TORONTO — The first was an ambush. The Toronto Raptors had come to play. They hit nine of their first 11 shots, forced the Golden State Warriors into two timeouts within the first nine minutes, and swarmed everything that moved on the defensive end. In the biggest test they’ve had until the next biggest test they’ll have, the Raptors were setting the tone.
Of course, that was the plan. The morning of most game days, Toronto’s coaching staff holds a video session. They go over tendencies, potential weaknesses, sets their opponents like to run. The Raptors don’t see the Warriors often — most of them have only played the defending champions a handful of times. But Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green know these Warriors well, thanks to their time with the San Antonio Spurs and playing Golden State in the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
So when the Raptors gathered to watch film on Thursday, it wasn’t head coach Nick Nurse doing most of the talking. It was Leonard and Green.
“My ears were open,” Nurse said. “They were very talkative, informative — they have experience against them.”
One point that was stressed: it’s Golden State — you’ve got to come ready to play. And it started with Leonard, who in the early-going hit a turnaround fadeaway in heavy traffic, then raced down the floor to block a mid-range attempt from Kevin Durant. The block fell to Kyle Lowry, who then dropped a 20-metre bomb pass perfectly into the hands of a sprinting Pascal Siakam at the other end for a dunk.
Not long after, it was Leonard generating the turnover once again, and finishing a quick give-and-go with Lowry on the fly.
“They did a really good job of throwing the first punch,” said Andre Iguodala, the Golden State forward. “At home, on national TV, crowd really into it — and they were making some tough shots.”
It was 38-25, Raptors.
The second was an adrenaline dump. After the flat-out pace of the first, it was little surprise.
Both teams struggled to get anything started in the early going. Shots were missed, unwise passes were turned over, travels were committed. These things happen. But if you’re the Raptors, that’s not the kind of energy you want to play with for long against a team like Golden State that’s liable to explode for a dozen at any moment.
“They’re a great ball club — championship ball club. They’re going to come back. They’re going to fight. They’re not going to quit,” Green said. “When things are not going our way, we’ve got to find ways to get out of that funk, get out of that mood, and keep the positive energy and make some winning plays. Winning plays turn a game around.”
What Lowry did about halfway through the quarter, as Golden State was trying to make a run, was a winning play. Or plays. It started on the defensive end, where he got way up to alter an Iguodala shot on a three-on-one fast break. He quickly turned the other way, rushing straight for the Warriors basket, where he pulled up and dropped in a perfect little floater.
“Whether it’s K-Lo getting a steal at half court, Pascal getting a fast-break layup or dunk at the other end, or getting to the free throw line — those will change the momentum of the game,” Green said. “Even if you see it’s bleeding, you try to stop the bleeding with something. There’s certain things that we can do, that everybody can do, to help.”
It was 67-58, Raptors.
The third belonged to Durant. The way he’d been playing lately — averaging 41.7 points per game over his last three coming in — it was only a matter of time.
“He’s a heck of a player, man,” Lowry said. “He’s really, really, really, really good.”
Coming into the game, Nurse intended to send a variety of different looks at Durant. Not necessarily to try to throw the nine-time all-star off. But because he thinks that’s the way his team’s designed to play.
“I think that’s going to be our philosophy going forward,” Nurse said before the game. “We’ve got some good, young defenders. They need some time and some reps against these guys to see how they can do.”
‘These guys’ will be any number of NBA superstars as the season wears on. Joel Embiid when the Raptors host Philadelphia next week. Giannis Antetokounmpo when Milwaukee comes to town four days after that. And, potentially, one of those two guys for anywhere from four to seven games come the playoffs.
And so, after Leonard spent his nine-minute first-quarter shift on Durant, OG Anunoby got to try his hand at guarding one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers. And, later, Siakam did, too. No one had much luck.
After scoring a mere 20 in the first half, Durant went into full takeover mode, pouring in 18 more in the third on 7-of-9 shooting. He was scoring from mid-range, scoring from beyond the arc, and nailing his free throws. The Raptors threw everything they had at him, but everything wasn’t enough. Durant scored his team’s final 13 points of the quarter, punctuated by an ‘oh, come on’ three-pointer from just inside half court.
“I don’t know what you can do,” Siakam said. “He’s making shots from the logo. It’s tough, tough coverage. You’ve just got to try your hardest and make that hard. But great players are going to make good shots.”
It was 96-88, Raptors.
The fourth was a massive opportunity. After Durant’s borderline unbelievable third, he took a seat on the bench for the beginning of the final quarter. In turn, Nurse let Leonard start the frame with the Raptors’ second unit — a look he’s been experimenting with of late. Toronto had its best player on the floor. Golden State did not. The Raptors needed to capitalize.
It wasn’t to be. After a bad pass turnover by Fred VanVleet early, Jonas Jerebko got out in transition for a dunk, and things spiralled from there. Only three minutes in, after Jerebko was left unguarded for a three, Nurse was forced to call a timeout. On the other side of it, Anunoby bricked an open three before Klay Thompson found Kevon Looney with a lob. The lead was down to four. Soon, it’d be two.
By the time Durant was checking back in halfway through the quarter, Golden State had won its minutes without him, 16-12. Leonard, on the floor for all of them, was held to only two free throws in that span.
“That’s us being young and immature. We always have pretty good leads and just can’t sustain them,” Green said. “It’s a part of growing. It’s a part of being mature as a group. Especially with so many young guys. Figuring each other out, figuring out us, our identity.”
But it was always going to come down to Durant vs. Leonard. There was no other way. With a little less than a shot clock left in the game, Raptors leading by three, Durant made his way up the floor. Leonard was all over him. He bottled up Durant’s drive. He followed Durant out beyond the arc. As Durant pulled up for a game-tying three, Leonard had one of his massive hands way up above the shooter’s head, forcing a rainbow of a shot. But in moments like that, Durant doesn’t miss.
“He drove him into the corner, had him completely locked up — and somehow the guy squeezed the shot off,” Nurse said. “And hit it right in the centre.”
It was a tied basketball game.
Overtime was a test. Be honest — did you think the Raptors were going to pull it off? Did you have faith? Or had you seen that story too many times before? Had you seen the Raptors cough up a big lead, get forced into overtime, and drop a game they’d later say they definitely should have won?
“When a team gets dragged into overtime like that, because of some tough shots or whatever,” Nurse said, “a lot of times that team will feel sorry for themselves and not come out and play.”
It was a focus of discussion on the Raptors bench in the moments before overtime began. They needed to come out with energy. They needed to believe in one another. They needed to believe in themselves.
“I was telling guys, ‘This is a good character test,’” Green said. “Continue to trust each other offensively and defensively. Move the ball, find each other.”
That’s exactly what the Raptors did. They scored four quick points on a couple pass-heavy possessions, each set up by a Lowry assist. The Warriors tied it and had an opportunity to take a lead, but Leonard found a turnover and found Lowry in transition. He found Green trailing. And Green’s three-pointer found the bottom of the net.
“It’s what I told them in the locker room — that I was proud of them for that,” Nurse said. “To take the emotional punch in the gut, and take a few deep breaths at the end of the game, and go back out there and play the overtime the way they did.”
From there, it was a matter of defence, possession, free throws, and an ending. A victory over the defending champion. One that was undeniably earned.
It was 131-128, Raptors.