The Warriors can’t keep letting the Raptors’ shooters get this hot

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Three games into the 2019 NBA Finals, the two biggest factors in the series are the Golden State Warriors‘ injuries and the Toronto Raptors‘ shooting. While the Warriors are trying to win their third straight title with a depleted group of banged-up superstars, the Raptors’ shooting numbers have toggled between incredible and awful.

It’s a mixed-up series on basketball’s biggest stage, and late word from Oakland is that Klay Thompson will play Friday night, but Kevin Durant and Kevon Looney will miss Game 4 at Oracle Arena. Thompson’s reappearance is good news for a team that desperately needs to shore up its perimeter defense, which has been uncharacteristically bad so far in this series.

The Dubs need to find ways to slow down a Toronto team that has scored at least 118 points twice, while Golden State has scored 109 points in each of the first three games.

With Looney, Thompson and Durant out, the Raptors needed to win Game 3, and they did so by taking advantage of Golden State’s poor defense and putting on a clinic in shooting efficiency. Toronto became just the third team in Finals history to shoot 50% from the field, 40% from 3 and 90% from the free throw line, joining the 2017 Warriors and the 1986 Boston Celtics. The entire Raptors squad was red-hot — every player who attempted a bucket for Toronto shot at least 50% from the field.

The Raps ended the night with an astronomical effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 62.8. How good is that? When a team has an eFG that high, they’re almost certainly going to win:

  • Since 1984, playoff teams with an eFG between 62 and 63 are 42-4.

  • In the Finals, teams that log an eFG of 62 or more are 14-0.

Toronto’s shooting also was terrific in the Game 1 win, with a 59.1 eFG. Since 1984, playoff teams with an eFG between 59 and 60 are 72-17. If the Raptors sink jumpers like they did in Games 1 and 3, it may not matter who does and doesn’t play for Golden State.

The Warriors have logged 109 playoff games since 2014. Their overall record is a cool 70-39, but even this team’s success depends a lot on how well its opponents shoot the ball. Since 2014, Warriors’ playoff opponents have logged an eFG over 59 in just 12 of those 109 games — 11 of which were Warriors losses. Toronto has done it twice already. If the Warriors had been giving up this many clean looks on defense since 2014, they wouldn’t be a dynasty.

It’s unlikely this is purely shooting luck on the Raptors’ end. Given both the shot quality and the shooter, Toronto had an expected eFG of 53.4% on 3s in the regular season, per Second Spectrum tracking. That has bumped up to 54.3% in the playoffs and 55.3% against the Warriors. The Raptors outperformed their shot quality in their two wins, but they are creating legitimately good opportunities.

As much as Thompson and Durant help on offense, their talents and experience are just as vital on the other end. The Warriors’ dynasty will rightfully go down as one of the best perimeter offenses the world has ever seen, but this group owes just as much of its success to dominant perimeter defense. Here’s a troubling couplet:

  • When the Warriors won their first title in 2015, they had the best defense in that postseason in part because they shut down the 3-point line, holding opponents to 6.8 made 3s per game (second-best of 16 playoff teams) on just 30.4% shooting from beyond the arc (best such mark that year).

  • In the 2019 playoffs, the Dubs’ defense ranks 10th out of 16 postseason teams in part because it can’t stop 3s. The Warriors are allowing 13.5 made 3s (15th out of 16 playoff teams) and their opponents are hitting 36.7% of their triples (11th out of 16 playoff teams).

The absences of Looney, Durant and Thompson have meant more playing time for players such as Jordan Bell, Alfonzo McKinnie, DeMarcus Cousins, Jonas Jerebko and Andrew Bogut. In turn, Golden State’s defense has been slower and less competent, especially on the perimeter.

That was on full display in Game 3, as Toronto became the third team in Finals history to drain 17 3-pointers, and many of those triples resulted from poor defensive actions. The Raptors enjoyed 12 uncontested looks from beyond the arc Wednesday, per Second Spectrum tracking. In their previous 108 playoff games, the Warriors had allowed more than 12 uncontested 3s only once (May 1 of 2018 against the New Orleans Pelicans.)

No player on either team took more than three uncontested 3s in Games 1 and 2. But on Wednesday night, Danny Green launched five of them and Fred VanVleet added four more. As a team, Toronto converted on six of those 12 golden opportunities, yielding 18 key points in their 14-point win. Toronto has now made 41 3s in this series. Golden State has made 37.

Danny Green is the bellwether moving forward. His 3-point attempts almost always punctuate effective ball movement sequences — after all, he made his name playing for a San Antonio Spurs teams known for beautiful passing. Over 91% of Green’s 3s are assisted. So if Green is getting clean looks like he did in Game 3, it means Toronto’s offense is firing on all cylinders and the Warriors’ defense is strained.

Thanks to all the injuries, Steve Kerr has been using lineups that rarely if ever have played together. That’s bad news, especially on the defensive end, where familiarity and communication are prerequisites for the kinds of teamwork needed to execute in tandem.

The Warriors’ Game 3 starters of Shaun Livingston, Stephen Curry, Cousins, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green had a net rating of minus-23.8 in Game 3 in part because these dudes have barely played defense together before — just 16 regular-season minutes and 1 in the postseason. The Finals are hard enough. All these injuries are forcing the Warriors into lineups that have hardly played against anyone before, let alone the best team from the Eastern Conference.

It’s a make-or-miss league, and in the Raptors’ two wins so far, they’ve been doing a whole lot of making. But the series is still young. If Thompson and his team can rediscover their defensive identity in Game 4, not only will they force Toronto to miss more shots, they’ll climb their way right back into this series.

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