It’s a tired talking point but that doesn’t make it any less true: a Raptors-Warriors game, even with both teams at full strength, doesn’t mean a whole lot if it happens on November 29th. There are still six months until the next truly meaningful games could even happen between these two teams — and that’s only if they both manage to meet in the NBA Finals.
Still, nevertheless, that said: It felt absolutely incredible to reach the end of this particular game with the Raptors securing a 131-128 overtime win against the Warriors — yes, even without Steph Curry and Draymond Green, and despite the lack of meaningful context. Sometimes we can just enjoy a thing for what it is in the moment. Especially when it feels like the turning of a brand new page straight out of a magical fairy tale — rather than dull reality. It becomes instead a story we can repeat after it’s over and all involved have turned back into pumpkins (however long that’ll take).
From the jump, it was clear the Raptors were ready to make some kind of bold statement. Toronto coach Nick Nurse took the floor in a purple paisley jacket (in honour of Sager Night), and his team took the court under the bright lights and began by putting on a show. There was some spectacular shot making from Kawhi Leonard, a booming fast break dunk from Pascal Siakam, and the usual heady play from Kyle Lowry. By the end of the half, with the Warriors hanging around by the grace of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s otherworldly talents, Toronto still gripped a nine point lead.
The catalyst for most of the Raptors’ successful actions tonight, either by playing crushing defense on Durant or by just straight up muscling the ball into the basket, was Kawhi. It’s a repetitive element, but he remains Toronto’s central protagonist. On this night, under some extreme pressure from the Warriors, Leonard coolly dropped 37 points on 14-of-24 shooting (including 3-of-6) from three, to go with eight rebounds, three assists, and that aforementioned stellar defense. While his opposite, Kevin Durant, did indeed go off for 51 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists — making impossible shot after shot the entire way — Leonard (and Siakam, and Serge Ibaka, and the entire Raptors team) made him work for it.
All told, this may have been just another game for Leonard, one more in a long season, but it definitely looked like he wanted to show out. That the league’s quietest superstar put together a game like this after a year and a half since his last meeting with the Warriors says something — loudly. With or without talking, Kawhi continues to imbue these Raptors with a killer confidence. Despite a late fourth quarter and OT tie, the Raptors never relinquished their lead over the Warriors (which got as large as 18), the one they held from the game’s explosive opening minutes.
In the process, that inner confidence went on down the line. Serge Ibaka, starting in the pivot, did damage in his usual spots, putting up 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Pascal Siakam was perfect through three quarters, only missing a pair of shots in the fourth, to finish with a career-high 26 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three (and a very clutch run of 5-of-6 free throws in OT). Danny Green calmly filled his roll on defense, went 5-of-10 from the field for 13 points (including a 3 in OT to seal the win), and chipped in with five boards and three assists. And Kyle Lowry was at his Kyle Lowry-iest — the shot was off for Toronto’s emotional leader, but he still had 12 assists and you’d trust him with your life while on the basketball court. Lowry looked unsure of a three late in the fourth, looking himself off the line, but then drilled one in the final minute of regulation while fading to the corner.
If there was a downside to this game it was the unfortunate assurance that Jonas Valanciunas likely has no place in a game against the Warriors, that OG Anunoby is still finding himself as a productive, consistent player, that Delon Wright needs a confidence boost (despite, yes, his pair of 3s tonight), that Fred VanVleet’s shot is still more out than in; and that C.J. Miles may be all the way gone. If nothing else, the Raptors learned who their 16 game players are vs. their 82 game players, and that’s not nothing — especially with such a deep cast of characters involved. In a seven game series with the Warriors, Toronto will likely be forced to roll with, at best, an eight man rotation — the starters, OG, FVV, and whatever you can get from Delon, and that’s it. It’d be a storybook ending if that were enough against the Warriors on the sport’s biggest stage; we may as well start believing now just in case.
I repeat: Still, nevertheless, that said — the Warriors at full strength are a whole different story for the Raptors and every team in the NBA. Any team employing Curry, Thompson (23 points tonight, on 9-of-20 shooting with an unlucky run of huge misses late), Durant, and Green (plus Boogie Cousins, let’s not forget) at the same time will be incredibly tough to beat in a seven-game series. The Raptors would not be favoured in such a contest were it to come to pass. They’d have to play perfect basketball, which is not something even the most adventurous writer would dare write up.
The fun part here is, of course, dreaming about it anyway. There are all kinds of silly cliches here to capture the mood — believing in your dreams, shooting for the stars, and so on — but, like those tired talking points, that doesn’t make them any less true. Maybe it’s just a magical tale we’re going to tell ourselves for today, forgetting about tomorrow, the extenuating circumstances, the reality of the next six months even.
As Nurse was heading into the media room to answer post-game questions, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps jokingly asked about his now absent electric jacket. Presumably Nurse had taken it off to cool down — it felt like the entire city had just collectively exhaled along with him. As Nurse took to the podium in the tiny media room, the crowd now dispersed, the bright lights and loud music turned off, and the book on the night nearly closed, he had an answer ready.
“The rental expired.”
The Raptors are the best team in the NBA, if only just for one night. That’s the conclusion. Remember that, cherish it, the end.