TORONTO — Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr essentially said they let the Toronto Raptors run free in the first game of the NBA Finals. “We were just careless getting back,” Kerr said on Friday. Draymond Green took the blame for their defensive difficulties in the 118-109 loss, but the coach maintained that it was a team-wide issue. “If your transition defense is bad, then there’s not a whole lot you can do because you’re talking about the best players in the world coming downhill in a fast game, five-on-four or four-on-three. It’s just too easy to score for any team, but especially a team like Toronto that’s in the Finals.”
Kerr harped on this because the Raptors were the most efficient transition team in the league during the regular season. Pascal Siakam, the burgeoning star who scored 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting in his phenomenal Finals debut, bolted down the court for four fast-break layups in the second half. Siakam’s speed is not a secret, but the Warriors did not appear to be ready for it.
“You can hear about it all you want,” Green said. “Our coaching staff has preached about it since we found out we were playing them: transition defense, transition defense. It’s different once you see it and once you feel it. So now that we got a feel for it, we know how to adjust.”
Green said the Raptors are even faster than they look on tape. Indeed, Golden State should be focused on limiting their easy opportunities — they scored 181.8 points per 100 possessions in transition in Game 1, per Cleaning The Glass.
“If you just boil it down to halfcourt stuff, I walk away from that game feeling fine,” Kerr said.
Less attention, however, has been given to the Warriors’ transition attack. In the opener, their numbers were just about as impressive as Toronto’s — they scored slightly less efficiently (175.0 per 100, still ridiculous), but ran slightly more often. Raptors coach Nick Nurse sounded a lot like Kerr when discussing his team’s defense.
“Your defense has to get set up, and this team plays really fast,” Nurse said. “Even when you score sometimes. You probably remember we scored a bucket and they threw it ahead to (Klay) Thompson and he went and did a reverse layup down there at the other end. So it’s coming at you. The challenge, effortwise, first starts with transition. We have to try to make them play against our five-man defense because then we think we’re pretty OK. We have a good chance to at least for a starting point be able to guard them the way we want to.”
Listening to Kerr and Nurse, you would think that both of these teams were playing in mud when they weren’t able to run. The trouble with that is that this isn’t true: Golden State, despite all the attention Stephen Curry creates and all the ball movement its system demands, scored 83.9 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt on Thursday, which would rank dead last in the NBA if sustained over a full season. Toronto scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked first. That, not the transition game, was the real difference.
Only ten times in the regular season were the Warriors less efficient in the halfcourt. This is a credit to the Raptors, who blend All-Defense-caliber talent at every position and a flexible approach. The Raptors didn’t play just one style in the regular season, which prepared them to make all sorts of adjustments between and within games and series in the playoffs. Toronto made the Sixers stagnant and the Bucks bewildered, but there was some question about whether or not it could do the same thing in the Finals. Early returns are positive: Golden State found some rhythm as the game progressed, but the Raptors never seemed shook.
On the other end, Toronto had one of its most efficient performances against a set defense in the playoffs. Since the end of the first round, only Game 1 against Philadelphia and Game 4 against Milwaukee were better.
In every playoff series, not just these Finals, it is crucial to get back in transition and force your opponent to work for its points. This is particularly challenging when Curry and Thompson are streaking down the sideline looking for 3s or Siakam is changing ends with a head of steam. The most interesting thing about this matchup, though, will be watching these teams try to manufacture offense in the halfcourt. “They remind me of us in a lot of ways,” Kerr said, as both teams play with pace, freedom and a sense of improvisation. The Warriors and Raptors made it this far, though, because they are also capable of stopping other teams from playing that way. Something has to give.