It suddenly made sense to start it at nine o’clock.
After waiting most of Thursday for the start of Game 1 of Raptors-Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Scotiabank Arena was filled in a way it has never quite been before. Prior to tip-off — well prior — a rollicking crowd was ready to go for warmups, the anthems, the starting lineups, the entire pre-game ritual. And why not? Toronto hadn’t just waited all day for this moment, they’d waited 24 years.
But the question to the crowd was the same posed to the Raptors: could they keep up this level of energy and focus against an all-out assault from the two-time defending champion Warriors? Could anybody?
With the result of Game 1, we no longer have to ask: yes, the Raptors can. They did their thing over the full 48 minutes and won 118-109 to take a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Wild times.
From the jump, the game was as raucous as expected, with the Raptors and Warriors both getting up the court with pace, letting loose with plenty of 3s, and doing their best to attack the other team’s weakest points. These have long been the strengths of Golden State — it’s no surprise to watch Steph Curry put up three after three after three, for example. What was surprising in Game 1: the Raptors were able to stay with Curry and the Warriors, and gradually asserted their own sense of identity as the game went along.
While Kawhi Leonard has shaped much of the postseason for the Raptors, the story of Thursday night was the wondrous 39-minute performance from Pascal Siakam. Despite being watched by Draymond Green, the self-proclaimed best defender in the world, Siakam feasted from everywhere on the court for 32 points (on 14-of-17 shooting, plus 2-of-3 from three), to go with eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and a steal for good measure. When the Warriors would come springing down the floor for a bucket, Siakam made sure to streak back the other way — and his teammates were looking for him.
Much of that searching was done by another newcomer to the NBA Finals, Kyle Lowry. The Raptors’ emotional leader had just seven points in his 36 minutes on 2-of-9 shooting, but he also had nine assists, six rebounds, and, naturally, two charges taken (one on the overmatched DeMarcus Cousins, the other on Draymond). Lowry wasn’t quite at his best — at least when compared to some of his outings in the Eastern Conference Finals — but Toronto felt it when he was forced to sit for a time with five fouls. And we all definitely appreciated it when Lowry decided to put the finishing touch on the game: a deep three to ice it and put the Raptors on top for good.
Toronto needs Lowry to do his thing because the Warriors do not relent. For much of the first half the lead changed hands a few times, with the Raptors claiming a lead as big as ten points. Of course, it never felt safe, with the waves of the Warriors crashing against the walls of Toronto’s defense, running for pressure points. Curry in that half had just 13 points on 3-of-10 shooting, and it felt like Toronto — the team and city — was still bracing for his attack. But even as Steph eventually finished with 34 points, the Warriors never took complete control after halftime.
Really, that’s a credit to the Raptors’ defense. They were able to switch on the perimeter to keep with the Warriors shooters, they were able to rotate to the open man and fend off drives through the paint. Yes, there were breakdowns here and there — no defense is perfect — but it felt like Toronto could ratchet things up when they had to and take control of a given possession.
As a result of their kind of pressure, the Raptors forced Golden State into 17 turnovers for 17 points — and they got out to 24 fast break points in the process. Those are the kinds of things the Warriors are known for — helter-skelter defense, fast-paced back-breaking play — and yet the Raptors kept them on their heels. “They’ve got a lot of versatility. I think they’re actually a lot like our team,” said Steve Kerr, in a statement loaded with all kinds of meaning. “They can switch and guard different positions and that sort of thing.”
The Raptors needed that kind of defense because, well, their offense isn’t always as powerful. For stretches in this one, Toronto was still struck by a bit of hot potato play — e.g. they’d suddenly look to pass the ball a bit too much, or get stuck well beyond the arc searching desperately for a way in. The Warriors make teams pay for that kind of passiveness or confusion, and this game was definitely not stress free. What was astounding to see, though, was Toronto’s eventual reaction and adjustment. Golden State would throw its haymaker, and the Raptors would come right back. They proved once again they belong.
To round things out was Kawhi Leonard, still picking his spots, who finished with 23 points — including 10 in the third (to match 14 from Siakam) — plus eight boards and five assists. It’s clear Leonard still isn’t quite 100 percent, but that didn’t stop him from trying to get to the basket (he was 8-of-10 from the free throw line) and from hitting threes (3-of-6 including a huge one late over Kevon Looney). Even a half-speed Kawhi, guarded by one or two (or sometimes three?) players, means a lot for the Raptors, and Leonard’s playmaking has gotten better as a result. He knows what he needs to do.
That last three by Leonard, which was followed by a massive block on Draymond Green by Siakam, solidified what the Raptors were all about in this game. And when they get 20 points from Marc Gasol, three 3s from Danny Green (a huge relief), and 15 points off the bench from Fred VanVleet — including some wild shots that had no business going down — it makes for a Toronto win. “It’s not Kawhi Leonard, it’s the Toronto Raptors,” said Klay Thompson afterwards, summing up the obvious mood.
Still, there remains the looming spectre of Kevin Durant, who would surely throw the balance of this series into Golden State’s favour. With him in the lineup, the waves of the Warriors’ pressure could reach even higher, strike even harder. It’s enough to throw yourself into a panic just thinking about it.
But then again: Durant is not back yet — and who knows if he can come back. Until then, the Raptors are up 1-0 in the NBA Finals. Game 2 is on Sunday. Three wins to go for Toronto. It was all worth the wait.