For the Toronto Raptors to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, they need to figure out how they're going to defend pick-and-rolls involving Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.
It's not a play the Warriors run all game long, but they've gone to it with far greater frequency since Kevin Durant went down with a calf injury, particularly in crunch time. The reason why? Curry and Green have figured out an answer to just about every way a team can defend it, so the Warriors are guaranteed a high percentage look almost every time they put the two of them in a pick-and-roll.
It starts with Curry's shooting ability. If teams expect his defender to fight through the screen while Green's defender drops back to the paint, it gives arguably the greatest shooter in league history the space to pull-up from the perimeter or midrange. Switching is equally risky, as it gives Curry an opportunity to attack a slower-footed opponent in isolation, a play he consistently ranks near the top of the league in scoring efficiency.
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Trapping those pick-and-rolls isn't the solution either because there might not be anyone better at picking teams apart in 4-on-3 situations than Green. The Portland Trail Blazers learned that the hard way in the Western Conference Finals. Green recorded a total of 30 assists in the final three games of the series, a fair share of which came from those pick-and-rolls.
"[Green] just makes the simple play," Blazers guard Seth Curry told Bleacher Report's Will Gottlieb. "When he's got an advantage, he throws it to the open man. It's pretty simple. Nothing too crazy.
"Steph gets it out of his hands quickly when he gets trapped, and [Green] either lays it up or hits the open man."
The Raptors are better-equipped than the Blazers to defend those actions, but they'll still have some decisions to make when it comes to matchups.
Assuming Nick Nurse sticks with the same starters, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green will likely guard Curry and Klay Thompson, leaving Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol to defend Green and whoever else is on the floor with him - usually two of Andre Iguodala, Alfonzo McKinnie, Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell as long as Durant is out.
There's no way of knowing for certain which one of those three will take on the responsibility of guarding Green based on what happened in the regular season series because it was Lowry who defended him the most in the only game he played against the Raptors. It's something Toronto could get away since Green is not the type of big man who will attack a mismatch in the post. According to NBA.com, he generated 5.6 percent of his own offence with his back to the basket this season and ranked in the 17th percentile with an average of 0.71 points per possession.
Green was also a turnover machine, coughing the ball up on more than a third of his post-up possessions this season.
Could Nurse do the same in the Finals? Perhaps, but one of the reasons he chose to have Lowry defend Green is they were short-handed that game - they went small by starting Fred VanVleet in place of Leonard, who was sidelined with a hip injury.
Even if Green isn't his primary assignment, Lowry could still significant time on him because Toronto's best shot at slowing down those pick-and-rolls might be to switch at the point of attack. That would require one of Siakam and Leonard to match up with Green, as Gasol doesn't have the foot speed to keep up with Curry in isolation.
Gasol would then guard Looney or Bell, allowing him to stay closer to the basket and protect the rim.
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Curry is craftier than the players Siakam and Leonard usually guard, but they're both long enough to bother him and agile enough to keep up with him. Leonard has some experience guarding Curry as well, having played 22 games against each other in their careers.
A couple of other options for the Raptors:
- Play Serge Ibaka at centre instead of Gasol. Ibaka is more mobile than Gasol, giving him a better chance of disrupting Curry in isolation, sort of like Tristan Thompson did in the 2016 NBA Finals. Thompson's comfort switching onto Curry was a huge reason why the Cleveland Cavaliers were able to come back and win that series.
- Trap Curry and make lesser shooters beat them. It's what the Raptors did against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, doubling Giannis Antetokounmpo and forcing the likes of Eric Bledsoe to knock down 3s. It's much harder to do against the Warriors, but the Raptors might choose to leave Iguodala, for example, to prevent Green from throwing alley-oops and Klay Thompson from getting open. In which case, they could put Leonard on Iguodala to turn him into a free safety.
- Trap Curry and turn Green into a scorer. The process would be similar to the one above, only with the focus being on making Green beat them as a scorer. They could trap with Curry and Green's defender, load up on shooters on the weak side and have Gasol stand in-between Green and whoever is in the dunker spot to encourage him to settle for floaters.
Everything will change if/when Durant returns. As ESPN's Zach Lowe noted, six of Curry's highest volume pick-and-roll games this season have come in games the two-time Finals MVP has missed due to injury. When Durant is in the lineup, the Warriors are far more isolation-dependant - he was among the league leaders in isolation scoring this season and has been far more reliant on those plays in these playoffs, with his frequency jumping from 15.6 percent to 20.4 percent.
Even so, Durant has been ruled out for Game 1 and there's no word yet on whether or not he'll play in Game 2. If the Raptors can take advantage by cutting off the Golden State's primary source of offence off without him, it could give them the momentum they need to win the series.
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