The Toronto Raptors have already won as many games in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors as the Cleveland Cavaliers did in the last two Finals combined. And yet, due to the nature of their Game 2 loss, the Raptors' homestand to open the series in some ways feels like a disappointment.
Up 12 in the second quarter on Sunday night, the Raptors let the Warriors back into the game at the end of the first half, then might as well have not come out of the locker room to start the third. Using one of their trademark third-quarter runs, the Warriors ripped off 18 straight points to open the second half and surge into a double-digit lead of their own.
From there, they managed to hang on to win 109-104 to even the Finals at 1-1. Now, the series shifts to Oakland for Games 3 and 4, where the Warriors have lost just 13 times in the regular season and playoffs combined. Just a few days removed from their Game 1 loss, the Warriors are all of a sudden in a position to win both games at home and take control of the matchup -- especially if Kevin Durant returns.
So, ahead of Game 3, what can the Raptors do in order to avoid a second straight loss? Here are a few keys.
1. Aggressive Gasol
The Raptors need Marc Gasol to be aggressive and looking to attack in Game 3. He was key to their victory in Game 1, finishing with 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field. In Game 2, however, he only scored six points -- matched by Andrew Bogut of all people -- went 2-of-7 from the field and was called for multiple offensive fouls on moving screens.
Whether he didn't like the matchup with DeMarcus Cousins, who started and played a far bigger role in Game 2, or just wasn't comfortable and confident after missing some early shots is unclear. Regardless, he was often too passive when receiving the ball at the top of the key in the second half. Now Gasol isn't going to produce on offense like a Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid, but he has to at least act like a threat to do something positive with the ball.
The difference between an aggressive and a passive Gasol is huge for the Raptors. Through their first 20 games this postseason, the Raptors are 8-1 when he scores nine or more points, but just 5-6 when he scores less than nine points.
2. Keep shooting
During the regular season, the Raptors were one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league, knocking down just under 37 percent of their attempts. In the playoffs, however, that area of their game hasn't been as sharp. Though they turned the corner a bit at the end of the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks, and into Game 1 of the Finals, they're still only at 34.4 percent from downtown during the playoffs.
In Game 2 of the Finals, their 3-point woes returned, despite the fact that they created a number of good looks. Between kickouts after getting into the lane, second-chance opportunities and even some scramble situations, Toronto generated 31 open or wide-open 3s in Game 2, per the NBA's shot tracking data, but made just nine of them, good for 29 percent.
Missing open looks can be one of the most frustrating things for a basketball player, but the Raptors need to keep their confidence and keep shooting the ball when they're open. The Warriors are too good of a defensive team for the Raptors to pass up good shots when they get them. It's rare that you're going to get a better look, and they need to make 3s in order to keep up with the Warriors' elite offense.
3. Championship-level focus
It can be hard to quantify, but there's a reason why experience is cited time and again as a key factor in the playoffs. There's nothing that can simulate the pressure, speed and intensity of the Finals, as the Raptors found out firsthand in Game 2.
Like so many teams before them, the Raptors were simply unprepared for the Warriors' overwhelming onslaught to start the third quarter. Before they knew what was happening, or could respond, the Warriors had rattled off 18 straight points to take the lead for good. A lot of that was talent, sure, but experience was a factor as well.
There's no reason to go full hot take and say the Raptors "didn't take this game seriously enough," as Paul Pierce put it on ABC; that's not true. But what is true is that the Raptors weren't ready to match the Warriors' intensity and execution coming out of the break. And those few minutes were enough to swing the game.
It's one thing to talk about playing at a championship level for a full 48 minutes, and what will happen if you don't, but it's another thing when a team like the Warriors shows up on your home floor and paints that picture right in front of your face.
The Raptors have now experienced what happens if they lose focus for even a few minutes at a time; it's no longer an abstract idea. They'll need to translate that experience into action in Game 3 on the road at Oracle, where the consequences of not following through will be amplified.