TORONTO — Before we got carried away with Raptors fever, with Jurassic Parks sprouting up all over Canada, even as far north as Ellesmere Island, let’s take a moment to consider their NBA Finals opponent and their history.
It seems the Warriors sleepwalked into the NBA Finals — their fifth consecutive appearance — entering with 10 days off and admittedly completely unfamiliar with their opponent. Maybe that was arrogance because game tape does exist, but the Warriors got popped around in Game 1 as if they needed to see themselves bleed before really taking this series seriously.
Toward the end of the first half Sunday night at Scotiabank Arena, with the Raptors dominating and the Warriors lollygagging once again, something sparked a resurgence and the Golden State team that has embarrassed the rest of the NBA for a half-decade returned, despite being littered with injuries and foul trouble.
What Game 2 proved is that if the Raptors are going to take the Warriors‘ crown, they are going to have to do it the hard way, likely winning multiple games in Oakland.
The Warriors hung on for a 109-104 win, after going scoreless for more than five minutes until Andre Iguodala hit a clinching 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left. But what this victory proved is that the Warriors remain the league’s best team despite their declining state.
Klay Thompson, who scored 25 points in 32 minutes before leaving with a hamstring injury, sparked an 18-0 run to begin the third quarter that gave the Warriors the lead for good. Golden State had trailed, 47-35, and it was being peppered with buckets by the nifty Fred VanVleet and superstar Kawhi Leonard; the script was flowing the same way as Game 1.
Suddenly, Steph Curry scored 6 points in the final 53.7 seconds of the first half and then came the Warriors’ big third quarter. Things started to make sense again for the Warriors, who looked completely confused and sometimes uninterested in this series until late in the second period.
That third quarter, a 34-21 surge when the Warriors relied on ball movement and pinpoint shooting, was a microcosm of their Finals dominance of the past five years.
Afterward, Thompson, limping and still in uniform and Kevin Durant, who has missed the past seven postseason games with a strained calf, greeted their teammates and then caught rapper and Raptors superfan Drake walking through the tunnel and exchanged trash talk, with Thompson calling the rapper his given name, Aubrey.
They are a team constructed with superstar shooters who are surrounded by players who know and embrace their roles, something the Celtics had major issues with this season. The Warriors have been here before and didn’t crack despite that 12-point deficit. The most impactful characteristic the Warriors have acquired over this run is experience.
“It was the big point in the game. I thought just staying in the game at the end of the second quarter was also very important,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “I think we were down 12 and the place was going nuts, we couldn’t score, and Steph and Klay both got loose and the game loosened up a little bit and we scored. We weren’t exactly making stops, but we cut the lead to 5 and could kind of breathe at halftime.
“I think our guys felt renewed life at that point and came out and just had a great run to take control of the game, and we were able to finish it out from there.”
It became apparent in the third quarter that the Raptors were frazzled. Leonard was being swarmed on defense. Kyle Lowry was mired in foul trouble. And the duo of Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol, which went 20-for-37 shooting for 52 points in Game 1, finished Game 2 shooting 7 of 25 for 18 points.
The Warriors turned the Raptors into a one-man team, with Leonard keeping Toronto close by reaching the free throw line. Toronto shot 29.2 percent in the second half with Leonard scoring 40 percent of their points.
What pummeled the Warriors in Game 1 was Toronto’s balance. The Raptors were Kawhi-heavy in Game 2, relegated to depending on their best player because the others were inefficient.
When it counted, the Raptors were stymied. Open shots didn’t go down. Lowry was ineffective on offense and tried too hard to make plays on defense, committing silly, overaggressive fouls, and then finally fouling out with 3:52 left.
Being a team that has won three of the past four titles takes poise, execution, and some good fortune. Toronto had none of those in the second half, but was able to slice the deficit to 2 and needed one more defensive stop.
But that was before Iguodala, perhaps the Warriors’ most indispensable player during their postseason runs, sank a 3-pointer when left open. The Raptors intended to leave Iguodala open because they blitzed Curry and didn’t want to give the world’s best 3-point shooter another chance.
It was an understandable choice. The Raptors went with the percentages but they were burned by the Warriors’ clutch gene, the ability of their playoff-veteran roster to make pivotal plays.
“But I think that as big as Andre’s shot was, we have come to expect on Andre to hit big shots,” forward Draymond Green said. “Since he’s been here I’ve seen him hit several game-winners. I’ve seen him put the icing on the cake at several wins.”
VanVleet sent a message to Raptors nation and the entire country to chill out.
Game 1 was an impressive win, it alerted the basketball world that Toronto wasn’t just fortunate to be here, it was a legitimate title-contending team.
But now comes the ultimate test, whether the Raptors can win at least one in Oakland, whether they can respond from adversity and reassert their imprint on this series. That will determine if they are truly championship worthy.
“You guys didn’t think this was going to be a sweep, I don’t know like what you guys thought this series was going to look like, but we went into it expecting a dog fight,” VanVleet said. “And, yes, we won Game 1, I think everybody else outside of our locker room was a lot more excited than we were.
“We understand what this team brings and what type of effort it’s going to take to beat these guys.”