OAKLAND – Knocked down by the Raptors last month in Toronto and again Wednesday night in Oakland, the Warriors would like nothing more than to come back for a third chance soon as possible.
That can’t happen before May 30, when Game 1 of the NBA Finals is scheduled.
“I know if that were to happen,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team was blown out of Oracle Arena, 113-93, “we would be ready to play.”
Meanwhile, they have to recover and study and analyze the events of Wednesday night. There were several troubling signals, including low defensive intensity and mental errors at both ends, though none was more evident and enlightening than the defense the Raptors threw at Stephen Curry.
After watching Curry dribble, shoot and splash his way through defenses this season, it was striking to see him running into roadblocks and thickets of arms and hands, led by a rugged and redoubtable defender named Fred VanVleet.
Curry entered the game averaging 30.1 points per game, shooting 51.3 percent overall, and 50 percent from beyond the arc. He totaled 10 points, a season-low in games for which he was healthy throughout, on 3-of-12 shooting, 2-of-8 from deep.
“We just tried to make them uncomfortable, make them make plays they’re not used to making,” Van Vleet said. "Every team has their main guys, multiple playmakers, and we try to take it out of the playmakers’ hands and make others make all the plays. That was our game plan going in. We did a great job executing it."
VanVleet, who usually comes off the bench in the role of sixth man, started at point guard due to lineup change necessitated when Kawhi Leonard was ruled out before tipoff. Curry normally gets to cook Kyle Lowry, an All-Star offensive force but a mediocre defender vastly inferior to VanVleet in both pluck and technique.
With VanVleet in junkyard-dog mentality, Curry seemed to spend the evening searching for enough room to move, much less fire an uncontested shot.
“I didn’t really have rhythm,” Curry conceded, “for whatever reason.”
Though VanVleet was the primary defender, he had help. Even when Curry was coming off screens, there wasn’t much room. He had a couple open looks, but any good defender knows any shooter harassed all night tends to miss even when we he gets some space.
“There are only two ways to guard Stephen,” said Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin, who conducted the postgame news conference because head coach Nick Nurse left immediately for a family matter. “The No. 1 way is to pray that he misses. No. 2 is to get a body on him and do not give him any open looks.”
Curry’s previous success against the Raptors – he was averaging 29.8 points against them for his career, his highest average against any opponent – has been largely a matter of taking advantage of Lowry, with VanVleet getting some spot duty.
The Raptors, however, may have found something with VanVleet in the starting lineup. One game does not a Steph Stopper make, but he clearly is an upgrade over the usual Raptors defenders.
This variation of man-to-man defense is especially effective given the frequent and assertive help from Toronto’s assembly line of lengthy wings.
Asked whether Curry’s poor performance was a result of Raptors defense or simply an off night, Kerr pointed to both.
“It’s always a combination,” Kerr said. “I’m sure we’ll look at the tape and we’ll see some shots that Steph would normally hit and we’ll also see excellent defense. Fred VanVleet picked him up full court and did a good job of getting into him.
“But it’s always a combination.”
The combination worked exceptionally well for the Raptors. They gave Curry something to think about. They gave the Warriors something to think about.
They may have given a few other NBA teams something to consider.
A lot went wrong for the Warriors in this game, particularly their defensive lethargy. But if they see the Raptors again in May, VanVleet will have a nice audition video for the role of defending Curry.
Which doesn’t mean the Raptors would get the same results.