It goes without saying, but the odds are firmly against Golden State winning their third straight NBA Championship, and their fourth in five years.
35 teams, including Toronto this year, have previously gone up 3-1 in the Finals. All but one (no need to mention which) have gone on to win the NBA title.
To understate it significantly: a lot of things will need to go right for the Warriors if they’re any chance of extending this series beyond Game 5.
Of course, the addition of Kevin Durant is one of those things. For all the pre-Finals conjecture and gleeful extolling of his superfluousness, it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s next to no chance this series sits with its current ledger if KD had been fit from the beginning.
In his absence, and Klay’s documented hamstring struggles, the Warriors’ offensive load has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Stephen Curry. That wouldn’t normally be a problem for the greatest shooter the game has ever seen. Except, for the first time in Curry’s storied career, it appears an opposing team has figured out how to limit his impact on offense whilst simultaneously exploiting his renowned defensive weaknesses.
The Raptors are a fantastic defensive unit. They’ve built themselves on stifling, versatile defense and what we’re now seeing on offense flows on the back of it. They finished the regular season with the second highest defensive rating in the league, and have shown throughout these playoffs (against the likes of Embiid, Antenokounmpo & Simmons) that they have the flexibility to adapt to any game style.
Curry is the latest in that litany of victims. Golden State are scoring just 106.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which, per the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, is their worst mark in any playoff series since the infamous 2016 Finals.
Sure, Curry was absolutely, genuinely, flat-out brilliant in Game 3. He didn’t have a choice. In a game without Durant and Thompson (missing the first game in his playoff career), Curry shot the ball 31 times – more than a third of Golden State’s total shots. He had to, but the truth (which has become even more evident in the ensuing days) is that Game 3’s usage was simply too much for even the perpetually-in-motion Curry.
He finished Game 4 9-22 from the field and 2-9 from three-point range – the clear result of both a brilliant defensive scheme from Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse (punctuated by the now famous ‘Box And-1’ set) and the inevitable result of taking 31 hard-fought shots (and countless knocks while fighting through screens) just 48 hours previously.
Even with Thompson looking remarkably sprightly in Game 4, Golden State posted an offensive rating of 96.8 points per 100 possessions.
That’s their lowest offensive rating this postseason. It’s not even close. Their previous low was 107.2 in Game 1 of the Western Semis against the Rockets, and, by way of comparison, Golden State’s overall playoff offensive rating is 115.5 – easily the highest of any team.
The issue starts and ends with Stephen Curry. In 31 Game 4 possessions matched up on a rejuvenated Fred VanVleet, Curry scored just 6 points and shot 25% from the floor. Toronto has figured him out, and with Curry nullified there goes the entire Warriors offense.
Thompson and Kevon Looney shot (collectively) 16-26 from the floor in Game 4 for 38 points. The rest of the Warriors roster, including Curry, shot just 19-52.
If Durant returns in Game 5 then this point becomes moot. The addition of a guy who you can bank on getting 30+ points on any given night will tend to do that.
But, assuming Durant can’t get his calf right, the Warriors will need to find a new way of opening up their offense and taking the pressure off Curry
In Game 4, Draymond Green matched a playoff career high with 12 assists. Per NBA Stats, since 2015 and prior to the start of these finals, the Warriors had been 12-1 in the playoffs when Green finished a game with 10+ assists.
They’ve since lost two games in this series alone when Green’s had 10 or more dimes, but that shouldn’t deter Steve Kerr from returning to a formula which has clearly worked in the past.
Green must handle the ball more than he has in this series, and the stats support that. In Golden State’s Game 4 shellacking, Green had a usage rate of just 14%. In their three losses so far, he has an average usage rate of 17.1%.
However, in Game 2’s win in Toronto, Green had a usage rate of 21.1%. He scored 17 points to go along with 9 assists and 10 rebounds and an overall plus/minus of +12.
Allowing Green to handle the ball in the half-court paid dividends in Game 2. It lessens the offensive load on Curry, but also allows one of the best passing big-men in the league to play to his strengths.
If the Warriors are going to find a way to make this series competitive, it won’t be on the back of Curry, Thompson or even a surprise contributor like Demarcus Cousins. It’ll be on the back of Draymond Green.