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NBA Finals Game 2 preview: Guarding Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard, Raptors’ stout defense, adaptable Marc Gasol

TORONTO — The Golden State Warriors have pledged to sprint back in transition in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors know life might get more difficult for Game 1 hero Pascal Siakam. There are a bunch of other storylines, though, leading up to Sunday’s game at Scotiabank Arena. Here are four questions about what we might see:

1. Will the Warriors look like the Warriors on offense?

Toronto’s defense is bonkers — just ask the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. It was still jarring, though, to see Golden State struggle to create good looks in the opener. The Warriors were awesome in transition, as you would expect, but they were sloppy with the ball and, in the first half, they scored an unfathomable 57.8 points per 100 possessions in the half-court. 

Since Kevin Durant’s injury, Golden State’s movement, screening and chemistry have mostly made up for its relative lack of playmakers and iffy spacing. The Raptors, however, seemed prepared for all that.

“They didn’t really have many defensive lapses,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said on Saturday, and that meant that his team didn’t have as many easy opportunities as usual. 

Toronto knows how quickly it will be punished if it is not connected and communicative on defense.

“If you blow a switch, they’re going to score — they’re going to hit a 3 or they’re going to get a layup at the rim,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said, echoing many players who have been asked to describe what makes Golden State deadly over the years.

The difference is that this particular team might be equipped to deal with it. Toronto is stacked with smart defenders, and coach Nick Nurse is adept at keeping opponents guessing when it comes to coverages and where help is coming from. Without Durant, the Warriors have to be much sharper. 

“We turned the ball over too many times,” Green said. “We gotta make sure our spacing is there, make sure we’re giving guys the outlet. I think we played in a crowd a lot. They have great length. That’s one of their strengths. They swarm to the ball. We have to be better at not playing in a crowd ’cause that’s playing to their strength.”

It is difficult to avoid playing in a crowd if the opponent is happy to help off of multiple players. Green and Andre Iguodala might have to stop turning down open 3-pointers in order to make the Raptors think about how they’re defending Stephen Curry (more on him later). 

2. Will Golden State keep trapping Kawhi?

The theory behind trapping Kawhi Leonard is that he isn’t the most instinctive passer and he can be turnover-prone. The problem is that, in Game 1, it sometimes led to Marc Gasol being able to make plays in 4-on-3 situations, which is not at all ideal for the Warriors. All season, Toronto has lived by a simple principle on offense — if you have drawn a second defender, you have done your job. When Leonard sees a blitz, everyone else understands how to space the floor to make the defense pay. 

“I think we handled it pretty well,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think we were patient. I think Kawhi did a good job of kind of baiting them out a little bit and getting passes off, and letting us play 4-on-3.” 

Nurse said that Golden State caused some confusion by switching pick-and-rolls and blitzing afterward. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he “thought we did a decent job overall on Kawhi,” who had 23 points, five assists and two turnovers while shooting 5-for-14 from the field, 3-for-6 from 3-point range and 10-for-12 from the free throw line on Thursday. I would not be surprised, though, if his coaching staff tilted its strategy toward simply switching, in order to avoid those 4-on-3 scenarios and limit open looks for Toronto’s shooters. If that is what Golden State does, then the Raptors must avoid being baited into matchup-hunting. 

“We use a term, ‘keep playing’ on offense,” Nurse said. “That means that we don’t like to react a lot of times to switches. When there’s a switch made … we have a switch offense that we play. But a lot of it is to just keep playing, and not let a switch stop your offense and try to overanalyze a mismatch or bog down and wait 10 seconds to try to post feed against a smaller guy or whatever, because all it does is send you into a low-shot clock situation, which are low-percentage situations. We like to just keep playing.”

3. Is FVV the Steph stopper? (Spoiler: No, but…)

When it comes to guarding Curry, the always-concise Leonard might have said it best: “What I like to do is not try to relax.” It was VanVleet, though, who spent the most time matched up with him in Game 1, doing his best to stay alert and attentive for every second that he was out there. He did an admirable job, with the help of his teammates

“It’s not fun,” VanVleet said. “I’ll tell you that much. It’s not easy. But as a competitor, that’s what you love to do. Steph has been one of the greatest players in this league for a long time. I was watching him in the Finals not too long ago when I was in college. So to be out there, just trying to take that challenge has been great for me.”

VanVleet isn’t afraid to pressure Curry full-court, but he can only do that because he knows that there will be help waiting if his aggressiveness backfires. No matter how many times you have seen Curry relocate and hit a 3 after giving up the ball, it is difficult not to relax when you’re guarding him and he passes it off. VanVleet called it a “five-man effort” to stay locked in and not be fooled by all of the Warriors’ misdirection while Curry runs around looking for free space. 

“It’s a well-oiled machine,” VanVleet said, “and you gotta be ready to try to just jam yourself in there and kind of disrupt the rhythm as best you can and trust your defense behind you.” 

Curry scored 34 points on 8-for-18 shooting in the opener, and he made all 14 of his free throw attempts. The Raptors surely regret sending him to the line as much as they did, but they might take solace in their team success when he and VanVleet were on the court at the same time. In those 25 minutes, Golden State scored 96.3 points per 100 possessions and Toronto scored 121.2 points per 100 possessions. That type of disparity isn’t sustainable, but it’s worth monitoring what those numbers look like as the series goes on. 

4. Can Gasol keep this up?

First, Gasol was supposed to be unplayable against the Bucks’ five-out offense. Then he was supposed to be a defensive liability against the Warriors. The 34-year-old center made a statement in Game 1, and I’m not talking about his 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting.

“If you would just look at him, you wouldn’t say he’s a guy who could play out there (against) small-ball, with guys flying around,” VanVleet said. “But he’s been as good as it gets guarding ball screens, trapping, moving his feet, being able to rotate. And that IQ that he has and all that experience definitely helps him. And his feet are quicker than people give him credit for. He’s got great hands, great feet and he’s been a big-time defensive anchor for us.”

For what it’s worth, Golden State still thinks it can exploit him, at least according to Klay Thompson.

“For us, it’s just about trying to make him work on defense as well,” Thompson said. “Bring him away from the basket and guard us out there on the perimeter because big guys usually don’t want to do that. And if they’re going to go through him on offense, we got to go through him on defense. That’s just how it’s got to go.”

The Raptors are comfortable with Gasol blitzing Curry or positioning himself high enough to prevent off-the-dribble 3s. Gasol has always been effective in those situations, and it’s unclear if this Durant-less version of the Warriors has enough shooting at the forward positions to take advantage of him being up there. If they don’t and Gasol is able to be a secondary star throughout the Finals, Toronto will be thrilled. 

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