TORONTO — With less than a minute to play in one of the craziest games you’ll see all year, two-time MVP Steph Curry beat his man and drove uncontested to the rim. As he entered the key, he was met by second-year centre Jakob Poeltl, who leapt up and, with a mighty swat, blocked Curry’s shot attempt straight into the shadow realm.
Toronto’s bench erupted. The Air Canada Centre erupted. The Raptors — down one in a game they once trailed by 27 — erupted, sprinting in the other direction for a fast break and a chance at the lead.
But from a remote corner of the court: a whistle. And an arm in the air. The officials were calling a foul on Poeltl, who couldn’t possibly have blocked the shot any cleaner. Standing in front of his bench, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey threw his hands on his head.
“That was a backbreaker,” Casey said. “We had the ball going the other way in that situation.”
Instead, Curry went to the line for two. And although the career 90 per cent free-throw shooter missed both shots — the ball, it don’t lie — the Raptors momentum was halted, and Toronto had to run a play against a settled and prepared Golden State defence, instead of having an opportunity in transition with defenders still scrambling back from the opposite end.
Ultimately, DeMar DeRozan was just a hair off on a mid-range jumper, before the Warriors rolled back up the floor and ran a practically un-guardable pick-and-roll with Curry and Kevin Durant, which resulted in a Durant make and the Warriors stretching their lead just far enough to sneak out of Toronto with a win.
After the game, neither Casey nor DeRozan were interested in suppressing their displeasure with not only the call on Poeltl, but several others down the stretch which made the unthinkable task the Raptors were attempting — overcome a nearly 30-point deficit against the best team on the planet — near impossible.
“It’s frustrating being out there, feeling like you’re playing five on eight,” DeRozan said. “That’s just what it feels like. Period. Some of them calls was terrible. Period.”
“It was just so many calls down the stretch – I’ve got to look at them. I’ve got to look at them and see,” Casey said. “It’s just mind-boggling when you ask the official, ‘did you see it?’ ‘Nah, I didn’t see it. It wasn’t my call.’ I’ve got to have an explanation.
“And I have all the respect in the world for our officials. But when you go in and have that situation, guys fighting their hearts out — maybe they thought we didn’t deserve it with the way we played in the first half, I don’t know. But the way they scrapped in the second half — it blows my mind. And I think we have the best officials in the world.”
Of course, no one deserves anything in sports. You earn things. And as ludicrous as it was for the Raptors to make a contest of it Saturday, after allowing Golden State to score 81 points in the first half on 71 per cent shooting, they earned their way back into the game.
At halftime, with the Warriors up 27 as shell-shocked Raptors walked solemnly back to their dressing room, it looked like the second half would be played more out of necessity than competition. Golden State was too deep, too talented, too locked-in on this particular night.
But the Raptors starters cut the lead to 19 in the third quarter. And in the fourth, Casey found a rotation of Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell (Powell gave way to DeRozan midway through the quarter), CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Poeltl that dragged his team back into it with a 21-4 run.
But the Raptors were flagged for seven fouls in the fourth, while the Warriors were called for three. And a reviewed out of bounds play during a chaotic scramble in the dying seconds, which was initially ruled in favour of the Raptors but then controversially reversed when officials determined DeRozan had touched the ball while out of bounds earlier in the play, took Toronto’s comeback from unlikely to hopeless.
“I didn’t,” Casey said, when asked what explanation he was given for the call. “I’ve got to look at them and see. But it’s disheartening when guys are laying it on the line and [there are] missed plays like that.”
The replay guidelines on NBA.com do not explicitly state whether or not referees can solely review the out-of-bounds event in question or use the replay to correct a missed call earlier, which is what happened.
But Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban certainly doesn’t think officials can do that.
Neither does Curry’s younger brother, Seth.
And you can take a wild guess where DeRozan stands on the issue.
“No, I thought you couldn’t do that,” DeRozan said. “I’m not even a referee and I know that rule. So, somebody correct me if I’m wrong.”
Of course, the Raptors could have avoided this situation by playing better in the first half. Of course, any call in the NBA is susceptible to interpretation, and one’s foul is another’s physical play. Of course, the defending-champion Warriors and their cast of all-stars are going to get the benefit of the doubt over the Raptors, who carry an unfair-yet-evident reputation as regular season darlings who can’t win in the playoffs.
And of course, no one wants to hear grievances about officiating. Every team has to deal with it. But at the end of a rather eventful week, which started with a last-second loss to Miami, progressed through a starching of Cleveland, and concluded with the slobberknocker played Saturday, the Raptors were clearly fed up. Sometimes, it’s not so easy to take things in stride.
“Yeah, definitely,” VanVleet said, when asked if it’s difficult to play through debatable calls that go against his team. “But, you know, that’s a part of the game. There’s ups and downs to it. There’s times where you get them and times where you don’t. You’ve got to be able to adapt and adjust. And, obviously, you can’t give a team like that that type of lead. But, coming down the stretch, you’d like some of those [calls] to go your way.
“In the mix of the game, you don’t really have time to dwell on it. But you come to the locker room after and you start adding them up — you start looking back at some that could have went your way. But that’s the way the game goes sometimes.”