OAKLAND, Calif. — The Toronto Raptors took a pair of games off the two-time defending champion Warriors in Golden State’s storied building.
And when they walked off the Oracle Arena floor after Friday’s victory — just one win away from the first NBA championship in the team’s 24-year franchise history — there wasn’t a celebratory smile among them.
"We’ve won three games, it’s the first to four," point guard Kyle Lowry said. "We understand that they’re the defending champs and they’re not going to go out easy. They’re going to come and fight and prepare to play the next game. That’s how we’re preparing ourselves. We’ve got to prepare ourselves to play the next game. We haven’t done anything yet."
Kawhi Leonard, acquired in the off-season in a blockbuster trade precisely for this reason, scored 17 of his 36 points in the Raptors’ massive third quarter to lead Toronto to a gritty 105-92 come-from-behind victory.
The Raptors, who lead the best-of-seven series 3-1, can capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy on home court at Scotiabank Arena on Monday.
Leonard also hauled down a team-high 12 rebounds for the Raptors, who are making their Finals debut. Serge Ibaka added 20 points, Pascal Siakam chipped in with 19 points, while Kyle Lowry had 10 points and seven assists.
Leonard’s unflappable and competitive mindset — think: "Game of Thrones" White Walker — has seeped into the Raptors’ entire mentality through the season. Their mindset has been to remain even-keeled. Never sweat the bad stuff. Never celebrate the good times for too long.
One win away from Canada’s first NBA title, how do they maintain it?
"You’ve just got to be patient with it," Leonard said. "We were two games away, four games away, it doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We just have to stay confident in ourselves, be patient, don’t try to rush things."
Klay Thompson, who sat out Game 3 with a hamstring injury, had 28 points to top the Warriors, who are making their fifth consecutive Finals appearance. Stephen Curry, who had a playoff career-high 47 points on Wednesday, scored 27.
The Raptors have whipped their fans into a frenzy with their historic run. There’s been a groundswell of support from coast to coast.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse said the Raptors will have to maintain their singular focus as they head home.
"We’re going to get back there and, as you know, they’re going to be going crazy in Toronto," Nurse said. "My message to (the team) is we’ve never really talked about the series score. You can’t let people take you to some places you aren’t (at) yet."
Warriors coach Steve Kerr expects his team to put in a great effort in Game 5.
"(The Warriors) have been to the Finals five straight years for a reason," Kerr said. "They’re unbelievably competitive, they’re together, they’re going to fight, they’re going to fight the whole way."
Trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, the Raptors roared back with 37 points in the third, outscoring the Warriors by 16 points in the frame. Leonard had two straight threes to kick-start the quarter, a key sequence.
"Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big eff-you shots to start the half," Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet said. "There’s no defence for that. There are no schemes for that."
The Raptors led 79-67 to start the fourth.
For the second straight night, every time the Warriors threatened, the Raptors had an answer.
A Leonard three put Toronto up by 16 with 8:44 to play. A Curry three-pointer capped a 13-6 Warriors run that sliced the Raptors’ lead to just eight with 2:56 to play. But Siakam made two free throws and then drilled a two before Lowry drove for a layup and the Raptors went back up by 14, sending hundreds of stunned Warriors fans to the exits.
"I thought we played really tough tonight," Nurse said. "We were taking a lot of punches early and we just kept standing in there and playing. Then we were kind of able to exert our will in the second half."
Siakam scored on a mid-range jumper with 52 seconds left, and the pockets of Raptors fans that dotted Oracle Arena broke into a roaring "Let’s go Raptors!" They squeezed down the stairs to gather close to courtside game’s end to sing "O Canada."
The Raptors rewarded the travelling fans with a win. And how.
"They’re a great team and it’s the NBA Finals," Thompson said. "Everyone knows their role. They’ve got a lot of experience, guys who have been here before."
VanVleet, who had eight points on the night, took a massive elbow to the face from Shaun Livingston — and lost part of a tooth in the process — a couple of minutes into the fourth. He was bleeding profusely before he was helped off the court and to the locker room. VanVleet received seven stitches but passed concussion protocol and returned to the bench.
The Raptors are 8-0 in playoff games in which Ibaka scores 10 or more points.
"Once he gets into a series, which he did in Game 3 with blocked shots and rebounding, he seems to stay in the series," Nurse said. "He was great tonight. Once he starts blocking a couple shots, the offence comes, the rebounding comes, (there’s a) put-back here and there and even his jump shot seems to come."
The Raptors acquired Leonard, Gasol and Danny Green in their quest for their first NBA championship.
Asked in his pre-game availability whether the Game 4 pressure was on Toronto or Golden State, Nurse told the media: "That’s probably up for you guys to decide.
"Again, whether we’re up 2-1 or down 2-1, or down 2-0 or blah, blah, blah, we haven’t really talked about the score of the series at all the entire playoffs," Nurse said. "We have tried to just isolate every game.
"We know they’re all critical, right? I guess all I know is you need to win four, and you can’t win four until you win three, I think, if my math is good there … Take them one at a time."
The star-studded Oracle Arena crowd included rappers Common, Snoop Dogg and E-40, comedian Dave Chappelle, actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lilly Singh and Jesse Williams, and filmmaker George Lucas.
Burlington, Ont., Indie band Walk off the Earth performed "O Canada," drawing mixed reviews on social media, while Ne-Yo performed the U.S. anthem. Hip-hop dance group Jabbawockeez provided the halftime entertainment.
The teams split the two games in Toronto, then the Raptors captured Wednesday’s game in Oakland 123-109, a contest that saw all five starters score at least 17 points for just the second time in NBA history (Houston did the same in 1995).
Leonard had 14 points in the first quarter, but Raptors baskets were otherwise in short supply. The Raptors missed their first four shots before Leonard ended the drought three-and-a-half minutes into the game. Kevon Looney tipped in a shot to give the Warriors an 11-point lead with 53 seconds left in the first. The Raptors closed the quarter with a mini 5-0 run and Golden State took a 23-17 lead into the second.
Toronto held the Warriors’ offence down in the second quarter, pulling to within three points on a pair of free throws by Lowry. The Warriors went into the halftime break up 46-42.
The two teams were a combined 4-for-30 from three-point range through the first half. Leonard had Toronto’s two threes, while Thompson scored twice for the Warriors.
Looney returned for Golden State after it was previously announced he was out for the remainder of the series with a rib injury.
A Game 6, if necessary, would be back in Oakland. Game 7, if needed, would be in Toronto.