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How A Depleted Warriors Team Stole Home-Court Advantage In The NBA Finals

TORONTO — Once upon a time in this series, there was a common question being thrown around about the two-time defending champions and their embarrassment of riches: Do they even really need Kevin Durant, who is rehabbing an injured right calf, to win another title?

Yet during Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, the team would have felt fortunate if Durant had been the only player sidelined. Stephen Curry’s shot was off the mark early, and he went back to the locker room in the early going after reportedly feeling lightheaded and dehydrated. Kevon Looney, the team’s best center the past two rounds, was forced to exit in the first half with a chest contusion. Former finals MVP Andre Iguodala had a scary collision with Marc Gasol in the second quarter, and he spent almost a minute lying facedown on the court. And most worth watching going forward: Klay Thompson — whose quick-trigger jump-shooting kept the team afloat in the first half — sustained a hamstring injury that forced him out with eight minutes left.

Still, the Warriors overcame a halftime deficit with one of their patented game-breaking runs, won a war of attrition and survived a somewhat bizarre Raptors’ comeback effort over the final five minutes to avoid a treacherous 2-0 hole and instead even the series at one game apiece as the finals head to Oakland for Games 3 and 4.

Trailing 59-54 at half, Golden State in the third period embarked on another one of those invincible Mario Star stretches, when it almost looked as if the Warriors were the only team allowed to score. They surged ahead by putting up 18 points in the quarter before Toronto got on the board. Incredible scoring runs like that from the Warriors are often fueled by the hot shooting of Thompson and Curry (or Durant), but this one was far more balanced.

Every single basket the Warriors scored during their run was assisted. In fact, all 22 buckets that Golden State got in the entire second half stemmed from an assist, making it the second team in NBA Finals history to assist every single basket over the course of a half, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.1 Several were back-door lobs, a pretty clear sign that the Warriors were taking advantage of the Raptors paying too much defensive attention to Golden State’s sweet-shooting guards.

The Raptors fell behind by as much as 13 but managed to make things interesting in the closing minutes. Shortly after Thompson went down, the Raptors turned to a gimmicky, rarely used defensive scheme called a box-and-one,2 which seeks to punish offenses perceived to have just one true scoring threat.

“I was feeling good because we stopped their scoring,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We finally got something figured out to slow them down.”

While the plan might not work moving forward, the maneuver caught Curry and the Warriors off-guard with no other scoring star to lighten the load. They went five-and-a-half minutes without scoring, and Toronto trimmed its deficit from 12 down to just 2 points. And if it hadn’t been for a critical catch from Shaun Livingston with 10 seconds left — one Kawhi Leonard nearly intercepted after Curry threw a dangerous pass to escape a trap — we easily could have been looking at a tie game. Livingston secured the ball, surprising Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who was headed the other way in anticipation of a fastbreak. Siakam’s haste left Iguodala all by himself, and Iggy made it count.

The shot would have been big for anyone, but it was particularly sweet for Iguodala: Before Sunday, he hadn’t hit a triple since Game 6 of the conference semifinal series against the Rockets.

On the subject of that Houston series, this game in some ways felt like the latter stages of the Rockets-Warriors matchup in the sense that Toronto — like Houston — seemed to squander some golden opportunities. Thompson came out on fire early, but the Raptors limited Curry for the vast majority of the first half: Curry missed his first six shots and didn’t get his first basket until four minutes left in the half. (Klay was also fantastic in the first half of Game 6 against Houston, holding down the fort during a scoreless first half from Curry, who went off for 33 second-half points.) And Thompson’s late injury against Toronto gave the Raptors a window to defend far more aggressively, much like Durant’s injury against Houston figured to give the Rockets a better shot at advancing.

Though this may have been a missed opportunity for Toronto,3 the Warriors deserve full credit for finding a way to hold on. A number of important factors stood out in their victory.

The defensive shifts — like pulling Draymond Green off of Siakam and putting him on Kyle Lowry instead, which allowed Green to roam as a disruptive help defender — were masterful in some cases. Siakam starred in Game 1 but didn’t do nearly as much against Iguodala. And Thompson defended Kawhi, who still saw plenty of defenders in his face but wasn’t hounded nearly as much as he was in the series opener. The Warriors dialed back their pressure in hopes of surrendering fewer wide-open looks to Toronto’s role players, and the decision paid off. (Leonard had 34 points still, but he had just three assists on Sunday — down considerably from the seven dimes per game he’d averaged over his three previous outings.)

And DeMarcus Cousins made a huge impact in just his second game back from injury. He logged 11 points, 10 boards and six assists in just 28 minutes, while registering a team-best +12.4

Sure, there’s plenty to wonder about still for this club — particularly if Thompson is hobbled and can’t play in Game 35 and if Durant is still another game or two away from returning. If the Warriors are down Thompson and Durant, Toronto could continue to use a once-unthinkable defensive strategy against Curry and his teammates.

But regardless of how shorthanded Golden State might be come Game 3 on Wednesday, the fact that the Warriors found a way to get Game 2 — despite everything that seemed to be going wrong — likely gave them all the confidence they need to take this series and retain the title.


From ABC News:


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Footnotes

  1. The San Antonio Spurs did it in 2005. But they also made only nine baskets in that half, making the Warriors’ feat even more impressive.

  2. A hybrid between a zone and a man-to-man defense, in which four players form a box and guard different zones. Two defenders stand near either low block, while two more stand higher up, near the elbows. The fifth defender guards the opposing team’s most dangerous scorer, while getting help from the other four defenders when that player enters their zone. This strategy is almost never used in the NBA because players and teams are generally too offensively skilled for it to work.

  3. Aside from their blown lead after halftime, the Raptors came up with nothing on three straight possessions in the final four minutes of play despite having wide-open looks.

  4. Tied with Curry and Green, both of whom played 41 minutes.

  5. Thompson told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes that he intends to play in Game 3, but Haynes reported that the All-Star is likely to get an MRI.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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