It took some doing, but Toronto did it. They made the Golden State Warriors — the most super of all past super-teams, an unstoppable vehicle of basketball destruction, a team owned in part by at least one overweening shithead — sympathetic. Even by Toronto sports standards, this is a whole other level of accomplishment.
By now you know the story. The first quarter of Game 5 featured the Raptors playing catch-up, engaged as they were in a new game of slowing the Warriors with a returned Kevin Durant. In his Finals absence, it had become somewhat easy to forget just how supernaturally talented Golden State’s seven-foot sniper truly is. Even with KD diminished it felt like the Raptors were in trouble. Durant played just under 12 minutes and while he didn’t look like himself, he still poured in 11 points, shooting a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond the arc. Much like those opening minutes of Game 4, the Raptors had no real answer. And this time, not even Kawhi Leonard could shoot Toronto back into it.
But what could have been a comeback for the ages, a spirited run cheered on by all, instead turned ugly. The worst case scenario arrived: some interior ligaments in Durant’s leg — his calf muscle, his Achilles — came undone, sending him first to the floor. And then off the court with a limp.
In response, Toronto’s crowd cheered.
It was just a moment, a few seconds of elation in the face of what looked like the certain demise of Durant in the game, if not the series. Even if it was a minority of fans involved, it was enough to kill any goodwill Toronto had built up on their magical run to the Finals. This is not on the Raptors themselves. As Durant was helped off the floor, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Serge Ibaka urged calm and perspective in the crowd. They knew the injury was likely serious, and they certainly were not about to encourage a snide cheer for a downed opponent, no matter the danger he posed on the court, not even with the championship in their presumptive grasp. The sour atmosphere afterwards is not on the Raptors players — it stands on the fans alone.
In the aftermath of the game, shell-shocked coach Steve Kerr could provide no explanation as to what happened with Durant. He called it “an incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.” In Kerr’s terse address, one gets the feeling the decision to play Durant was made by someone else. That someone may have been Durant, or Warriors team doctors; or it could have been President of Basketball Operations Bob Myers, who tearfully took the podium to jump in front of the metaphorical bullet already on its way. Whether you believe Myers’ emotional address to be heartfelt, and whether Warriors’ ownership is culpable in pushing Durant too far, is a separate, broader issue. In the moment, the entire post-game scene was difficult to watch. Seeing Kerr, Durant’s teammates, and presumably Durant himself — to say nothing of Myers — go through this off-court tumult was a summation of everything negative that had happened during the game itself. It was a celebratory scene turned funereal. No one wanted to be there.
Before all that though, there were a million things to point to, tangible things that happened on the court that could have represented the actual turning point of Game 5 in any other universe. In the one we thought we were living in, Kawhi’s one-man show continues on right to the final buzzer, securing the Raptors the title on their home floor. He has shown himself to be unstoppable before, and after scoring ten straight points by himself you’d be forgiven for thinking he was about to do it again. Except it didn’t happen this time.
This time, there will instead be questions about whether it made sense for Toronto, up six points and with the crowd going crazy, to call a timeout with 3:05 to go. Coach Nick Nurse justified his decision by noting he was about to lose the extra timeout under the three minute mark (as per NBA rules) and wanted to give his players a moment to rest. It makes some sense to a certain extent, and would have been completely forgotten about had the Raptors won. But they didn’t. Instead, the Warriors reset, Toronto’s defense fell apart, and Golden State exploded for a 9-0 run in response.
In that time, the Raptors went ice cold: Kawhi missed a jumper, Kyle Lowry missed a 3, Lowry threw a wild pass into the backcourt for a violation, Leonard missed again, and then Marc Gasol, driving hard to the basket, could not complete the layup. The last points Toronto managed to score in the game’s final three minutes came off a Lowry layup that was goal-tended by DeMarcus Cousins. The Warriors did their Warriors thing, and that was it. I suppose we could wonder now if maybe Draymond Green’s arms had been a little shorter, his fingers just a little stubbier, his leaping ability and reach just a tad diminished...
But there was no way the Raptors were going to win this one at the buzzer. The good mood surrounding Toronto’s first ever potential NBA title win had already dissipated. Now Game 6 looms on Thursday in Oakland. It will feature a pissed off Warriors team and an angry crowd. And we in Toronto may very well deserve what’s coming next.