You’ve probably heard this before. The NBA playoffs are all about adjustments. A series can easily flip from one game to the next. That’s exactly what transpired in the 2019 NBA Finals between the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors took Game 1 thanks mainly to Toronto’s 25-year-old forward Pascal Siakam, who had an out-of-body experience in his Finals debut with 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting from the field. The Warriors, who looked rusty and out of sync minus all-world forward Kevin Durant, took great notes from Game 1 and pulled out a few surprises for Game 2.
Then, the series swung to Toronto’s favor in games 3-4. The Raptors stole two straight games at Oracle Arena to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. By the time Kevin Durant briefly showed up in Game 5, the Raptors had control of the series and it was just a matter of time before the Warriors dynasty came crashing down.
Here are six observations from the six-game series:
VanVleet joins long list of unlikely Finals heroes
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet made a remarkable turnover after his son was born. Over his last nine playoff games, VanVleet connected on 53 percent of his 3-point shots and capped off his amazing postseason with 22 points in the series-clinching Game 6. VanVleet knocked down two crucial 3-pointers in the final moments of Game 6 that not only knocked out the Warriors but also shut down Oracle Arena for good. Toronto coach Nick Nurse used VanVleet strategically throughout the playoffs, especially against Golden State. He came off the bench in the first half, but started in the second half. His defense on Steph Curry was just as valuable as his production on offense. Kawhi Leonard may have been the Finals MVP but VanVleet will go down as one of the unsung heroes of The Finals, joining the likes of Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, Andre Iguodala, and Kenny Smith.
Cousins makes small contribution
Coach Steve Kerr made one big change to his starting lineup as he inserted DeMarcus Cousins for Jordan Bell. The move gave the Warriors a big body to lean on Toronto’s Marc Gasol on defense and gave the Dubs another playmaker on offense. Cousins scored just 11 points in 27 minutes, but grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out six assists. Cousins’ passing ability added another dimension to the Warriors’ motion offense. He fed Klay Thompson on a few backdoor plays and when the Raptors charged at him he was able to put the ball on the floor and create one-on-one plays. The Cousins move was the only time in the series where Kerr got the best of Toronto first-year coach Nick Nurse.
Siakam got away from Dubs
Kerr and the coaching staff saw how the quicker and more athletic Siakam gave the Warriors fits in the opener. Andre Iguodala, who was assigned to Kawhi Leonard in Game 1, was switched to Siakam in Game 2 and it took away one of the Raptors’ ace cards. By moving the more mobile Iguodala on Siakam, it took away the Raptors’ speed advantage and freed up Draymond to play his usual free safety on defense. The plan worked. Siakam came back down to Earth and was a non-factor in Game. He struggled getting by Iguodala and all those run-outs he had in the Game 1 were taken away with the exception of the one dunk he had in the first half. He finished with just 12 points and went 5-for-18 from the field. But the young Raptor adjusted his game in the latter part of the series by making quicker decisions. Siakam wasn’t able to duplicate his monster Game 1 performance but he came up with timely plays when it mattered most. Siakam’s floater with under a minute left in Game 6 over Draymond Green may have been the biggest basket in Raptors history.
It’s a trap (or not)
The Warriors adjusted the way they were defending Kawhi. After trapping Kawhi almost exclusively in Game 1, the Warriors didn’t trap Toronto’s All-Star forward as much in Game 2. The Warriors saw how easily Kawhi and Gasol handled the trap, so the adjustment was switching to a more conventional straight-up man sometimes and then blitz Kawhi sometimes. It was equivalent to a pitcher mixing up his pitches so batters couldn’t get a beat on them. And when did trap Kawhi, it came much harder and faster, and took away his sight line and passing lanes. Kawhi got his points (34 points) but he had to work for it, making 8-of-20 shots.
Warriors couldn’t solve Raptors’ pick-and-roll plan
Nurse kept the Warriors off balance all series long, using the high pick-and-roll to expose the backline of the Warriors. Nurse anticipated that the Warriors would double team Kawhi whenever he got the ball at the top. So, to counter the trap and exploit the absence of Kevin Durant, he used Kyle Lowry and VanVleet to initiate the offense off high ball screens. Lowry carved up the Warriors with pick-and-roll action in Game 4, finding wide open cutters down the middle of the paint. Without a shot blocker protecting the rim, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam had free paths to the basket. When Lowry and VanVleet were matched up with Warriors bigs like DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney, they went to work. Lowry put on an absolute clinic on how to run pick-and-roll in Game 4. He scored just 10 points in the game, but completely dominated the fourth quarter with his playmaking ability.
Raptors ‘janky’ defense worked
You have to give a lot of credit to Nurse for making some really bold moves in the playoffs. He drew up a 1-2-2 zone against the Bucks to slow down Giannis Antetoukounmpo. And it worked. The Raptors went on to win the series 4-2 after dropping the first two games. He then drew up a box-and-1 defense in The Finals to exploit the Warriors’ lack of depth once the injuries started piling up. The box-and-1 was designed to keep Steph Curry in check. And it worked. The defense that Curry referred to as “janky” disrupted the Warriors’ flow on offense and exposed their weaker shooters like Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie. Nurse had VanVleet shadow Curry as soon as the ball is inbounded and played a matchup zone behind it with four guys covering each corner of the free throw line. Nurse coached The Finals like he was playing with house money. Once he got on a roll he kept winning and winning until the Warriors ran out of chips.