TORONTO — It’s been 24 years of ups and downs, embarrassments, strangeness and heartbreaks.
So why do it the easy way now?
Faced with a chance to efficiently dispatch the Golden State Warriors in five games and in front of a throbbing crowd with a city on edge, the Toronto Raptors blinked for one of the few times in their otherwise steady playoff march.
The Raptors not only suffered a stinging 106-105 loss — in so doing they missed a golden opportunity to set off a celebration like no other across the city and country by lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at Scotiabank Arena. Forget Jurassic Park, thousands gathered for a viewing party at Mosaic Stadium in Regina for goodness sakes.
Time will tell if they’ll come to regret it.
They stumbled on a night when the Warriors’ Kevin Durant flashed the kind of impact he can have on a game and conceivably on the Finals before being helped off the court with an Achilles tendon injury early in the second quarter.
Golden State’s star had been out for nine playoff games and 33 days with a calf strain on the same leg. The precise extent of this injury isn’t known but is significant enough that Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers was emotional in speaking to the media afterwards, saying if there was anyone to be blamed for the decision to bring Durant back, it was him.
He then lashed out at critics who suggested the pending free agent had been malingering.
“He’s one of the most misunderstood people. He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person, it’s not fair,” said Myers of Durant, who left the arena on crutches and in a walking boot. “I’m lucky to know him. I don’t know — I don’t have all the information on what really the extent of what it all means until we get a MRI, but the people that worked with him and cleared him are good people, they’re good people.”
It was a strange night, as notable for what happened as what could have happened. The Raptors had their championship in their grasp, the building exploding, the finish line in sight and they couldn’t close the deal.
With the series now 3-2 and heading back to Oakland, it remains to be seen if they’ll pay the ultimate price or whether this was a hiccup that will be part of their championship lore.
“I think that our team has reacted all year long great to bad losses, and I would say it takes a lot to beat this team,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And that [it] took a hell of a lot of blows and a heck of a lot of balls bouncing the wrong way in the last couple minutes for us to come out on the wrong side of it tonight.”
Oh the chances they missed and will look back on regrettably. The Raptors took more field goals, made more free throws (21-10), turned it over less (13-15) and had 13 offensive rebounds to six for the Warriors. Nine times out of 10 you win that game. But the Warriors were 20-of-42 from deep while the Raptors were 8-of-32, which was the ultimate difference – that and some key decisions down the stretch.
With Durant back in the lineup for the first time, the Warriors came out looking like a different team than the one the Raptors held to 92 points in Game 4. They led 34-28 after the first quarter and were 7-of-11 from three – a theme on the night – and Durant looked every inch the two-time defending Finals MVP. The Warriors offence simply flowed better with one extra weapon to be accounted for.
He was a factor on defence too. When he went down early in the second quarter trying to beat Serge Ibaka off the dribble, he had 11 points on five shots with a steal and blocked shot. The Warriors led by five.
As Durant stumbled and fell, some sections of the crowd cheered. It was not a good look. Kyle Lowry and Danny Green worked to silence the crowd’s cheers once they realized how serious the injury apparently was.
“I’ve been in this city for — I’ve lived here, I really enjoyed the people and their passion and excitement for not only the game,” said Warriors guard Steph Curry, whose father, Dell, played the last three seasons of his career for the Raptors. “But just when you come into town they just enjoy life and they’re nice people. [I’m] very confused around that reaction. It’s not my experience with the people of this city, and I commend obviously Danny Green and Kyle Lowry especially. I think they were the ones that were kind of signalling to the crowd, like, ‘Let’s check ourselves a little bit.’
“You understand this is about an individual, a human being and not, ‘Oh, shoot he’s out, he’s hurt, we won the championship’” said Curry, who finished with 31 points. “Like that was probably their initial thought and you hate to see that when a guy’s going through pain like that.”
The Warriors managed to keep their composure and took a six-point lead into the half and increased it midway through the third quarter.
But slowly Toronto kept reeling them in, the energy in the crowd building, the belief cresting. The Warriors were vulnerable and the Raptors were hunting them down. Finally, Leonard seemed to say enough’s enough. His pull-up three with 5:13 left in the fourth quarter put the Raptors up one. He ended up scoring 10 points in 1:45 and suddenly the Raptors were up 103-97, with the ball and 3:05 between them and their title.
They were rolling, the Warriors seemed to be reeling.
And then Raptors head coach Nick Nurse called a timeout. He had two in his pocket that would have expired had he not used them. So he did.
“We just came across and just decided to give those guys a rest,” said Nurse. “And we had back-to-back ones there that we would have lost them under the three-minute mark, and just thought we could use the extra energy push.”
Whether the move killed the Raptors surge or not will never be known, but it’s unusual to say the least to use a timeout to break your own team’s momentum.
“At that time I felt that, like you said, he probably wanted to get us some rest at that moment,” said Leonard, who finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds on 9-of-24 shooting. “You never know, I mean, if we would have won the game, we wouldn’t be talking about it.”
Nurse is having as good of a playoff run as anyone other than Leonard for the Raptors, his every adjustment seeming to come up roses, but this one was a head scratcher. He also elected to sit Pascal Siakam for the last nine minutes of the game which he’s almost never done. Even after the timeout, he kept Norm Powell on the floor and then subbed him for Danny Green.
Maybe Siakam’s length and quickness would have been helpful when things really unravelled for Toronto as Curry and Klay Thompson combined to hit three straight triples in the space of 94 seconds, the last by Thompson with 57.6 seconds left as he pump-faked and calmly watched Leonard fly by before pulling the trigger.
The Raptors had a chance to win it on the last possession at they took the ball over with 15.6 seconds left. But the Warriors doubled Leonard and by the time the ball found Lowry in the corner, he couldn’t get a clean look over a flying Draymond Green, who got a piece of the ball that never reached the rim.
“We had a chance to win a championship tonight and we didn’t do it,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “We didn’t play well enough. We didn’t execute enough down the stretch and that stings a little bit, but there’s a lot more basketball left to play. We came into this series expecting a long series and we put ourselves in a good position. Now it’s time to look at the film and see how we can get better. We’ll try to go get a win on Thursday.”
Failing that, Game 7 would be Sunday back in Toronto. Stock up on your heart medications as required.
It’s not all lost. The beauty of a 3-1 series lead is there’s room for error, for something that doesn’t go exactly to plan. But at 3-2, the screws have now been tightened just a little bit. The Raptors remain in control but the grip has slipped. The Warriors are emboldened.
Not that anything needed get any more interesting – the Raptors winning their first NBA title was plenty of story to go around – but they just did. The two-time defending NBA champions saw to it.