Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. That’s the well-worn adage used by pro athletes and coaches alike, no matter whether their team is winning or losing. In the NBA Finals, with the stakes at their highest, it becomes a cliche elevated to mantra.
The Raptors know this. They also know they’re closer than ever to the NBA title. Yet they can’t get too jazzed, too overwhelmed, before the job is done. They may have won Game 1, but they still have to execute their game plan. This is imperative because their Finals opponent, the Golden State Warriors, are the reason we all use adages like “don’t get too high, don’t get too low” in the first place. They absolutely know how to work both sides of that paradigm to their maximum advantage.
“For the first quarter and a half we really had a tough time scoring,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr in his preternatural calm way. “So the last whatever it was, four, five, six minutes, the game loosened up and we finally broke free and started getting some buckets. We started to look like ourselves and so at that point it just felt better, and then the second half we got it rolling and we ended up with 34 assists, which is more like our team.”
Setting aside that righteous assist number, Kerr offers an illuminating sentiment as to what makes the Warriors really go. It’s a feeling most other squads can only hope and pray to match. Despite being down by as many as 12 points on the road in the first half, Golden State did not get emotionally down; they were instead just waiting for their opportunity to get loose. If the story of Game 1 was found in how impressively the Raptors responded to their opponents’ attempts to take control of the game, the follow-up was filled with a sort of expectation — could Toronto really do that all again?
The answer came as a resounding no, as the Warriors managed to chip away at Toronto’s late-in-the-half lead of 11 points, getting it down to five before the buzzer sounded. Here again, we see how lapses in attention — in getting too up — can come to undo a team against the Warriors. In that final 1:40 of the half, Norman Powell, perhaps the Raptor most likely to be feeling confident when the team is cooking, missed a three; Klay Thompson marched right back and hit one. Suddenly the lead was back to single digits. The Raptors would score three more points to the Warriors’ six. No big deal in the micro, right? Well, not exactly.
“No panic, just trying to get our offense going,” said Fred VanVleet when asked about what happened in that third quarter as he watched the Warriors rip off 18 straight points to put the game out of reach for Toronto. VanVleet wasn’t on the floor to start the half, but it’s hard not to feel like it wouldn’t have mattered who was out there for the Raptors when the Warriors decided to floor it. They outscored Toronto 34-21 in the frame, held them to 32 percent shooting from the floor (and a ghastly 22 percent from three), and got contributions from everyone they used. Yes, even the lightly used Andrew Bogut, left by Golden State to wander for most of the last three seasons, got in a couple of dunks. Only Kawhi Leonard kept Toronto going with 12 points; his summary, as always, was succinct: “18-0 run. If we can’t score no baskets, you’re not going to win no game.”
Meanwhile, the Warriors knew exactly what they were doing, even under pressure. “Yeah, I think that when you get to this stage ... our DNA shows up,” said Steph Curry, who only needed to shoot 2-of-7 for seven points in the third, leaning instead on his team’s Strength in Numbers motto. “So it’s not something you just throw out there to have nice shirts and give out to the crowd at Oracle [Arena] and have all this marketing stuff. It’s literally how we approach every day from training camp to June, how we support each other, how guys stay ready throughout the year, whether they play like he said, 30 minutes or miss 10 straight games out of the rotation, whatever it is.”
This again provides a window into the Warriors’ mindset, a frame of reference both inspirational and infuriating. Obviously the Raptors are game-planning to keep the ball out of Curry’s hands as much as possible, and looking for every opportunity to make him as uncomfortable as possible. But even with Curry not at 100 percent — he apparently felt ill or “dehydrated” according to Kerr — the Warriors found ways to pick each other up. The aforementioned Bogut had his moments at the rim, DeMarcus Cousins found his sea legs as the game went along, and Andre Iguodala — despite missing every three he’d taken for four games, playing with a sore leg, and after getting levelled by a massive Marc Gasol back-screen — suddenly couldn’t miss, drilling 2-of-4 from deep including one with the game on the line.
If there’s a solace to be found here for Toronto, it’s that they still had a chance to win — they did indeed refuse to get too low. As a last ditch effort, the Raptors tried a box-and-one zone defense that flummoxed the Warriors for almost six minutes; they got Curry frustrated enough to draw a technical foul (though that may have been more due to the referees); they were all over the offensive glass in the final minute, getting the ball to Danny Green for a huge three. Down 106-104 with 26 seconds left, Toronto declined to foul and almost managed to push Curry into a turnover. But the ball found its way to Iguodala instead. It was the best of the bad outcomes available, and the Raptors will have to live with it.
Likewise, in the bigger series picture, they’ve been here before. Against the Bucks, in which they were down 0-2, and the Sixers, when they fell behind 2-1 after a blowout on the road, the Raptors looked mortal. What they’ve come to rely on is not only the play of Leonard, who continues to pace Toronto, but also his mood. Kawhi’s 34 points felt like they came at an immense physical cost — he shot (and hit) 16 free throws, for example — but it still feels like there’s more there for him to do. At the very least, he’s not ready to concede anything but respect to the defending champs.
“It’s big respect for them, they have been here the last four years, won the last two, and I mean you got to just take the challenge,” said Leonard. “Great basketball team, you got to go out there and accept the challenge and want to fight and win.”
Before giving the Warriors their due however, Leonard also made it clear what the Raptors had to do to win. “[The] Finals is not going to be easy. The only thing that matters is the four wins. Once you get it, two wins, three wins, it does not matter. Just take one game at a time and just play through the adversity.”
In other words, don’t get too up, don’t get too down. Game 3 is on Wednesday in Oakland.