OAKLAND – Up until the very last minutes before the ball went up, the Toronto Raptors didn’t know exactly who they would be playing in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
What they were playing for?
Never in doubt: to take control of the series and put themselves in position to win an NBA Championship.
To put the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors on their back heel. To take advantage of the stars aligning and the basketball gods shining.
They knew who they wouldn’t be playing. The Warriors would be without versatile big man Kevon Looney for the rest of the series with a collarbone injury, and two-time defending Finals MVP Kevin Durant’s strained calf was going to keep him sidelined at least one more game.
But what of Klay Thompson’s balky hamstring? Would Stephen Curry’s fellow Splash Brother and all-NBA defender be in the lineup?
Word first came out that he would be available and then shortly afterwards that he was going to sit out.
The Raptors’ task remained the same: press their advantage while it presented itself, take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals and see where things go from there.
They can check that task off the to-do list after their 123-109 win over the undermanned Warriors.
“It was very important [to take advantage] but I really didn’t find out [Thompson was out] until the tip-off started,” said Kawhi Leonard, who led a well-rounded Raptors attack with 30 points on 17 shots. “They told us that he was playing tonight, and that was the mindset going out on the floor, that [he’s] playing.
“[But after he was out] it was a lot of pressure too … if one of the main guys is not playing, they can still come out and get a win … it was big. I’m happy we got it. Two wins away now and let’s see what this momentum carries us to.”
It carries them to the edge of doing something almost unthinkable if they can somehow come back to Oracle Arena and win Game 4 on Friday night to take a 3-1 lead with a chance to close out an NBA title at Scotiabank Arena on Monday.
But they can’t skip steps, which was Leonard’s point. When you have the opportunity to get a win against the two-time defending NBA champions missing two all-NBA starters and a key reserve, you better execute.
There were two pre-game messages on that theme.
The first came from Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who brushed aside any questions about lineups or players being available.
“I [just] think we’re at the point of this series where we got to get out and guard these dudes, right?
“Whoever’s out there,” he said. “We got to get playing our defence, right, quit worrying so much about special plays, this, that and the other thing.
“We need to get into the ball. When you’re guarding it, be great at guarding the ball. When your man doesn’t have it, help, make the rotations, If somebody goes to help, help the helper. Fly out at shooters and block out. We got to do a better job of that if we want to win.”
The message? Take control of your destiny. Don’t get caught up in what the Warriors’ injury situation may or may not mean to your chances. Don’t wait for doors to be opened — knock them down.
A similar theme was playing out in the Raptors locker-room where someone had written a simple phrase for the night.
“Let it rip” was scrawled across the Raptors’ whiteboard on top of the scouting information on the Warriors.
It wasn’t Nurse that wrote it but he learned about it when he sought out Kyle Lowry for a chat. Lowry had only scored 20 points in the first two games of the series on 30 per cent shooting – a drop-off from his production against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“It’s pretty quick, right, and actually one of the players had written that on the board, ‘Let it rip,’ on our — we got all our stuff up there, and there was this little handwritten ‘Let it rip,’ and I said, Did you write that? But he said, ‘No, but that’s what I’m thinking.’”
“Usually, when he’s going good, it means he’s hitting the paint, he’s attacking off the screen and roll and really getting downhill,” said Nurse. “That’s usually a sign that he’s got a lot of his offensive game and confidence going.”
Lowry led the way as he pushed the pace in the first quarter as the Raptors jumped out to a 36-29 lead and then put the hammer down even more with an 11-point second quarter. He finished with 23 points, nine assists and his usual collection of game-changing little plays.
“I think [let it rip] was more of a message for the team,” said Lowry “We shot 38 threes tonight [making 17, a Finals record for a road team] and … just played basketball.
“For me, it was just coming off being aggressive and not so being passive and trying to get everybody else involved and more so get myself going and let everybody else feed off of that.”
The Raptors couldn’t quite shake the Warriors, who were dogged even though shorthanded and who benefitted from a playoff career-high 47 points from Curry — the Warriors’ last offensive option still standing.
Toronto turned a 60-52 halftime lead into a 96-83 third-quarter advantage as Leonard chipped in 15 points in the third and Danny Green hit three of his six triples in a two-minute stretch at the end of the third and the Raptors were able to hold the Warriors at bay after that.
“K-Lo’ [was] huge I guess part of our pace and that’s why he’s so — that’s why he gets paid the big bucks, man,” said Green. “He does the little things for us, even when he’s not scoring. Tonight he scored well, but the biggest thing that he brings for us is that edge. He’s a bulldog. He’s a pitbull down there and he’s going take charges, he’s going to get rebounds, he’s going to box people out, he’s going to do the dirty work, he’s a blue-collar guy, and he’s going to give us pace.”
The Raptors have a long way to go, but, with a 2-1 lead and a win on the road to regain home-court advantage, it’s not outlandish to say they can see the Larry O’Brien trophy shimmering on the horizon.
It will get tougher from here. The Warriors may well have Thompson back for Game 4 and could have Durant, too. But all of those things are unknowns.
With the Warriors short-staffed, the Raptors got it done by committee. They were led in scoring by Leonard with 30 points, but Lowry added 23 and Pascal Siakam 18 as all five Raptors starters had at least 17 points and Fred VanVleet chipped in with 11 off the bench, including a key triple with 1:37 left to help ice the game.
Even with all the uncertainty around their roster, the Warriors weren’t crying poor. Why would they? They were playing at home where they were 45-8 in their five-year Finals run before Wednesday night; they still had Curry, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins. In bringing in Shaun Livingston to start for Thompson, Kerr was turning to a second-unit fixture with three championship rings.
They may have been being prudent in holding Thompson out, but the Warriors pushed back at any suggestion that they were conceding the game for the greater good or anything like that.
“I think wisdom prevailed in terms of this is a potentially seven-game series, and you would like to take advantage of tonight,” said Curry who was 14-of-31 from the floor with six threes in 43 minutes. “But his overall health is important in terms of not taking away the rest of the series with something catastrophic happening. So hopefully he’s back for Game 4.”
“Not having anyone makes a difference because everyone — when you assemble a team — everyone brings something different. But no one cares if guys are hurt. Everybody wants to see us lose. So I’m sure people are happy they’re hurt. We just got to continue to battle and win the next game, go back to Toronto, win Game 5, come back to Oracle, win Game 6 and then celebrate. Fun times ahead.”
The Raptors will certainly have something to say about that. They did their part in Game 3. They let it rip.
The win guarantees nothing, but lets the Raptors dream if they allow themselves. The minimum for the trip to Oakland was to win one game, gain a split and regain home-court advantage. Job done.
Now they can go for two. Now they can dream even bigger. When opportunity knocks, teams with championship aspirations answer, and in Game 3 the Raptors pushed the door down and walked on through to the other side.
Two more wins over the Warriors is like climbing Mount Everest at this point. But the Raptors can see the summit from here, the Larry O’Brien Trophy shimmering in the distance.