curry still dropped 15 in the third quarter before finishing with a playoff career-high 47 points to go along with eight rebounds and seven assists. It didn’t matter.
The Raptors used a balanced attack themselves to come away with the 123-109 win, but after a shaky first half, it was still Leonard who led all Raptors with 30 points. Kyle Lowry was immense on this night, racking up 23 points that included five three-pointers as well as nine assists and four rebounds.
Before the game, one of the Raptors players had written the words ‘Let it Rip’ on a board, and while Curry may have sneaked a peak and drawn inspiration from it, the message was clearly received by Lowry and his teammates.
“Yeah, I had a little talk with him before the game, and his kind of comments to me was he was going to let it rip tonight,” Nurse revealed after the game. “So, that was good.
“You saw him aggressive in transition, but, again, usually when he's going good, it means he's hitting the paint, he's attacking off the screen-and-roll and really getting downhill. That's usually a sign that he's got a lot of his offensive game and confidence going.”
It must have also been nice not having to defend Thompson at all or chase Curry as much as he’s had to, as VanVleet was once again depended on heavily. The former Wichita State star has hit big shot after big shot since giving birth to Fred Jr., and was instrumental in keeping the Warriors at bay whenever they chipped the lead to single digits.
“Yeah, I mean, when you lose an All-NBA type basketball player in Klay and an All-Star, it definitely changes their team, but Steph had an unbelievable game,” Lowry said after the game. “Forty-seven points is pretty impressive. But we just got to go out there and do our job, and I think we held them under 40 percent shooting. We played well, we finished the game, and we found a way to win the basketball game.”
Despite being benched to start the second half, Green was a major factor in the third quarter, knocking down three of his six triples in the frame, including a big one off a scrambled play that pushed Toronto’s lead to 16 with 29.2 seconds remaining. He and Pascal Siakam finished with 18, while Gasol added 17 as well and made a much more concerted effort of attacking DeMarcus Cousins.
That will be a matchup to keep an eye on going forward, as the former Kentucky star, who had a vintage performance in Game 2, came up empty on this night with four points on 1-of-7 shooting, three rebounds and two assists.
It marked only the second time in the last 20 years of NBA Finals history that all five starters topped at least 15 points.
Golden State, in some ways, lost this battle for the sake of the war, opting for more recovery time for both Thompson and Durant. Despite Curry’s best efforts, the rest of the team shot 16-of-38 (42.1 percent) from two-point range and 6-of-22 (27.3 percent) from three.
“Any time you make it to the NBA Finals, you're playing against another great team. So, it's always going to be challenging,” Draymond Green said after the game. “We can sit and talk about the injuries until we're blue in the face, it's not going to change how Kevin's calf feels or how Looney — what's it called? Yeah, no it was like some costal cartilage fracture, something like that, it's not going to make that feel better. And it ain't going to make Klay's hamstring feel better either.
”So it is what it is, with the guys we got out there, we got to roll with it. We fought tonight. We lost. We're going to fight again. I don't really see us losing too many more, though, but we're going to fight again.”
Defense continues to remain Toronto’s calling card, but the Warriors’ Green makes a great point that they showed themselves on the defensive end, which should give the Raptors some reason for concern going forward.
The Raptors managed just three points over a seven-minute stretch in the second quarter that included six turnovers, which allowed the hosts to pull within seven after trailing by as many as 14. Throw in the near six-minute stretch where they went scoreless in the third quarter of Game 2, and Toronto will need to review film and understand what the issue is in these stretches. They may be surmountable in the absence of Thompson and Durant, but with their returns now looming for Game 4, Toronto maintaining its offensive punch will be vital going forward.
The winner of Game 3, in a series tied 1-1 entering play, is 31-7 all-time in the Finals, so the Raptors will have history on their side at the very least.
Klay Thompson was ruled out just before tip-off with a strained left hamstring. Shaun Livingston started in his place and finished with four points, two rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes.
Serge Ibaka collected six points, five rebounds and six blocks off the bench.
This was a record 10th different starting lineup for the Warriors in a single post-season.
Kyle Lowry became the all-time franchise leader in playoff field-goals made, passing DeMar DeRozan.
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