In retrospect, we had a pretty solid indication that things were turning Toronto’s way in the build up to their Game 1 victory over the Warriors:
If that dreaded hashtag alone didn’t seal both the Raptors win and the over, Toronto’s hellacious half-court defense did the former, and the performance of Pascal Siakam’s lifetime did the latter, and the Raptors grabbed a surprisingly comfortable 118–109 win. As they did against the 76ers in the second round and the Bucks in the conference finals, Toronto’s many long-limbed defenders mucked up Golden State’s high-octane offense and forced the Warriors to hunt for buckets out of isolations and mismatches. And Siakam was unconscious from the floor, pouring in 32 points on absurd 14-of-17 shooting and playing like at worst the third-best player on the court.
It wasn’t all Siakam. Marc Gasol had his best game of the playoffs; Kawhi Leonard capably anchored the show; Danny Green rediscovered his shot; and Fred VanVleet continued his momentum from the end of the Bucks series, with 15 points to lead Toronto’s bench. Depth has been a strength of the Raptors for whole years, but that’s usually an asset that loses a ton of value the deeper a team goes in the playoffs. That may not be the case in this series—the more the Raptors leaned on useful dudes like VanVleet and Serge Ibaka, and squeezed valuable minutes out of the versatile Norman Powell, the more preposterous it seemed that the Warriors were giving Finals minutes to Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie and Quinn Cook. It’s not that those guys stink so much as it is that the Warriors lose a ton of playmaking and play-finishing wattage when 40 or more percent of a given lineup is made up of glaringly unexceptional players.
Which brings us to DeMarcus Cousins. It was exciting to see that he’d been activated for the game after the time he’s missed due to injury, but Steve Kerr might’ve jumped the gun by playing him Thursday night. Within a couple minutes of taking the floor he was gasping for breath, and looked for the most part like a 1990s-style lumbering goof whose job it is to give a couple hard fouls and get the hell out of there. The center position could be a lingering problem for Golden State—Jordan Bell got the start but played less than 12 minutes, and Cousins was good for just eight more. If Kevin Durant were around the Warriors could just ride the world-devouring Hamptons Five lineup; with Durant out and only Kevon Looney to man anything like a traditional center spot, the best the Warriors can do for a go-to lineup is play Shaun Livingston alongside Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, but that lineup’s spacing problems might spell death against Toronto’s stifling defense. It’s less a Lineup of Death and more a Lineup of Mutual Annoyance. And its job won’t get any easier after Iguodala pulled up lame in the fourth quarter:
Toronto grabbed the lead early and had control most of the way. A few times in the second half the Warriors seemed ready to put a run together, getting within three or four points, and each time the Raptors quickly swatted it back and pushed the lead out to three or four possessions. It was an impressive showing for a team with a rookie head coach, making its first ever Finals appearance, and they did it without another Kyle Lowry Game, and without Kawhi going nuts. They’ve firmly shifted the heat onto the Warriors, who now find themselves in the unfamiliar position of needing to find solutions in order to grab momentum in an NBA Finals series.