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Game 4 Turning Point: Kawhi leads by example

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Kawhi Leonard hit a pair of “eff-you” shots that would dictate the tone of a pivotal 3rd quarter.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Going into game 4 of the NBA Finals, much was being made of the way the Raptors had consistently controlled the series. The Raps had won 10 of the series’ 12 quarters, a stark contrast to Golden State’s sporadic brilliance, as the Warriors had taken their only win in the series on the back of a crushing single quarter run. The formula for the series seemed clear, the Raptors would maintain tenuous control over each game to start, with victory hingeing on whether they could withstand Golden State’s late game explosions.

It was concerning then, when the Raptors came out ice cold to start game 4. No one except Kawhi Leonard had anything going: Leonard scored 14 of the Raptors’ 17 first quarter points, and was the sole reason they remained in contact with the Warriors when the frame ended. The Raptors got a lift from the their bench in the second, most notably from Serge Ibaka, but still went to the break down 46-42.

One thing that has been continually remarked about this Raptors’ team, though, is how poised they’ve been, how unfazed they are by the stage they currently occupy. Various members of the Raptors have said that this mentality in large part stems from the presence of Kawhi Leonard, with members of the team mimicking Leonard’s trademark stoicism and focus.

The Raptors, as a result, have been steady throughout the series, never too high, never too low. Keeping an even-keel would surely help them bounce back following a half in which they missed easy shots and were unusually careless with the ball. The question was, of course, whether merely steadying the ship would be enough. The Warriors, as previously highlighted, are prone to outbursts and swings. If the Raptors had a lead, then keeping steady in the face of a run could let them keep that lead, and pull away again when the run subsided. Playing with a deficit, a Warriors’ surge could bury them, building a margin that couldn’t be overcome even if the Raptors kept their heads.

The thing about swings, though, is that they go both ways. The Warriors are a team for whom momentum and tone are very real, and very impactful. You can see their defense ratchet up when their shots start to fall, turning them into a nearly unstoppable juggernaut. At the same time, when things don’t go their way they become prone to mental lapses, flubbing their assignments defensively and rushing their offense. And, as much as the Raptors struggled in the first half, the Warriors had a rough half themselves. Steph Curry’s jumper was off, as he had gone 0-for-5 from three point range. DeMarcus Cousins’ injury looked to be heavily effecting him, and the Warriors’ depleted depth had not stepped up. Klay Thompson, fresh off an injury himself, was the only Warrior in a groove. As volatile as they are, the Warriors were positioned simultaneously for a second-half collapse and a second-half run. The tone the game took at the start of the third quarter would be extremely impactful.

And it was Kawhi Leonard who set the tone, by, as Fred VanVleet put it, hitting two “eff-you shots” right out of the gate. After the Raptors got the quarter’s first stop by working the clock down and forcing an Andre Iguodala 3-point miss, Leonard took a pass from VanVleet in semi-transition and hit a lightly contested three (with some help from the Oracle Arena rims).

It wasn’t a shot that was outside of his repertoire, and, while it was a big make, it might not have been a tone-setter without the shot that followed it.

On the next play down Draymond Green attempted to take Leonard into the post and Kawhi ripped him clean, before taking the ball to the other end and nailing a three right in Green’s eye. The shot would give the Raptors their first lead of the game, and, while the Raptors wouldn’t pull away until much later in the third, Kawhi’s mini-run would do a great deal to put a damper on any potential Golden State outburst, both through the points it put on the board and through the tone it established.

The Warriors often felt like they were pressing in the third, players who were struggling forced shots, while their best player on the night, Thompson, was frozen out of the offense. Meanwhile the Raptors always kept their composure, making sure to run plays for quality shots even the Warriors’ defense put them up against the shot clock, while feeding the hot hands of Leonard and Ibaka whenever they could, as the duo combined for 24 points in the 3rd. The result was a frame which the Raptors won 37-to-21, giving them control over the game, and, ultimately, a 3-to-1 stranglehold on the series. The Raptors are following Leonard’s example both on and off the court though, so they aren’t ready to celebrate quite yet. There’s still work to be done.