Championship in sight, Raptors control Oracle Arena endgame

NBA.com Global on Jun 08, 2019 07:59 PM
Championship in sight, Raptors control Oracle Arena endgame
Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka, middle, celebrates with Kyle Lowry, left, and Danny Green during the second half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Friday, June 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

OAKLAND, Calif. — What once began as a fantasy, then progressed as hope and then grew to a reasonable wish has now evolved and crystalized once again. And this time, everyone south of Saskatoon can begin to see it and maybe even buy in.

The Toronto Raptors have the scent of a champion.

This may come as a surprise to the nostrils of anyone who saw them crumble in past postseasons or figured their chances of getting out of the East this season were dicey … but Toronto just took a pair of NBA Finals games at Oracle Arena — and maybe closed it down in the process. The Raptors are headed home with one game to win and history on their side.

Thirty-four times in The Finals have teams taken 3-1 leads, and they sipped champagne all but once. (Let’s not discuss that lone team to lose; the Warriors are suffering enough.)

This latest Raptors victory was impressively convincing, especially considering the circumstances. They stared at a desperate home team, one that welcomed back Klay Thompson after a one-game injury absence … a two-time defending champion known for rising to the occasion … and the Raptors dusted them anyway.

You understand exactly what the Raptors did Friday (Saturday, PHL time) and how it was done? They emerged from the halftime locker room with fire and outclassed a team known for championship pedigree and owning third quarters in the postseason. Kawhi Leonard, who’s uplifting a team and a country, began the onslaught with a pair of three-point jumpers. The Toronto defense, relentless most of the night and throughout the series as well, squeezed the Warriors and especially Steph Curry.

Time after time, Serge Ibaka delivered a counter punch with a key jumper off the pick and roll or a defensive stop. Ibaka had 20 points in 21 minutes in what was his first strong outing from jump to buzzer. Fred VanVleet, felled by a stray Shaun Livingston elbow to the chops in the third quarter, was left bloodied and missing a tooth in a scene that embodied Toronto's grit.

The Raptors simply wore down the more experienced Warriors and Golden State never came up with an answer. Toronto stole the atmosphere — a smattering of red-garbed Raptors fans suddenly cheered louder and stomped harder and stayed buzzed long after the buzzer — and sent the Warriors off the court with heads bowed and egos deflated.

Oh, something else: Nick Nurse, the first-year Toronto coach, kept pressing the right buttons with his various defensive schemes and substitutions as Golden State failed to break 100 for the first time this postseason. And the Raptors seized control of the series, ensuring that Scotiabank Arena will be a mixture of tense and hysterical Monday for Game 5 (Tuesday, PHL time). And that’s just from Drake. The crowd will be hyped, too.

This is the moment that the basketball population in Toronto has long awaited, to get a sense something special is about to happen, or at least could. And this was made possible by a former Finals MVP who, this time last summer, was in exile with his reputation, at least in San Antonio, in tatters.

By November, in Toronto, none of that mattered.

“Once we saw him early in the year, your team’s vision of who they can become changes,” said Nurse.

Leonard is a victory away from another Finals MVP and trophy, and mostly a sense of redemption. His passion and championship drive was evident Friday in two stages, both influential to his team.

He set an example early by showing pep from the opening tip, carrying the Raptors with 14 of their 17 points over the first 12 minutes.

And then, coming out of halftime, Leonard went scorched Earth once again. He posted 17 points and five rebounds in the third, and this time the Raptors lent support. Toronto outscored the Warriors, 37-21, and spent the rest of the game keeping a sneaker pressed on the Warriors’ throat. Kawhi tore through the Warriors constantly, totaling 36 points and 12 rebounds. Yet it was his tone that influenced the game just as much, if not more.

“He imposed his will on the game and his team followed him,” said Draymond Green. “He gets the job done.”

This is why Kawhi’s value to the Raptors is priceless. Until now, Toronto lacked a player with his presence, someone who forced other teams to gameplan differently, someone who seems to thrive when the stakes are highest and is driven in these situations. They didn’t have that with DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, the leaders and best players of those teams that flourished in the regular season and failed in the postseason.

Leonard clearly has the Warriors rattled and their defense stressed whenever he’s in isolation or bracing to attack.

“He hit every big shot, every big momentum shot,” said Curry.

Just the same, the Kawhi-inspired defense weighed heavily not only in this game but for much of the series. With the exception of Curry’s monstrous 47-point outburst in Game 3, Toronto hasn’t yielded much from the Warriors — surely, Kevin Durant’s absence and Thompson’s missed game contributed. Yet the Raptors are floating Leonard around the floor, sneaking in doubles on Thompson and Curry, leaving Green open and encouraging him to shoot, and essentially making it tough for the Warriors to go on a big scoring spree. Toronto has outscored the Warriors in 13 of the 16 quarters of this series.

Hounded by the Raptors’ perimeter defense, and maybe gassed from two nights earlier, Curry made only a pair of three-pointers Friday (Saturday, PHL time) and never developed a rhythm. And while Thompson returned from his injury with 28 points, he was harmless in the fourth quarter and his team quiet.

“They’ve been aggressive all series in trying to take space away from me and Klay,” Curry said.

As the Warriors and the crowd disappeared from the arena, there was a sense of finality in the air inside Oracle. If the Warriors don’t win Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), then the last memory of their home of nearly six decades will be a deflating one. Instead of dreamy visions of Curry and Thompson and Durant spraying jumpers, it will be Leonard punishing the Warriors and the home team powerless to stop him or from being pushed to the brink.

And speaking of Durant: Coach Steve Kerr has now gone radio silent about his superstar’s availability for Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) or beyond. The subject has become tiresome because there’s no resolution regarding someone who hasn’t played in a month.

And so the Warriors have twin motivations for Monday (Tuesday, PHL time): Win to stay alive and also to play once more at Oracle for a Game 6. Yet at this point, with the dynasty showing cracks, that might be a lost cause.

“I know we’re capable,” said Kerr. “We’ve got a lot of talent and got a lot of pride and these guys have been to The Finals five straight years for a reason. They’re going to fight the whole way.”

Green added: “I’ve been on the wrong side of 3-1 before, so why not make our own history?”

Well, that now-or-never talk is fine. Yet it’s all about the Raptors making history now, and stopping the Warriors’ streak in the process. It’s all there for the taking for Toronto: One win, a chance to celebrate on the home floor, and a marvelous and striking professional rebound for Kawhi Leonard, who surely will be named Finals MVP should all of the above happen.

Dare we say, it’s the Raptors title to lose now.

A title anointed to the Warriors even before the season began.

Well, plenty has happened in the last seven months. And especially the last seven days.

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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