TORONTO — Not much gets through the hands of Kawhi Leonard.
When he closes on a basketball in any context — a rebound, a wayward pass, a ball that the offensive player might believe they have tucked safely away — more often than not he gets it.
But not this time.
After more than 47 uneven minutes at Scotiabank Arena during which the Golden State Warriors had served notice that they have every intention of winning their fourth NBA title in five years, the Toronto Raptors still, somehow, had a chance to win the game and take early an early command of the 2019 Finals.
The Raptors had Warriors guard Steph Curry on the run, stumbling, off-balance, and looking for help as his club was desperately trying to nurse home a two-point game and get the split on the road before taking the series back to Oracle Arena Wednesday for Game 3.
With 15 seconds left in a grinding, back-and-forth game that the Raptors had somehow pulled themselves back into, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam were trapping the Warriors star, hounding him, trying to force him to make a mistake to give up the ball.
“We wanted to see it in our hands,” said Leonard. The plan was not to foul and put the Warriors on the line.
“We wanted a steal.”
And it was working perfectly. Curry made an off-balance pass from the left side of the floor back to the middle and there was Leonard, closing like a shark to chum.
But this time, somehow, the ball got through. Either Leonard missed it or Warriors guard Shaun Livingston was able fight through Leonard’s mitts to make the catch, but the end result was the same.
Livingston flipped it to Andre Iguodala — wide open against the scrambled Raptors defence — and the 15-year veteran pulled the trigger and drained a triple that put the Warriors up five with six seconds left.
Ball game. It was Golden State’s first field goal since the 5:38 mark of the fourth quarter, but it was all they needed as the Raptors could only muster five free throws over the same stretch until a Danny Green three pulled them within two with 27 seconds left.
Even that shot came on the third try after two offensive rebounds as the Raptors couldn’t make anything — they shot just 27 per cent in the fourth quarter and 29 per cent in the second half.
As a result the Raptors fumbled the chance to take a commanding 2-0 lead as the Warriors head home with the 109-104 win.
Series tied 1-1. But advantage Warriors. Not all is lost. The Raptors can grab homecourt advantage with a split at Oracle where they blew out Golden State early this season.
But it’s hard to avoid the notion that they were this close to putting the Warriors down 2-0 in a series for the first time in their five-year Finals run and now things will only get more difficult.
On Sunday night the Warriors got former all-star big man DeMarcus Cousins back — inserted as a starter for the first time since missing six weeks with torn quadriceps tendon — and he made an impact with 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
His play-making set the tone for game as the Warriors kept finding spaces on the floor the Raptors weren’t with their constant activity. The pressure to guard them well past the three-point line and the ability of seemingly everyone on the floor to make the right pass or the right cut eventually cracks even the best defence. The Warriors counted 38 field goals and assisted on 34 of them — an almost unheard of ratio.
The expectation is that Golden State might get two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant back for one of the two games back in Oakland, although Klay Thompson had to leave Game 2 with a sore hamstring and Kevon Looney with a shoulder problem.
Still, nothing easy, not that the Raptors were expecting anything different.
“I don’t know like what you guys thought this series was going to look like, but we went into it expecting a dog fight,” said Raptors guard VanVleet, who played playoff career-high 38 minutes off the bench, chipping in 17 points on 17 shots. “And, yes, we won Game 1 [but] I think everybody else outside of our locker room was a lot more excited than we were. We understand what this team brings and what type of effort it’s going to take to beat these guys.”
The list of things they need to work on isn’t overwhelming, but it’s not short either.
The Raptors struggled to adjust to the officiating all night which — in fairness — seemed fairly inconsistent. Toronto was over-aggressive early and ended as the Warriors survived an otherwise shaky first quarter by taking 13 free throws in the first 12 minutes, negating an otherwise impressive defensive effort where the Raptors held the Warriors to 37 per cent shooting.
The calls normalized — in the end the Raptors were whistled for 22 fouls to 26 for the Warriors and the free throws attempts ended up being 26-23 in favour of Toronto. But the Raptors seemed to sag somewhat defensively in the third as they backed off the physical play. Kyle Lowry was in foul trouble and out of rhythm all night and eventually fouled out with four minutes left.
“You try not to [let the officiating affect you] but it’s the nature of the game,” said VanVleet, who helped make life difficult for Curry who finished 6-of-17 from the floor for 23 points. “And you understand if like you come down and you’re holding him and they call a foul, and hold them and you come down the next time you hold him, and he push you in the chest and make a three. So that’s just kind of how the officiating goes. And as players you got to do a better job of adjusting and trying to find that fine line and straddle that line.”
And Toronto is going to have to figure out how to avoid the game-changing runs that the Warriors have become famous for over their run of three titles in four years. That goes hand-in-hand with keeping a grip on Curry and Thompson, the so-called Splash Brothers and a backcourt duo that needs about two possessions to heat up and change the game. They finished with 48 points combined.
Thompson was key in the first quarter, putting up 11 points as the Warriors struggled — just enough to prevent the Raptors from jumping out to an early cushion, and then it was Curry’s turn to spark one of the Warriors famous runs.
The Raptors were leading by 10 with a minute left in the second quarter when Curry hit a three, made a steal, scored a lay-up and made a pair of free throws just before half and the Raptors lead was five, 59-54.
“Obviously Steph was great in closing out that half for us,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green, who just missed his second straight triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists while also helping limit Raptors Game 1-star Pascal Siakam to 12 points on 5-of-18 shooting. “I think we should have been down by a lot more than five points, but when you’re going in, you know, into the half down five, we know we can cover that in 10 seconds.”
The Warriors were just getting started as they opened the third quarter on an 18-0 run.
The Raptors missed their first eight shots and were charged with four turnovers in the first 5:40 of the second half. Their 10-point lead turned into a 13-point hole in the space of just under seven minutes going back to the end of the first half.
The Raptors’ dry spell fed directly into the Warriors’ attack.
“We didn’t score the ball in the first five minutes [and that] obviously led to them getting out in transition and a lot of layups and open looks,” said Leonard, who led the Raptors with 34 points and 14 rebounds, but had five turnovers and just three assists against the Warriors swarming defence. “… That third quarter, I feel like it really killed us. 18-0 run, if can’t score no baskets, you’re not going win no game.”
Or a series. The Raptors have some things to figure out. They have until Wednesday night to do it or run the risk of having the franchise’s first chance to win an NBA title also slip through their fingers.