As the playoffs have progressed for these Toronto Raptors, they’ve knocked down the myths surrounding the franchise.
Their superstar can’t show up in the clutch? Check Kawhi Leonard’s shot in Game 7 of the second round. Kyle Lowry can’t perform in the post-season? How about 30 points in Game 1 against Milwaukee — nearly dragging the Raptors to a victory — then 25 points in Game 4, finishing with a win this time.
One by one, the Raptors dispelled any untruths around the team. This iteration is different. This iteration is great.
And yet, it was still supposed to end against these Golden State Warriors, who have been monoliths of the NBA for five years. They’ve been challenged only once, and only by the great LeBron James. As they have all season, though, the Raptors are standing up against the narrative. Through four games at least, they’re continuing to take down myths, recovering from deficits even against the great Warriors, and doing so with more poise than any Toronto team in the 23 years before them.
We saw a whole bunch of that resiliency in Friday’s Game 4, where the Raptors came back from a terrible first half of shooting to dominate the third quarter, 37-21, on their way to a 105-92 win. They now lead the NBA Finals 3-1 and can claim the title on their home court on Monday night.
The great performances started where many of them have this spring, and that’s with Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi was instrumental in two important facets of the game: keeping the Raptors within striking distance in a poor first half, and giving them the lead with huge buckets in the second half. Leonard would finish with a series-high 36 points on 22 shots, adding 12 (board) rebounds (man) and getting to the line for nine free throw makes.
When people get to Kawhi’s game, they will probably instantly jump to the two made threes to start the second half: the first bringing the Raptors within one and the second giving them their first lead of the game.
His performance in the first quarter, though, was much more important to how Toronto won tonight. He scored 14 of the Raptors’ 17 points in the quarter, keeping the deficit at eight, and doing so in the methodical way he has all series. No flash, just driving to his spot, and making shots.
While the Raptors would go on to shoot just 35% from the field and 13% from three in the first half, that stretch would prove important, as the Warriors were sloppy and unable to get a consistent run against Toronto’s defence. Four early turnovers proved costly (they would commit 17 in the game), with DeMarcus Cousins especially struggling with his mobility. With Cousins playing poorly and Kevon Looney unable to make a great impact, the Raptors relentlessly attacked Warriors centres in the pick and roll all game.
That’s where Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka made their money tonight, with Ibaka putting in his best game since the series concluder against Philadelphia. His 20 points came on 9-for-12 shooting, as he was lethal in the roll game with the Warriors over-helping on the Raptors’ ball handlers. Credit Toronto for adapting as the series has gone on, but especially give kudos to Kyle Lowry, who has been able to pick apart any Golden State players out of place. His 10 points tonight, unsurprisingly, don’t sell how good of a game Lowry had on both ends — running the show to ensure the Raptors ran long, effective offensive possessions.
For Golden State, frustration set in at different points during the game. Once again, Steph Curry faded down the stretch — something the Raptors noticed as they attacked his defence. Curry’s 27 points came on 9-for-22 shooting and just 2-for-9 from three. Surprisingly, it was the previously injured Klay Thompson who was nearly the saviour for the Warriors. Shaking off a hamstring tweak that held him out of Game 3, Thompson made 11-of-18 shots for 28 points; his 6-for-10 night from distance continued a torrid series, where he’s shooting nearly 60%.
Again, though, beyond their backcourt’s volume shooting, nobody else could step up for Golden State. If their dynasty is indeed falling, it’s come in a typical way — their depth has been depleted by continued success and a lack of money, and age has cost their veteran role players. Andre Iguodala was 0-for-3 from distance, with the Raptors happily giving up looks. Draymond Green refused to shoot entirely, finishing with 10 points and 12 boards and one technical foul (remember when he claimed he was a changed man?). Only Looney cracked double digits with 10 thanks to an active night on the offensive boards.
It turns out the Warriors really might need Kevin Durant, in what might be their only hope of beating a comfortable, confident Toronto basketball team. After a thorough win in Game 3, the Raptors looked more beatable at different points in Game 4. Their defence stayed strong, though, forcing the wrong Warriors to take shots and a 29.6% night from distance overall.
Now, a championship is literally within reach. In the surreality of it all, there’s still clips flying up my timeline of Raptors fans cheering in Oracle, outside of Scotiabank, in a square in Mississauga, in a park in Regina, and on a street in Halifax. We can all taste this championship, one that seemed impossible so many times over the last 24 years.
If you can’t believe it after Game 4, there’s nothing I can do for you. These Raptors are real and they’re one win away.