TORONTO — From April of 2015 to February of 2017, the Golden State Warriors were experts at bouncing back.
Their ability to re-evaluate and re-adjust after losses was almost unmatched. They went 143 straight games without consecutive losses — 18 games short of the North American record for a major professional sport.
As new pieces were added and their dynasty built, though, Golden State has begun to lose that sense of invincibility — or inevitability — following a loss. After going 17-7 following losses this season — the worst mark of the Kerr era — the Warriors are now looking at their first ever 1-0 NBA Finals deficit against a Toronto Raptors team well-equipped to beat them.
“These guys have seen it all,” said head coach Steve Kerr. “They’re a championship team. Championship teams generally bounce back well in times of adversity.”
In the regular season, Golden State was 11-4 after losses in Kerr’s first season, 9-0 his second, 11-4 in 2016-17 and 16-5 last season. The Warriors followed up their 143-game run with another 68-game stretch where they didn’t lose back-to-back games, before losing consecutive games on four occasions at the end of the 2017-18 season
With both DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant on board this season, they struggled at times with complacency, had the first four-game losing streak of Kerr’s tenure and lost consecutive games on four occasions again.
Prior to the Finals, Golden State was 16-7 in games after playoff losses in the last five seasons. In the last three seasons, the Warriors were 8-2.
Then, in Game 1, the Raptors used a ruthlessly efficient transition offense, physical defense and universally superior length to frustrate and stun Golden State behind a crowd that center Andrew Bogut said was louder even than Oracle Arena during the team’s first title run in 2014-15.
“Our preparation is going to be the same, no matter if we’re down or up,” Draymond Green said on Saturday. “If you’re up, you can’t get comfortable. You still have to prepare the same way, and we’re not hitting the panic button, so our preparation is still the same.”
Over the last five years, Golden State has rarely faced having to bounce back on the road: They’re 5-3 in the playoffs when faced with a road game after a loss. In the Finals, it’s even rarer: The Warriors are 5-3 in the Finals after a loss, 2-1 on the road.
Thursday certainly threw the Warriors for a loop. Deeper, longer and more experienced than any challenger to Golden State’s dominance over the last five seasons, Toronto beat the Warriors even with a somewhat lackluster performance from their star, Kawhi Leonard.
At no point in the game did Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry have a clean look at the basket — they always had bodies on them — and while Golden State got a yeoman’s effort from the bench (36 points), their transition defense was attrocious. Without the injured Kevin Durant — who’s ruled out for Game 2 and is still not yet cleared for contact — something has to change.
Green, for one, got eaten up by Pascal Siakam, to the tune of 32 points. Four of Siakam’s nine field goals in the restricted area came in transition, and the Raptors as a team scored 24 points off the break.
“Our transition defense was just awful and that’s the game, that’s the No. 1 priority when you play Toronto: You have to take care of their transition,” Kerr said after the game.
Without the injured Durant, Green needs to be better on Siakam. Perhaps part of the reason why Green was on skates against the third-year forward was because of his unfamiliarity — he’s certainly said that’s a contributing factor in the series overall — and perhaps it was because of the nine-day layoff.
Green, though, is known throughout the NBA as one of the best at making game-to-game adjustments. It’s far more likely that Green shuts down Siakam in Game 2 than it is for Siakam — who averaged a career-high 16.9 points this season — to go off for even 20 points.
“Siakam was running the floor like a gazelle,” Thompson said Saturday. “They were getting the ball off the rim and just pushing it. Instead of crashing as hard as we did, we’ll have to make the adjustment in Game 2 and try to send more guys back … But 10 days off as well, we might have had a little cobwebs. It was just a mixture of things. But I know this: I know we’ll be better tomorrow. So that’s always a good thing.”
Thompson is another matter. While Curry — who constantly had hands in his face coming off the Green pick and roll — still scored 34 points, Thompson scored a very quiet 21 points (even though that is above his career playoff average). Without Durant in the lineup, he needs to be more assertive.
There is one stat that bodes very well for Golden State: The Warriors have won at least one road game in each of the last 22 playoff series, and in a series where they don’t have home-court advantage, that could be the difference.
“At the end of the day you got to — when you don’t have home court in a series — you got to come win one game on the road, whenever that is,” Green said. “And that’s still our mindset.”
“Our team has always responded well after a loss,” Kerr said, “and that’s the plan tonight.”