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This story was originally published on May 31, 2019.
Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol stole the show in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals, but the Toronto Raptors wouldn't have won without Fred VanVleet.
Not only did VanVleet score 15 points off the bench - the fourth straight game in which he's scored double figures - he was Toronto's primary defender on Stephen Curry. Even though Curry finished with a game-high 34 points, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse credited VanVleet after the game for making it difficult for the two-time MVP.
"Freddy worked hard defensively, played a lot of minutes on Curry," Nurse said. "I know Curry had 34, but Freddy made him work for them."
So how effective was VanVleet?
What the numbers say
According to the NBA.com's tracking data - which, it's worth noting, isn't always perfect - here's how the Raptors defended Curry in Game 1:
The biggest takeaways from that data...
- VanVleet defended Curry the most, matching up with him for 41.3 percent of his offensive possessions
- VanVleet was Toronto's most effective defender on Curry, holding him to four points on 1-for-6 shooting
- Curry was at his best when Lowry and Siakam were defending him, with 17 of his 34 points coming against those two
- Five of Curry's game-high 14 free throw attempts came following a foul on Gasol, who fouled out in 29 minutes of play
Another stat to know is deterrent factor. It's described as "the percentage of a player's season average FGA output per Possession that he shot in a specific matchup." It's basically a way of measuring how effective a defender is in limiting their assignment from getting up their usual amount of shots, with anything under 100 percent indicating they attempted less than normal.
VanVleet was once again incredibly effective in that regard, posting a deterrent factor of 67.7 percent. Of the players listed above, only Green (31.0 percent) and Gasol (0 percent) had a lower deterrent factor when guarding Curry.
Does the tape back it up?
For the most part, yes.
These are the types of plays that contributed to VanVleet's deterrent factor being as low as it was:
Knowing Curry is one of the league's best scorers off of screens, VanVleet stays glued to his hip and chases him all around the court, not paying any attention to anyone else.
VanVleet did it time and time again in Game 1, limiting Curry to six shot attempts over 33 possessions. His obvious limitation on defense is his height, but he's a quick, physical and disciplined defender, all of which are tools needed to have any chance of containing an off-ball threat like Curry.
VanVleet did well to contest the few shots Curry did get up against him as well.
It helps, of course, that Curry is surrounded by Shaun Livingston, Alfonzo McKinnie, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney. With none of them being big-time shooting threats, the Raptors can give each of them a decent-sized cushion to provide the help VanVleet needs to be aggressive on Curry.
Just look at much attention Curry gets on this possession from the second quarter:
While VanVleet does well to prevent Curry from using the screen, both Leonard and Gasol are in help position to buy him a few seconds as he recovers.
Lowry provides help on the backline as well, leaving Iguodala in the corner in case Looney gets the ball on the roll. Lowry obviously isn't a rim protector, but he's one of the best charge-drawers in the league. After drawing 23 charges in the regular season, he leads the way with 15 in these playoffs.
For context, Damian Lillard has the second-most in these playoffs, with seven charges drawn.
The Raptors were able to force a turnover on that particular possession, but there were a couple of occasions where the Warriors were able to take advantage of them focusing all of their attention on Curry.
It's how McKinnie got an open 3-pointer here, for example:
And how Livingston got a layup here:
That's not to take away from the defence VanVleet did play on Curry. He made a couple of costly mistakes - one of which led to a foul on Gasol in the closing seconds of the first half - but he was aggressive all game long, picking him up full court, pressuring him off-ball and running him off the 3-point line following a series in which Curry attempted 15.3 3-pointers per game and made them at a 42.6 percent clip.
VanVleet did, however, receive a lot of help.
What kind of adjustments can Golden State make?
Players not named Curry and Klay Thompson hitting shots would certainly help. Curry and Thompson combined to shoot 7-for-15 from the 3-point line in Game 1. Everyone else combined to shoot 5-for-16.
Unless the likes of Iguodala and Green can punish the Raptors for helping off of them, they'll continue to load up on Curry and face guard Thompson.
The Warriors might also look to put Curry in more pick-and-rolls, particularly if VanVleet is going to continue picking him up full court. In addition to helping him get downhill, it would give Curry more space to attack Gasol when his defender is the one setting the screen.
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