There is still nothing in the league more fearsome than when the Warriors decide to give a damn. Even their partial investment is enough to roll over most opponents, burying them beneath casual displays of unbelievable talent. Golden State’s full attention tends to go reserved for the games that matter most: playoff bouts, rivalry games or any time they deem a statement to be necessary.
Saturday’s session against the Toronto Raptors—one of the best teams in the league this season—proved to be the latter. Golden State came out with a commitment to ball movement exceptional even by their standards. Clean, free-flowing basketball helped the Warriors build a 28-point lead by halftime in their highest-scoring first half of the season. Yet by game’s end, the Raptors had ground all but a few points of that lead to dust behind stout coverage and a resilient offensive. The Warriors won, 127-125, by the skin of their teeth.
This year’s Raptors are among the rare teams capable of sustaining through a Warriors’ haymaker. The first half could hardly have been more decisive; even without heating up from beyond the arc, Golden State laid down run after run. Turnovers were sparse, and layups all too common. When they choose to, the Warriors can balance every bit of their considerable three-point potency with an endless string of cut and drive. Maintaining any kind of cohesive team defense is a challenge when players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson—each a devastating scorer—work first as a screener.
It’s somewhat amazing, in retrospect, that Toronto returned from halftime with any spark at all. No one would have blamed the Raptors for dropping a game to the defending champions in the absence of Kyle Lowry, who missed the game with a back injury. This was never a game that the Raptors were supposed to win. Yet their response to Golden State’s 81-point first half was a 71-point second half of their own, ignited by the sensational driving game of DeMar DeRozan (42 points on 17-of-31 shooting). The tact of the game’s officiating clearly changed in the second half and DeRozan was the first to take advantage. By catching an angle against Thompson and Patrick McCaw, DeRozan was able to wedge open driving lanes and initiate contact to draw fouls. Any advantage he created seemed to end in points. A blowout margin had relaxed the Warriors’ defense just enough for DeRozan to slice through the seams.
For Toronto to cut a 28-point deficit to a single possession, however, would require so much more. What was a mellow defensive effort in the first half tightened up to stifle much of Golden State’s perimeter action. Improved communication and sharper switching put the Raptors in perfect position for ball denial. There’s not much any team can do to keep the ball out of the hands of Durant or Curry, but Toronto managed to push both far out of the rhythm of the offense to claim possession. Stall enough of those sorts of passes and the most dynamic offense in the league can devolve into a trickle of isolation plays.
In that context, the Warriors are still formidable—but beatable. Their misses were answered with drive after drive, resulting in 16 points in the paint and 17 free throws for the Raptors in the third quarter alone. When DeRozan wasn’t completing possessions on his own, Toronto was drawing enough offense from cuts and hustle plays to sustain. Contributors like OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet became essential scorers. Jonas Valanciunas created just enough out of the post to offer DeRozan some relief. Toronto did everything they could to close the gap and came within a few flukey possessions of claiming a game they should never have had a chance to win. Golden State, thanks to Durant and Curry, simply had too many answers.
It is a sign of the utmost respect that the Warriors ran pick-and-roll sequences between Curry and Durant as often as they did down the stretch. That style of basketball is hardly the taste of Steve Kerr, who would much prefer his team spiral through pass after pass into a wide-open shot. Instead, Golden State turned to runs of targeted, matchup-driven basketball when they most needed to score. Durant had supplied pull-up three-pointers to stave off previous Raptor runs. Curry attacked the basket once the Warriors’ offense stalled in the second half, exploiting the same tight whistle as DeRozan to total a game-high 12 free throws. Neither Durant nor Curry was especially dominant, but the beauty of their playing together usually means that neither has to be. Their playing simple, effective basketball—like the game-saving score, in which Curry drew two defenders to the ball only to make an easy pass off to Durant—is typically more than even teams like the Raptors can match.