TORONTO — For years the Toronto Raptors’s status as an Eastern Conference power, a contender for an NBA title, was somewhat hollow. Sparkling regular seasons followed by playoff flameouts. They carried an absolute fear of LeBron James. They would utterly collapse when faced with adversity.
That reality has been replaced by a newfound confidence and prowess. The Raptors are no longer an impostor or paper champion. They spent Thursday at Scotiabank Arena peppering the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors with jumper after jumper, Pascal Siakam’s layup after layup, and then followed that with the type of stifling defense that erased any doubts of whether the Warriors needed Kevin Durant to win this series.
The power shift in the NBA may not have moved east yet, but it’s flying over Denver on its way to Toronto and it will land in Canada soon if this series continues with the Game 1 trend.
Toronto’s 118-109 win over the Warriors was an alert to those who questioned whether the Raptors could make this a competitive series, or whether they would revert to melting at the sight of a stiff challenge as they did prior to adding coach Nick Nurse and star player Kawhi Leonard.
What was most stunning about Thursday’s victory was that Leonard was rather pedestrian, and so was Kyle Lowry. Third-year forward Siakam, skipped by several teams, including the Celtics twice, in the 2016 draft, was relentless at the rim, scoring 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting in a masterful performance.
The Warriors had no answer for Siakam, who at 6 feet 8 inches and with an albatross-like wingspan, was able to shoot over any Golden State defender as he swooped toward the basket.
“I think it was two years ago when we got bounced out of the playoffs, he literally went in the gym the next day and he was kind of like, ‘Listen, I need to learn how to shoot. I see that in playoff basketball you better be able to shoot to be on the floor,’ ” Nurse said. “So he went to work that day on his shooting, and I think it changed some mechanics. But that’s a very small thing, he took it and just absolutely ran with it, two, three times a day, every day, just trying to get that part of his game better, right. And that just shows again he was extremely hard-working like beyond – I mean just super, super committed to finding a place in this league and improving his game.”
It was apparent the Raptors’ length gave the Warriors myriad issues and made it clear they’ll need Durant back to win the series. He has missed the past six playoff games with a strained calf and won’t play in Game 2.
There has been increasing conjecture that the Warriors were actually better without the former MVP because the ball movement increased and Stephen Curry became more of a creator during the Portland series. The Raptors responded by allowing Curry to be a scorer and he led the club with 34 points on 8-for-18 shooting and 14 free throws.
But it made little impact. The Warriors played the entire game from behind, totally playing into the Toronto strategy.
Golden State had just three players in double figures. Klay Thompson scored 21, but spent the evening mired in frustration defensively, including an uncharacteristic technical foul in the fourth quarter.
If anything, Game 1 served as a smelling salt for the Warriors, who freely admitted the past few days they were not familiar with the Raptors since they met just twice this season and Leonard missed one of the meetings.
The Raptors, however, played as if they had spent weeks scouting the Warriors, learning their tendencies and weaknesses. They let Andre Iguodala shoot open threes and he missed all four. They went at Draymond Green defensively and got him into foul trouble. They countered every Golden State mini-run with one of their own, including the decisive blow when Siakam hit a pair of layups and Leonard drained a line-drive 3-pointer. Ballgame.
The sellout crowd, the city, and the country celebrated their first NBA Finals win in the Raptors’s 25-year history.
The atmosphere at Scotiabank Arena was surreal. Starting in the early afternoon, there was a line that formed around the arena just to get into Jurassic Park, the outdoor area that hosts watch parties for Raptors playoff games.
Inside, the fans were just as exuberant, cheering not only every Toronto basket but every shot attempt, and the home team responded with a sparkling first half, showing the two-time defending champions that they wouldn’t be intimidated by the moment.
It’s impossible to believe the Raptors were left for eliminated after losing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals by 22 points and falling behind, 2-0, to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Raptors have become the team the Celtics hoped they would transform into but never could.
Toronto relied on its defense to provide major issues for the Warriors’ shooters, sending constant defenders at Curry and Thompson. Marc Gasol may not be the defensive player of the year-caliber player he was five years ago, but his mere presence in the paint intimidated shooters and altered shots.
The perception was that Toronto’s acquisition of the burly big man wouldn’t prove effective against fast-paced, 3-point shooting teams like the Warriors, that he would be deemed useless because of his lack of speed. Instead, he scored 20 points in this Finals debut, often left open because of the Golden State attention on Leonard and Lowry.
Siakam burned the Warriors for their defensive emphasis on Leonard and continues his rather remarkable ascension after being a late first-round pick and playing some of his rookie season in the G-League.
“It’s amazing and it just proves that if you put the work in, man, and it’s something that it’s so cliché most of the time, but that’s the story of my life,” Siakam said, “Just going out there every single night, working hard to get to this level, and knowing that I have so much to learn and I have so much room to improve and grow. I think that’s what make it fun. And for me just kind of falling in love with the game and wanting to get better and wanting to learn. Moments like this definitely shows that I’m going to continue to be myself, continue to work hard and have so much room to improve.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.