If they don't win the NBA Finals, Game 2 will likely be the game the Toronto Raptors look back on most ruefully.
There's a lot of basketball to be played before it comes time to reflect, and resilience has been the Raptors' calling card throughout this postseason. But they had a sparkling opportunity to put the mighty Golden State Warriors on their heels by taking a 2-0 series lead Sunday, and failing to capitalize on that opportunity dimmed (though certainly did not extinguish) their momentarily sunny championship prospects.
The Raptors were cruising in Game 2, leading by as many as 12 points late in the second quarter as they continued to lock down the Warriors in the half court. For Golden State, Kevin Durant was still sidelined and Steph Curry was ill. A hobbled Andre Iguodala had to leave the game for a spell after being shaken up by a hard screen. Kevon Looney had to leave the game for good after having his collarbone busted while contesting a Kawhi Leonard drive, and Klay Thompson eventually joined Looney on the shelf for the game's final eight minutes after suffering a hamstring strain.
But the defending champs reminded everyone why they're defending champs and won thanks to a dominant second half. They turned around the game - and The Finals - with a 27-3 run over the course of seven minutes, from late in the second quarter to the middle of the third, to flip an 11-point deficit into a 13-point lead they would not relinquish.
Assigning agency in head-to-head competition is tricky. The results are binary, but the process tends to be nuanced, and reconciling the two can be difficult. We can rightly say the Warriors went out and snatched this game. We can also say the Raptors gave it away.
The Warriors had to lock all the way in to finally break Toronto's half-court spell; had to cut and screen and pass with pinpoint precision to score 22 assisted baskets in the second half; had to tweak their defensive coverages and pressure points to throw the Raptors' offense out of rhythm. At the same time, the Raptors could have stemmed the tide had they not made head-scratching decisions with the ball, suffered a slew of uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns, and lost the ability to make shots for an extended stretch.
Here's a closer look at what went right for the Warriors, and what went wrong for the Raptors, during the season's most consequential stretch to date.
This game was a perfect illustration of how impactful Curry can be even when his individual production isn't up to his usual standard. His aim was wayward for most of the night, and the Warriors - perhaps to save him the stress of having to dribble past half court while being hounded by Fred VanVleet - didn't have him handling often.
When Durant is out, Curry typically soaks up a major share of the vacated on-ball duties, but that hasn't been the case in these Finals. Curry's touches and total time of possession are both down significantly from the conference finals, with Draymond Green assuming the primary playmaking role. Curry is spending almost a full minute more per game playing off the ball than he did against the Trail Blazers, per NBA.com. His 23.2 percent usage rate in Game 2 was his lowest in any game since Durant's injury by a pretty wide margin.
And yet, basically every good thing that happened to the Warriors' offense in the second half flowed from Curry. The Warriors have weaponized him as an off-ball screener, and the Raptors have yet to come up with a solution. They didn't seem prepared for how frequently the Warriors would have him screen in Game 2, even though he did so often in Game 1, mostly to great effect.
Because the Raptors are terrified of offering him a sliver of daylight, Curry's back screens are magnets for multiple defenders. (It helps, too, that he's really good at making those picks hit flush.) That's one reason the Warriors were able to back-cut the Raptors into oblivion and turn the third quarter into a layup line:
Curry had a game-high four screen assists in Game 2, and leads all Finals players with six in total. It's a little strange that the Raptors weren't prepared to switch more of those back screens. They've been switching a lot of ball screens in the series, but have been more reluctant to do so off-ball. At times, it feels like they're overcorrecting for Curry. Switching can open up seams, sure, but the Raptors have to trust their ability to lock-and-trail or close out on him. We've seen what the alternative looks like.
But how do you know whether Curry is setting a screen or running off one on his way to the 3-point line? Defending those actions to an even passable degree requires both intuition and communication.
Curry still ran his share of pick-and-roll, and the Raptors struggled with those, too. As they did in Game 1, they variously switched, hedged, and blitzed, but in the second half of Game 2, their back-end rotations were a mess. Danny Green needlessly swarmed Andrew Bogut when he caught the ball at the top of the key on the short roll, opening up a three-on-two that ended in a lob tip-in. Norm Powell closed out to Alfonzo McKinnie when a better shooter - Quinn Cook - was one pass away. The Raptors didn't make those kinds of mistakes in Game 1.
This is what Curry and the Warriors do, though. The speed with which they pounce - and the terror Curry and Thompson inspire as quick-trigger shooters - turn read-and-react situations into nightmares. The Raptors defended extremely well for large parts of the game, but even for a defense as elite as theirs, the physical energy and mental clarity required to parry Golden State's attack are bound to lapse sometimes.
After Thompson left the game, and even while running a lineup featuring Cook, Shaun Livingston, and Bogut, the Warriors kept getting buckets behind Curry's gravity and Green's passing. They nudged their lead from seven points at the time of Thompson's exit to 12 points midway through the fourth before getting boxed in by the Raptors' inspired gimmick defense.
The bar here is insanely high, of course, and Leonard should probably get a pass for shouldering a huge offensive load and almost single-handedly willing the Raptors back into the game after they were down by double digits. Not to mention putting forth one of the most incredible rebounding performances you will ever see. His counting stats were gaudy (34 points on 26 shooting possessions, 14 boards, three assists), and he absolutely earned them.
That said, Leonard was as big a culprit as anyone in Toronto's leakier-than-normal defense. He was slow to react in help situations (if he reacted at all), got beat on multiple back cuts (which, to be fair, did not make him unique among Raptors), got beat down the floor, neglected a couple chances to rotate down and break up lobs, and even got burned off the dribble by Draymond Green.
In this reel, he lets Livingston waltz in for an uncontested dunk rather than helping off of the non-threatening McKinnie in the corner, drops back way too far in the pick-and-roll and allows Curry to step into an open three, gets back-cut by Thompson, and makes no move to deter Bogut in the dunker spot, despite the fact that he wasn't guarding anyone else and was in the best position to do so:
Transition was a particularly big issue, and this possession - during the Warriors' oxygen-sucking 18-0 run to start the third - was illustrative. Leonard jogged back while Thompson sprinted up the floor, which forced Marc Gasol to abandon Iguodala in the corner and slide over to Thompson. Leonard didn't pick up Iguodala in turn (he seemed to be motioning for Kyle Lowry to help), and Iguodala splashed a three with nobody within 20 feet of him.
It's unclear how much of this was the result of Leonard's nagging knee and quad injuries. But the Raptors have to hope it was a one-off. If Leonard isn't their best defender, he is at least their defender with the highest ceiling, and they need him to be a positive on that end. In a weird way, Durant returning might actually be a boon for him, since help defense has never come as naturally to him as man-to-man defense.
After looking predictably rusty in his first game back from a quad injury that cost him six weeks and yet more mobility, DeMarcus Cousins was thrust into the starting lineup in Game 2. What initially looked like a token start turned into a 28-minute fireman outing after Looney got hurt.
Jordan Bell was excised from the rotation after an ineffectual Game 1, and Bogut had to be dusted off for seven spot minutes during which the Warriors were outscored by six points. They needed every single one of those 28 minutes from Cousins, and he proved more than capable of responding to the emergency call, providing an anchor for the Warriors at both ends of the floor.
He helped trigger that huge third-quarter run by establishing position early, hitting cutters with passes from both the low and high post, asserting himself when he saw a chance to attack the basket, and even running the break off a defensive rebound (which set up the aforementioned Iguodala triple). Most importantly, and most surprisingly, he made a positive impact defensively.
The Raptors went out of their way to attack Cousins early and often, but apart from Leonard beating his drop coverage with a pull-up three and tagging him with two early fouls, they didn't get a whole lot out of it. Apart from Leonard, Toronto isn't really a team built to exploit small-big mismatches, and it showed. Time and again, Raptors guards tested Cousins on switches and failed:
Agility has been the biggest point of concern for Cousins since he ruptured his Achilles some 16 months ago, and it will remain so. But these were encouraging signs. He wasn't moving swiftly, but that doesn't mean he wasn't moving well. Economy of movement is paramount for lumbering bigs (just ask Gasol), and Cousins didn't waste many steps. He did a great job of sliding his feet, anticipating the driver's direction, and keeping his body square. He also did a far better job of helping and recovering out to Gasol at the 3-point line than he did in Game 1, though it helped that Gasol reverted to a more passive offensive approach.
It's been a tough season for Cousins, but Game 2 alone more than justified the $5.3-million flier the Warriors took on him. Though this may not be the Cousins they get the rest of the way, they got him when they needed him. That could be enough.
It took the Raptors nearly six minutes to score their first points of the third quarter, by which time their five-point halftime lead had turned into a 13-point hole. They stumbled on a defensive formula shortly after Thompson went down, and started chipping away. Amazingly, from the 5:40 mark of the fourth quarter until Iguodala's game-sealing 3-pointer with six seconds remaining, the Warriors did not score. Unfortunately, the Raptors managed just 10 points of their own.
The simplest explanation is that the Raptors just couldn't hit shots. They generated 14 "wide-open" 3-point looks in the second half, nearly as many as the Warriors created the entire game (16), per NBA.com. Toronto shot just 60 percent at the rim and 25 percent (4-of-16) from floater range, a complete inversion of Game 1.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. The Warriors, who amped up their defensive intensity after the break, had a lot to do with those struggles. And the Raptors, frankly, weren't running good offense. A bunch of their open threes came off offensive rebounds, and others were shots Golden State willingly conceded because of who was shooting them. The Raptors had five shots blocked in the second half and just seven assists (a 50 percent rate) against eight turnovers. The Warriors, switching fluidly across every position, goaded them into playing iso ball, and when the Raptors obliged, the Warriors swarmed with blind-side help.
Thompson was moved onto Leonard to start the second half and mostly kept him pinned to the perimeter. Iguodala, freed up as a helper, was alternately a roving ball hawk and a tentacled monster who swallowed up Pascal Siakam in single coverage. And then, of course, there was Draymond Green, who was doing everything everywhere at all times. This possession, in which he switched between three players in the span of one second before stoning Siakam in the post, gives you a pretty good idea of what the Raptors were up against:
But, again, the Raptors did themselves no favors. Their preferred method of attacking Curry remained trying to run their offense through Danny Green - their most limited offensive player - in the post, rather than running Curry through screening actions. Before fouling out, Lowry struggled to find any kind of rhythm, and even his post entry feeds - normally so crisp - were off.
Leonard's reads out of traps were a beat slow all night, but his teammates didn't do a great job of relocating around him. They also just had lousy spacing on a lot of their sets. It's hard to find a clean shot when all five of your players are standing below the dotted line. (The play below resulted in another Draymond block on Siakam.)
Gasol suddenly being unwilling to take shots like this didn't make the spacing issues any easier to negotiate:
So, yeah. It was a lot of good from the Warriors, a lot of bad from the Raptors, and some tough-luck variance sprinkled in.
There's more than enough agency to go around, but if we're rendering a verdict, I'd consider the Game 2 run something the Warriors did to the Raptors more than something the Raptors did to themselves.
There is a ton for the Raptors to clean up, and they're capable of doing so. It's just that against this Golden State juggernaut, even in its hobbled state, a lot of that stuff is far easier said than done. Now that they've ceded home-court advantage, the Raptors will have to rectify those things Wednesday in the hostile confines of Oracle Arena.