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Nurse expects 'a lot better' from Kawhi in Game 2

William Lou
·NBA reporter

TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard needed to continue his Michael Jordan impersonation in order for the Toronto Raptors to upset the Golden State Warriors, or at least that was the thinking heading into the series.

But that trend didn’t bear out in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The Raptors led from start to finish for a 118-109 win over the Warriors, but it was hardly Leonard’s best performance. Leonard only made five field goals, and finished with a mostly pedestrian 23 points while the likes of Pascal Siakam (32 points) and Marc Gasol (20 points) rounded out a team effort by the Raptors.

Despite the positive result, concerns were still raised over Leonard’s output. Some linked the quiet night to Leonard’s ongoing injury concerns, but Raptors coach Nick Nurse dispelled that theory after Saturday’s practice at Scotiabank Arena.

“I don't think the leg trouble is much of an issue,” Nurse said after Saturday’s practice. “And I'm expecting him to play a lot better tomorrow.”

Instead, Nurse gave credit to the Warriors for mixing up their coverages. Typically, teams either switch or blitz on the perimeter, but Steve Kerr’s side mixed in a bit of both, and it worked. Leonard only attempted 14 shots in Game 1, which was his third-lowest total of the playoffs. He tried 11 in a blowout win over the Orlando Magic in Round 1, and took only 13 in Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks after playing 52 minutes in a double overtime game two nights prior.

“It's like you think it's a switch and not a blitz and you start playing your switch offense, and then all of a sudden it turns into a blitz offense. So you have to leave your switch offense and go to your blitz offense. We did mediocre with it. Hopefully we can do better with it,” Nurse said.

That being said, the Raptors did handle the Warriors’ traps with poise. Leonard’s continued growth as a playmaker continues to pay dividends, as he recorded five assists that translated to 11 points. He also delivered five secondary assists — as in the pass that led to the setup — on top making 12 trips to the free-throw line. Siakam and Gasol also deserve credit for being in the right positions to receive the pass and immediately attack the defense before the Warriors could reset.

“It's really not about me. If they play defense like that, guys are going to step up and make shots. All I could do is keep making the right play. When I do get a free look, make my shots and go back on other end and play defense. It's just not about me scoring or trying to get my offense off. It's a whole collective group out there playing basketball,” Leonard explained.

However, it’s not as if Gasol and Siakam can be relied upon for 52 points on a regular basis. The Raptors will eventually need to get Leonard better looks, and there are gaps in the Warriors’ defense that can be exploited. For example, it was harder to trap Leonard when he received the ball in the post, and he should get more touches there in Game 2, Leonard also torched the Warriors’ centers — Kevon Looney in particular — when they were switched. No defensive scheme, regardless of its innovation, can completely stop a truly great scorer.

“We're under no illusion that we're going to stop Kawhi. We're just trying to make it as difficult as possible on him,” Kerr said.