TORONTO — When Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was holding forth before his team’s only visit to Air Canada Centre, he was reminded that this was a meeting of the NBA’s two best teams – statistically at least.
The Warriors and Raptors are the only teams in the NBA ranked in the top five both offensively and defensively, plus they stand first and second, respectively, in net rating.
Sure, the Warriors have won two titles in the past three years and are in the midst of the most dominant three years of regular-season play the league has ever seen, but how about them Raptors, Steve?
“It’s fun to play a team in the other conference that you know has a chance to be there in the end. We’re only going to see them twice, just like we see Cleveland and Boston so when you do get a chance to see these guys these guys you file it away for later, in case,” Kerr said.
“So it’ll be fun.”
It just might be.
What followed was a rollicking 48-minute reminder that the Warriors are the Warriors – fast-tracking to one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever known – and the Raptors?
They’re not bad either as they scraped and clawed to a 127-125 loss that dropped them to 15-3 at home and 29-12 overall, the best mark in franchise history at the halfway mark of a season.
But like Kerr predicted, it was fun getting there.
After surviving a full dose of the Warriors’ experience in the first half (how does 22 assists on 32 field goals against just one turnover while shooting 71 per cent sound?) when it looked Golden State was going to bury the Raptors in a flurry of perfect basketball, Toronto did their endearing never, ever quit thing and had carved a 27-point third-quarter Warriors lead to a measly three points by the time Fred VanVleet hit a transition triple with 3:45 left, part of a 18-3 fourth quarter-run.
What did the Raptors learn by surviving the Warriors avalanche?
“What we’ve known all year,” said DeRozan. “We fight, period.”
But then Steph Curry hit a three, Klay Thompson hit a three and that was too much for the Raptors, even as DeRozan was hitting 42-points worth of ones and twos in another Herculean effort. There were no threes in his 17-of-31 line.
That was it, right? You can’t trade threes for twos with the Dubs.
Wrong again. By the time Steph Curry (24 points on 12 shots), the career 90-per-cent-plus free-throw shooter missed a pair with 44.9 seconds left after a dubious foul call on what looked like a clean Jakob Poeltl block, the Raptors had the ball down one.
But DeRozan couldn’t coax one more mid-range jumper over Kevin Durant, who was able to respond with one of his own over Pascal Siakam.
With one more possession, the Raptors needed a three and here they ran into the Warriors at their best, effortlessly switching every pick-and-roll, every player on the court comfortable guarding anyone the Raptors had on it. It was the kind of defence the Warriors have perfected to defend the three-point line – the NBA’s defining offensive feature at the moment.
The best Toronto could get was a rushed contested three by CJ Miles that missed. There was a jump ball, a scramble and a controversial official’s review where the ball was originally judged to have gone out off Curry, but under review was judged to have touched DeRozan a couple of second earlier.
Going back in time is thought to be no-no in replay reviews but not in this case apparently.
“I thought you couldn’t even do that. I’m not even a referee, and I know that rule,” said DeRozan. “Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.”
Presumably he was. Curry hit a pair of free throws to push the lead to five, making a buzzer-beating VanVleet triple window-dressing as Toronto dropped to 0-2 against the Warriors this season.
Their only chance to see them again will be June.
Getting to the NBA Finals would be a franchise first and incredibly fun, but once there, it’s hard to argue the good times wouldn’t likely come to a screeching halt. We get that. Ask LeBron James and the Cavaliers. The Warriors are that good.
But it’s a problem the Raptors would love to have, and maybe are even beginning to believe they should deserve to have.
“Second half, the way we played, should be proof that we can compete with them and go toe-to-toe with ‘em,” said Casey who was frustrated with a number of referee’s decisions down the stretch. “We held them to 19 points in the fourth quarter, I thought the young guys came in and once they believed, scratched, fought, put themselves in a position to win.
Two nights ago at the ACC, the Raptors destroyed the Cleveland Cavaliers – the Warriors’ annual Finals playmate – who mostly seemed disinterested, June being so far from January and all.
The Warriors, unfortunately perhaps for the Raptors, seemed entirely engaged, even though they were playing their third game in four nights – and the second night of a back-to-back – having lost three hours to time zones in the process. Those circumstances and over-coming a vocal ACC crowd led by a trash-talking Drake on the sidelines seem to provide a measure of satisfaction for the Warriors too.
“I wouldn’t say anxious,” Kevin Durant said in reference to the game tightening down the stretch in the fourth. “We kind of knew the flow of the game … you have to give them credit, they slowed us down, we had it going in the first half and they kind of put the pressure on us and that’s what teams are going to do especially when they’re down big on their home floor. We expected that and we took that punch and glad we got the W especially on the second end of a back-to-back.”
The Raptors’ first-half high-point in a back-and-forth opening 10 minutes was when DeRozan baited the Warriors’ Kevin Looney into a foul, converted the three-point play and pulled the Raptors to within a point, 32-31.
The game hovered there for a possession or two, and there was some reason for optimism. And then the Warriors cracked the game like a coconut.
Against Cleveland, the Raptors’ second unit ran loose and free, caused chaos as the lethargic Cavaliers simply had no interest in playing at the pace the Raptors’ younger crowd prefers. Against the Warriors it played directly into their hands. The pace was high, the ball was moving, the difference is the Warriors had championship-pedigree veterans like Shaun Livingston, David West and Thompson (26 points on 16 shots) running it back.
It was all part of a 25-3 run that eventually led to an 81-54 halftime lead for the visitors.
The Raptors’ defensive highlight was an inexplicably missed dunk down main street by Durant (25 points on 18 shots). The relief was short-lived. Delon Wright drove it into traffic, the Warriors collapsed, came up with the loose ball and this time Durant made no mistake, dunking it with two hands on the ensuing fast-break.
“I hated missing [the first one] because I had to ignore [Drake] talking some trash on the sideline,” said Durant. “But I made up for it on the next one.”
It was a 14-minute lay-up line, and by the end of it, the Warriors dominated the Raptors even while making just five of their patented three-pointers. Curry? He was just a spectator, with six first-half points on five shots as he finds his feet after missing several games recently with an ankle injury.
It is the Warriors greatest luxury: superstar depth.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who obviously can impact the game in a big way,” said Kerr. “We’ve been able to win without Stef this year but defending and taking care of the ball. Obviously as I said, we’ve got some other all-stars to count on.”
But the Raptors didn’t fold the tent. In the third quarter, DeRozan was on a mission, willing his team back in the game with 11 in the period. Rookie OG Anunoby seemed like he was comfortable against the world champions, digging in for 17 points on seven shots. Jonas Valanciunas and Poeltl were making life tough in the paint and working hard on the glass.
With three minutes left in the third, Valanciunas rocked the rim with a driving dunk to cut the Warriors lead to nine, but that only seemed to get Golden State’s attention.
Durant responded with consecutive threes and the Warriors had pushed the lead back to 19 with a lightning-quick 14-5 run.
The fourth quarter that followed was electric, storybook stuff, even if it wasn’t the ending Raptors fans were looking for.
But they can take heart in this: For better or worse, the Raptors have the Warriors’ attention.