The Toronto Raptors achieved a rare feat: intimidating the Warriors

When Golden State go on a roll, opponents tend to panic. But Kawhi Leonard and Co kept their cool in a fevered Oracle Arena on Wednesday night

Toronto outplayed Golden State on Wednesday night to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA finals, and many would have us believe the Raptors merely needed to turn up to secure a victory over a Warriors team without Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney.

That’s unfair. Golden State had four All-Stars on court. And in Steph Curry, they had the guy that’s made the whole thing tick throughout their championship run. Curry was in rare form on Wednesday night as he tried to drag his teammates kicking and screaming to a win. Curry had 25 points at half-time to the rest of the team’s 27. In the second-half, Curry finished with more field goals than the rest of the Warriors starters combined. It didn’t matter. Any decent Golden State stretch was answered with a dagger from one of the Raptors.

When the Warriors burst onto the scene in their new incarnation in 2014, they played with a fluidity and at a tempo that was unprecedented. Everyone in the league was left asking: how do we defend this? And how do we replicate it? That fear factor is now well and truly gone. Almost everyone plays a version of the Warriors style now, including Toronto. It may not be as free-flowing or dripping with as much star-power, but the ethos and principles are similar. Teams are used to it. They have formed habits.

Golden State can still crank it to unstoppable levels – and they are hopeful they will have Thompson and Durant back for Game 4 [Editor’s note, Durant has since been ruled out of Game 4]. When they went on their 18-0 run in the third quarter of Game 3, suddenly everything felt inevitable. In years past, that kind of run would have sunk the Warriors’ opponents for the rest of the series. Teams felt they needed to score on every possession in case the Warriors get truly rolling. It was mentally and physically exhausting, and the team’s shot selection would become more erratic and desperate. But when the Warriors made their run last night, the Raptors didn’t panic. They strolled back down the court and hit their own clutch shots.

In fact, the Raptors have stamped their own intimidating style on this series. They play feisty, sophisticated defense – with the odd middle-school defense chucked in to help. And their shooting has been superior to a Warriors team that has missed Durant for the entire series. Toronto can switch between bigger bully-ball lineups and smaller, match you shot-for-shot units. Coach Nick Nurse has done a near-perfect job toggling between the two.

There was an illustrative moment as the clock wound down in the first quarter on Wednesday. Curry hit one of his long-distance, what-are-you-even-thinking threes. The Oakland crowd, which had risen to its feet in anticipation, went suitably bonkers. This was Curry’s house, his time. The Raptors’ lead was cut to four.

Past opponents would have wilted under the pressure. Toronto did not. With 13 seconds left in the quarter, Kawhi Leonard, languidly walking the ball up the court, shuffled a pass to Kyle Lowry, who in turn flipped it to Danny Green for the open three-pointer. The lead was back to seven.

Danny Green, who had vanished earlier in the playoffs, hit big shot after big shot. Prior to Wednesday night, Green was averaging one three-pointer per game in his last six playoff outings. He hit six last night on 10 attempts. Lowry, who has been excelling at the little things but failing to put up, you know, actual numbers – points, rebounds, assists – nailed five three-pointers on his way to a 23-4-9 night. The Raptors were plus-14 with him on the floor. Pascal Siakam feasted on the Warriors’ miserable bench units, too.

Kawhi Leonard is an ocean of calm for the Raptors
Kawhi Leonard is an ocean of calm for the Raptors. Photograph: Sergio Estrada/USA Today Sports

It is hard for any team to beat the Raptors when they get that type of production from their ancillary pieces. The Warriors’ best shot to win without Durant was to force Kawhi into playing hero ball, and hope whatever leg ailment is troubling him doomed his shot selection. It hasn’t worked. Leonard isn’t entirely healthy, but he’s as near as makes no difference. He finished Game 2 with 30 points, seven rebounds, and six assists – playing the role of all-around destroyer on both ends of the floor.

The Warriors, meanwhile, were left relying on Quinn Cook, Jonas Jerebko, Alfonso McKinnie and Jordan Bell in Game 2. When they’re surrounded by four (five?) hall of fame players, they all look serviceable – you could probably stand in the corner and win a ring with the Warriors top-four on the court. But show a hint of dependency and they fall apart. Cook, Jerebko, McKinnie and Bell were a combined minus-10 in 64 minutes on the floor. Andrew Bogut played 28 minutes. Twenty eight! Fans back in his native Australia could probably hear his knees creaking.

Attention now turns once again to the health of Thompson and Durant. Thompson is expected to return for Game 4 but if his hamstring is not fully healed he risks an injury that would put him out for the rest of the series. Durant’s status is a bigger unknown. The Warriors have made noises about a possible return this series but even a player of Durant’s immense skills may need time to get back to his best.

Toronto are unlikely to shoot at the same level in Game 4 and beyond. That will give the Curry-led Warriors a chance. But if the Warriors don’t get what they wish for, and both Thompson and Durant remain short of full fitness, the title may well be heading to Canada.


Oliver Connolly

The GuardianTramp

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