The Toronto Raptors have won seven of their last eight playoff games, all against the highest level of competition. They just won two in a row on the road in the NBA Finals, and are 4-0 in Golden State this year. They’re one win away from an NBA championship.
Who the heck are these guys?!
I’m completely unused to this feeling, of seeing my team play their best in the biggest games. But they keep doing it. How do I even write about this?
As Unlikely a Win As I’ve Ever Seen
Ahead of the game I told my wife that if I had to wager my life on this game, I’d pick the Warriors — for the simple reason that winning two in a row on the road in the playoffs, let alone in the Finals against the defending champs, is incredibly difficult.
And it sure liked like that was gonna be the case early; the Raptors couldn’t hit a shot, and although the defense was fine as usual, it felt like a big Warriors run was coming. Klay Thompson was warm, Draymond Green was pushing the ball on offense, Stephen Curry was off but you know he can get going at any moment...
But the Raptors held it down. As they have so many times this postseason, they played calm, collected basketball, didn’t hang their heads after the slow start, kept working for good shots and playing their butts off on D... and then it all came together.
On the one hand, because we’ve seen them do it several times now, I shouldn’t be surprised. But this is the champs! On the road! These Raptors are accomplishing things I never thought I’d see.
Third-Quarter Script Flip
Speaking of unlikely, that third quarter went down pretty much the exact opposite way that I expected. There were a lot of “hey, the Raptors are only down four after a terrible half, they’ll start hitting their shots, they’re in great shape!” tweets at halftime, and I thought, “has everyone forgotten how good the Warriors are in the third quarter? Anyone remember Game 2?”
I thought the big Warriors run was inevitable. Instead, it was Kawhi Leonard who came out and set the tone with two huge three-pointers, sparking a 37-21 quarter that turned that four-point deficit into a 12-point lead. The Warriors entered the fourth with a mere 67 points!
As it turns out, I was the one who’d forgotten... that the Raptors are pretty damn good in the second halves themselves. They outscored Milwaukee by nine and 13 in Games 5 and 6 respectively as they closed out that series. And they’ve won six of the eight second-half quarters so far in this series.
Still, seeing them out-Warriors the Warriors last night was incredibly fun to watch.
No Kawhi, No Problem
Earlier in these playoffs, the Raptors struggled anytime Kawhi Leonard sat down; his minute totals kept increasing and “how does Nick Nurse find time to rest Kawhi” became a constant question mark.
But, Coach Nurse stuck to his rotation of resting Kawhi at the tops of the second and fourth quarters, and, like most everything else he’s stuck to, it’s worked out just fine. At the top of the second last night, the Raptors without Kawhi were a +2; at the top of the fourth, they were -2. So not a win on the stat sheet, but after what happened to them earlier in these playoffs, breaking even in 7.5 Kawhi-less minutes? It felt more like they won those minutes by double-digits!
So credit to Nurse but more importantly, credit to the players for coming together and getting it done on the biggest stage without their safety valve.
The Serge Ibaka experience can be a frustrating one, as he can and does make his share of boneheaded mistakes; I’ve probably rolled my eyes at him more than anybody else on the team this season. But when the stakes are highest, Ibaka has come through big-time. His Game 7 against Philadelphia is already legendary, and his Game 4 again Golden State is going to join it. 9-of-12 for 20 points? I know Ibaka’s been here before, I know he’s as tough as they come, but I really didn’t see him scoring 20 in this series!
As usual, the Lowry-Ibaka pick-and-roll was on point; the chemistry between those two, even in the highest-pressure moments, is so much fun to watch. And for Ibaka, who was forced to accept a bench role this season, to have such a meaningful impact in such a big game... I’m damn happy for the guy.
Blood, Sweat and Teeth
If you’ll allow me to paraphrase another cliche, the Raptors are truly giving it their all out there on the floor, none moreso than Fred VanVleet, who took seven stitches and is gonna need some dental work after last night’s game.
We’ve seen Kawhi Leonard hobbled, Kyle Lowry wearing that oven mitt. We saw Pascal Siakam crumple to the ground in a heap. The Warriors aren’t slouching either, obviously; Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney are gutting it out after serious injuries, Andre Igoudala has been banged up, DeMarcus Cousins missed a month...
I guess my point is, it’s kinda cool to see all of that effort and work come to a head like this. Because I’ve never been so invested in the outcome of the NBA Finals, I’ve never thought about or looked so closely at the toll it takes on the players; of course I know the “it’s a long season” cliches, and obviously to play 100+ games is hard, but to really see it like this... these guys are incredible.
I’m not saying it. I’m not doing the Raptors are “you-know-how-many” games from the championship thing. I’m not repeating the history of teams with 3-1 leads. I’m not thinking about Jacob Goldstein’s projections, or the idea of winning an NBA title on homecourt.
I don’t want to look ahead — and then have it taken away. So I’m gonna be like the players, and “focus on what’s in front of me,” and “take it one game, one play at a time.” Game 5? Just another game.