OAKLAND – Five things we learned from the Toronto Raptors’ 123-109 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of the 2019 Finals Wednesday at Oracle Arena:
1. What Stephen Curry learned …
Curry was remarkable in Game 3, consciously seizing more of Golden State’s offensive burden to make up for Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s absences and turning that desperation into something historic. With 47 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, the Warriors point guard became only the ninth man to score at least 45 points in a Finals game.
The lesson in that? Curry learned for a night what it has felt like for LeBron James on many such occasions. James put himself on that specific list a year ago when he logged 51 points, eight board and eight assists against Curry’s team in Game 1, same court. Like Curry, James’ team lost that night as well.
Struggling mightily in something of a one-against-five predicament is the sort of things James has done often, while Curry never had faced it during Golden State’s five-year run to The Finals. They both -- James in the past and Curry on Wednesday -- had legit NBA players around them. But the responsibility to put up points fell in both cases mostly on their shoulders.
This was even a chance to revisit the 2015 Finals MVP selection, which attracted some attention on social media Tuesday over bogus speculation about the voting process. Andre Iguodala won the award that June, getting seven votes from the panel of media reps to James’ four. Curry got no votes.
The point was, Curry had as a single game Wednesday what James had as an entire series in ’15. He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists, scoring 38.5 percent of Cleveland’s points (215 of 561) while assisting on 52.7 percent of his teammates’ baskets while he was on the court.
Now Curry is the guy in position, if Golden State loses the series, to get a few MVP votes in a losing effort.
By the way, Jerry West is the only player to win the Finals MVP trophy in a losing effort. And West is one of the nine to score 45 or more – he did it three times, but his Lakers teams went 1-2 in those games. (The others: Michael Jordan three times, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson once each. Their teams all won on their big scoring nights.)
2. Is the scoreboard broken?
It’s tempting to say that the Warriors’ attack is in broken-record mode, except the resurgence of vinyl might not be sufficient yet to bring that phrase back into the mainstream. So we’ll go with a cultural reference that’s more classic than archaic. Think of The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” but substitute “109… 109… 109…”
Yeah, it’s been about as monotonous and unsatisfying for Golden State as it was on the White Album.
At least Warriors coach Steve Kerr was somewhat bemused by his team’s scoreboard consistency. In each game of these Finals, Golden State has scored 109 points. “I just knew we were going to score 109 points because that’s all we’re going to do the rest of this series,” Kerr said. “So if we’re going to keep scoring 109, we got to keep them to 108.”
The Warriors kept Toronto to 104 points in Game 2. Some of that was to their credit, some to the Raptors’ misfires and mid-game chill. The simplest stat? Toronto launched 38 3-pointers in both games. The night the Raptors made 11, they lost. When they made 17, they won.
Getting Thompson back for Game 4 could make a big difference there. He is one of Golden State’s best defenders. For that matter, Durant’s length could assert itself as a defensive weapon, too, if he comes back in Friday’s Game 4 (9 ET, ABC) or later in the series.
As for 109 being a winning points total, here is some background: taken in isolation, averaged over a full Finals, that would have been plenty to win 19 of the past 20 championships. The lone exception? In 2017, when Cleveland averaged 114.8 ppg yet lost because Golden State was putting up 121.6 nightly.
In 2018, the Warriors averaged 116 points to the Cavaliers’ 101.
The only other times a Finals team in the past 20 years averaged within five points of 109 were the Spurs in 2015 (105.6) and in 2007 (104.4) and the Lakers in 2002 (106.0) and 2000 (104.8). Obviously, a few of those were in the game’s relative “dark ages” for use of the 3-ball, but all four won championships.
The Warriors are scoring enough points to win.
3. ‘Boogie’ fever has broken
DeMarcus Cousins called his decision to sign with Golden State for a cut-rate contract, while rehabbing from an Achilles injury, his “chess move.” He wound up joining the defending champions and favorite to three-peat, and got his game back in time to contribute. Cousins subsequently suffered a quadriceps injury but returned in time to participate in The Finals.
Only thing is, he looked like he was back playing checkers in Game 3. The Warriors center stood out Sunday, scoring 11 points with 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. But those numbers drooped to four points, three boards, three turnovers and 1-for-7 shooting in Game 3. Cousins went from plus-12 impact in Game 2 to minus-12 Wednesday.
The big man looked a step slow and appeared to be bothered by Toronto’s length, in the forms of Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka. With little lift these days, he’s playing a little smaller than his 6-foot-11, 270-pound specs. And given how long he was off and the mere eight minutes he got in Game 1, what Cousins did in Game 2 was starting to look more adrenaline-fueled than a reliable return to form.
Since Curry handled just about everything else for Golden State in Game 3, he was asked afterward about Cousins’ “regression.” The point guard handled the awkward moment well -- being asked a critical question about a teammate might have tempted Curry to blow it off or lie. Instead, he talked of the Warriors’ shared responsibility on defense and noted a few calls offensively that didn't go Cousins' way.
Then Curry added: “Like any great player, if you have a rough game, that resiliency to bounce back and the confidence to know that you can still go out there and impact the game, that’s something that he’ll bring, and we all will follow suit for sure.”
4. Danny Green’s big moment
Understandably, when an All-Star and potential Kia MVP candidate gets traded, the deal becomes all about him. Next, folks focus on the key player or players swapped out and how the move might work for the other team. Only then do we play much attention to the guy or guys accompanying the All-Star to his new destination.
That’s how it’s been for Danny Green for much of the 2018-19 season. Green and Kawhi Leonard were teammates in San Antonio for seven seasons. They went to two Finals together with the Spurs, winning rings in 2014. But when Leonard wanted out after an injured and rancorous 2017-18, the deal the Spurs put together with Toronto shipped out Danny Green, too.
The reality of NBA trades is that salaries must match up, so teammates often become collateral damage to even up the dollar sufficiently to satisfy league rules. Sometimes, a teammate is thrown into a deal because he and the star are chums. A familiar face gives the featured guy some comfort -- or someone to carry his bags.
But Green was a helpful playoff performer in his own right with the Spurs -- in his 12 Finals games before this year, he had made 52 percent of his 3-pointers. And in 2013 he made 27 of them against the Miami Heat, a Finals record that was his for all of three years until Curry drained 32 in 2016.
Green struggled with his shot in the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, going 4-for-23 on 3-pointers. But his marksmanship early in Game 3 and against near the end of the third quarter propelled the Raptors’ victory.
5. Those rebounds are offensive
Toronto dominated on the offensive glass 15-6 in Game 2 and lost. Golden State dominated on the offensive glass 13-5 in Game 3 and lost. Typically, that’s a positive category for the team that wins it, something coaches hate when the other guys are reclaiming their own misses time and again. But lately, the demerits associated with offensive rebounds have loomed larger than the benefits.
You grab a shot you or your teammate missed, that ought to be a good thing. But the Raptors in Game 2 (37.2 percent) and the Warriors in Game 3 (39.6 percent) were beset by inaccuracy, so there were more offensive rebounds to be had, period.
The other down side of a generally positive stat is how you go about getting them. If you get overeager and the defense controls the errant shot, you might denude your transition defense.
Both the Raptors and the Warriors in Games 2 and 3 respectively built considerable edges in second-chance points off their offensive rebound totals. Toronto had a 23-0 scoring advantage Sunday, yet lost by five. Golden State held it 23-12 Wednesday, yet lost by 14. The losing team in both cases slightly won the battle of fast-break points, but offensive-rebounding strategy still forces a choice on teams.
“We have a general kind of rule of thumb that once a shot goes up, we tell our guys to make a really quick, good decision,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before Game 3. “Either they're going hard to the offensive rebound or they're going hard to defense transition. … There's certain moments of the game – I mean, some of those late are almost scrambles, right, you're behind five and you're throwing it up there and everybody's trying to rebound, just to keep the game alive as well.”
It’s a stat worth watching, even if it’s inversely related lately to the games’ outcomes.
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