OAKLAND, Calif. — What completely investing in this season, moving valued assets and trading draft picks and quality prospects have done for the Toronto Raptors is put them on the verge of greatness.
In February the thought of the playoff-bumbling Raptors being two wins from an NBA title against the dynasty Golden State Warriors would be considered absurd. But Toronto’s decision to put all its efforts in the present — acquiring impending free agents Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and then Marc Gasol at the trade deadline — proved brilliant.
They have come together at the perfect time and caught the Warriors perhaps in the final days of their amazing run, hobbled and battered, which is why they were able to coast in Wednesday’s Game 3.
With Klay Thompson a late scratch with a strained left hamstring, Kevin Durant missing his eighth consecutive game with a calf strain and Kevon Looney out for the series with a fractured rib, the Warriors were vulnerable. The Raptors seized on them and grabbed that pivotal road win they knew they needed when this series began.
The Raptors have no idea what type of team they’ll field next season — perhaps they’ll be decimated by free agency — but that doesn’t matter right now. The Raptors bet on the present and so far have a winning hand.
Their 123-109 win over the injury-depleted Warriors is just as crucial as their Game 1 win. They have taken control of the series, forcing Golden State to essentially have to win Game 4 and perhaps rushing Thompson and Durant back before they’re ready.
Golden State is stumbling to the finish, like many great dynasties, most notably the 1989 Lakers, who sustained injuries to Magic Johnson and Byron Scott in being swept by the Detroit Pistons. Free agency may seriously alter the Warriors also, and it appears this will be their final run with their current roster intact.
Healthy and cohesive, this Warriors team is unquestionably the best in the NBA, but they haven’t been the former for weeks, and the Raptors aren’t intimidated by their opponent or daunted by the task.
Leonard led Toronto with 30 points and five other Raptors scored in double figures in perhaps their best performance of the postseason. Kyle Lowry, the senior Raptor who had two poor offensive games in Toronto, responded with 23 points and five 3-pointers.
“I think we just added a couple great pieces, adding Kawhi and Marc and Danny, with their professionalism, I think their championship -- Danny’s and Kawhi’s championship pedigree,” Lowry said afterwards. “Nick (Nurse) coming in as a coach that’s won a few championships in G League, and we got Patrick McCaw who got a couple championships.
“We got a bunch of guys who are professionals, and we got a good veteran group. And we all kind of just understand that this is our job and never get too up, never get too down. Teams are going to make runs, and you’re going to not win every game, you’re not going to lose every game, but you can continue to grow to the point to play until June, and that was always the goal with this team was to get to June.”
The Raptors were two steps faster than the Warriors, who were relegated to chasing the entire night. Golden State would cut the deficit to 8 and Leonard or Lowry would respond with a three. They needed All-Star caliber DeMarcus Cousins, instead they got the crabby, unproductive one that complained he was fouled on every missed shot.
Thompson played his best possum Tuesday during media availability when he said he didn’t see himself not playing in Game 3. He took the suspense all the way to the final moments before lineups were announced before he was declared out with a strained left hamstring.
Without Thompson and Durant, who arrived at Oracle Arena about 15 minutes before tipoff, the Warriors were relegated to Curry and the backups, a scrambling bunch that spent the first half just trying to stay close.
Toronto, at full strength and fully realizing it was the prohibitive favorites, led for the final 20:42 of the first half, sharing the wealth offensively when Gasol and Pascal Siakam reverted back to their Game 1, gashing the Golden State defense early while Leonard played distributor.
The lead stretched to as many as 14 but the Warriors displayed championship grit by constantly rallying. For Curry, it was life before Durant arrived and Thompson developed into an All-Star. He was racing around the floor looking for any spot to launch a 3-pointer and his teammates made constant efforts to find him open.
Curry had 25 of Golden State’s 52 halftime points with Draymond Green the next highest at 7. The Warriors haven’t been this dependent on Curry in more than five years and it proved two major points: they need all three of their All-Stars to win a title and Curry remains a stellar scorer and primary option when necessary.
Was Thompson completely unable to play or were the Warriors essentially conceding this game to get their shooting guard two extra days to rest? Also, Durant appears ready to return for Friday’s Game 4.
“Well, the whole point was to not risk a bigger injury that would keep him out of the rest of the series. So that was the decision we made, and I feel very comfortable with it,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Never would have forgiven myself if I played him and he had gotten hurt. So you live with the decision you make, you make a wise decision, the wisest one you can, and then you live with it and move forward. So the good thing is Klay has done well the last two days; now he has a couple more days to heal, and hopefully he’ll be out there on Friday.”
Giving away an NBA Finals game is a risky and monumental decision but perhaps Warriors officials envisioned Thompson perhaps reinjuring himself and missing the rest of the series.
The Raptors, chasing their first NBA title, gladly accepted Golden State’s generosity. There is no sympathy in the NBA. The Raptors knew full well they would have to win a game in Oakland to win the series and they felt confident after coming close to winning Game 2 despite a subpar performance.
They responded like championship caliber teams should. They were hardly rattled by the raucous environment and even had a large throng of fans above their bench that included the famous Toronto Superfan Nav Bhatia.
“Let’s Go Raptors!” chants dominated the arena as the fans filed out and then that turned into “O Canada” as Oakland became Toronto South.