OAKLAND, Calif. — If that Game 5 call in the Stanley Cup wasn’t bad enough for Boston sports faithful, they are now watching the Celtics’ division rival literally do what they fantasized, projected, and predicted the Celtics would do this season.
The Toronto Raptors are catching the Golden State Warriors on fumes, battered, aging, and at the end of their superb five-year run. And they have built enough chemistry, executed Nick Nurse’s brilliant strategies, and gotten just enough help for the unstoppable Kawhi Leonard to dominate the first four games.
A stellar offensive third quarter, along with a stifling defense, earned the Raptors yet another impressive win in this NBA Finals. They are no longer just the loveable hopefuls from the North or even game opponents capable of giving the Warriors a competitive series. They are unquestionably the better team, and they need one win over the next three games to give Canada its first major professional sports title since the ’93 Blue Jays.
The Raptors’ 105-92 victory in perhaps the final game at Oracle Arena was a statement, a declaration that they were indeed prepared for greatness, to unseat an all-time great team that has seen better days.
Kevin Durant remained out for his ninth consecutive game with a strained calf, and now the story line over the next 48 hours will become whether he has played his final game as a Warrior. If he does come back for Game 5, will it be enough to overcome the raucous atmosphere in the biggest sporting event in Toronto since Game 6 of the 1993 World Series?
The city of Toronto has held on to that memory of Joe Carter’s walkoff homer off Mitch Williams for nearly 30 years. Since then they have experienced nothing but athletic heartaches. The Blue Jays have been to the playoffs twice since that World Series win. The Maple Leafs have advanced past the first round of the NHL playoffs once in the past 15 years. And before this season, the Raptors had been bounced from the NBA playoffs unceremoniously in the past four years, including last year’s embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It’s been a difficult 25 years for Toronto fans and they have jumped on the bandwagon of this Raptors team, which has galvanized a country while a horde of their fans invaded Oracle Arena.
After the game, hundreds of Raptors faithful gathered above the team’s bench and began chanting as if it were a Premier League soccer match. They were chanting so long that arena operations kept repeating their postgame sendoff song, trying to drown out those “O Canada!” and “We The North” serenades. They were unsuccessful. The Raptors are closing in on history and the Warriors are running out of options and answers.
“Yeah, it’s awesome, first of all, right. I think we travel, our fans travel really well in the regular season,” Nurse said. “We get this a lot on the road. It’s really amazing. It’s Canada’s team, and Canadians from all over the country are traveling down and making plans when we play in Florida or California or any of the — Detroit especially. You ought to see a Detroit game. It’s really something in there, both teams’ fans really get going.
“Surprises me a little in The Finals because I don’t think it’s that easy to get tickets to these games, so our fans are working extra hard and being extra vocal, and we appreciate that.”
Playing like a desperate champion reluctant to relinquish their crown, the Warriors began with a frenetic pace and enjoyed stretches of offensive cohesion, sparked by Klay Thompson, who missed Game 3 with a strained hamstring.
What was impressive about the Raptors is they withstood the surge and remained poised. They trailed by as many as 11 points, but sliced the deficit to 46-42 by halftime behind Leonard and Serge Ibaka, who combined for 22 points.
The Raptors are far past their days where they wilted under pressure and botched opportunities for prosperity. They had already gotten the coveted road win they wanted in Game 3 and had played well enough in Game 4 to be close despite poor shooting – 34.1 percent in the first half.
The difference between the Toronto team that lost its opening playoff game at home to Orlando and the one that walked into Oracle and won two is stunning. The Raptors shook off their playoff doldrums early, jumped on the burly back of Leonard, and dominated the third quarter, outscoring the Warriors, 37-21, with a stifling defense that forced rushed shots or shots against multiple defenders.
In the end, the Warriors were exhausted. After a 47-point outing in Game 3, Stephen Curry managed 27 on 9-for-22 shooting but most of that was during a futile late rally. Thompson scored 28 but the next highest Warrior was 10. Their biggest free agent acquisition of the offseason, DeMarcus Cousins, played just 15 minutes because he was ineffective offensively and slow defensively.
The Raptors’ speed and length are what should propel them to a title unless the Warriors have a historic comeback left. Just three years ago the Warriors were in the exact position as Toronto, returning home leading the NBA Finals, 3-1, before the Cavaliers won the next three and made history.
“It’s not a good feeling right now, obviously, but like you said, we have been on both sides of it,” Curry said. “And for us it’s an opportunity for us to just flip this whole series on its head, and you got to do it one game at a time.
“It sounds cliché, and for us that’s literally the only way we’re going to get back in this series, is give everything we got for 48 minutes, everybody that sets foot on that floor in Game 5.
“In our locker room we’re talking about believing, everybody out there believe that we can get this done. We got to — we can draw on those experiences that we had back in the day and see what happens.”