TORONTO — The painful conclusion after the ghost of the Golden State Warriors blew through Scotiabank Arena is that the best team the Toronto Raptors have ever had, the one leveraged to the hilt to compete for an NBA championship — simply isn’t good enough.
Keep in mind, the Raptors are very good. They are an NBA-best 19-4 and on Thursday night with the whole world watching — their 8 p.m. start on TNT was the only NBA game being played in the Eastern time zone — they won a thrilling game against the two-time defending champion Warriors in overtime, 131-128.
It was a spectacle. Drake, the Raptors global ambassador, was there, talking trash to Kevin Durant before asking for his game jersey (Durant gave it to him). Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock — the anti-Drake, it feels safe to say — was courtside too.
And as a group, the Raptors certainly showed up.
They forced Durant to dig deep into his bottomless bag of world-class basketball tricks to put up 51 points, including an impossible-seeming game-tying three with Kawhi Leonard draped all over him to put the game into the extra session. In the end it wasn’t enough, as the Raptors jumped out to a quick lead in OT and forced three Warriors turnovers in the final two minutes to end Golden State’s 13-game winning streak over Toronto.
Leonard — playing the Warriors (15-8) for the first time since Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, when he had Golden State on the ropes with the San Antonio Spurs before an ankle injury put him out of the game and the series — played his best game as a Raptor. He contributed 37 points on 24 shots along with eight rebounds against only one turnover despite seeing a steady diet of second-and-third defenders. He probably deserves credit for holding Durant — who is averaging 44 points over his last four games — to something under 70 for the night.
It was as entertaining as November basketball can conceivably get. Even grumpy Kyle Lowry — who made the idea that this was just one game out of 82 into a form of performance art at the morning media availability — had to admit when it was all said and done that it not just another regular season game.
“I mean, I rather we blew them out,” said Lowry, who finished with 10 points and 12 assists and just one turnover and made a critical triple late in the fourth quarter to keep the Warriors from ending the game in regulation. “But it was a fun game. Those are fun games. It’s what the league is about. You got guys going at it, KD had 51 and put them on [his] back, made two huge threes down the stretch and Kawhi made some big shots. Honestly, was a good, fun, game.”
But the Warriors were missing two of their league-high contingent of four superstars, with Steph Curry (groin) and Draymond Green (toe) both out, and they spotted the Raptors an 18-point first quarter lead — as well as a 17-point bulge early in the third quarter — and they still nearly pulled it out.
The Raptors did win, extending their lead atop both the NBA and Eastern Conference standings. They showed well with the entire world watching. And they got a remarkable performance from Pascal Siakam who scored a career-high 26 points on just 10 shots and iced the game at the free-throw line in overtime.
But there were concerns.
They blew leads as their second unit was largely out-played and out-scored by a stripped-down Warriors rotation. After jumping out to a 32-14 lead before the first quarter was over, they avoided blowing the Warriors out before halftime by coughing up eight turnovers in just over nine minutes, propping up a reeling opponent.
They surrendered 17 offensive rebounds — a problem the Raptors have had all season — giving the most dangerous offensive team in basketball 13 more shots than Toronto had. And down the guts of the game, the Warriors did what teams have always done to the Raptors: send multiple defenders to their primary scorer — substitute Leonard for DeMar DeRozan — and force anyone else to beat them. That Toronto scored just 23 points in the fourth quarter suggests it’s a strategy that still works.
On one possession with two minutes left three different Raptors — Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Lowry — passed up decent looks before Ibaka (20 points on 13 shots) was forced to rush a deep three with the shot-clock expiring. On Toronto’s last possession — after Durant hit his near-impossible corner three over Leonard to tie the game with 8.6 seconds left — Leonard was swarmed and couldn’t get the ball to someone open before the clock expired.
So while it was tempting to celebrate a dramatic win over an elite — even if short-handed — opponent, when held up against the Raptors aspirations of playing in June, it’s important stay at least a little sober.
“If we took care of business, kept the pace that we wanted to keep, we should have been doing better,” said Green, one of two Raptors with a championship ring, and who looked the part as he hit two of his three triples in the fourth quarter and overtime. “That’s us being young and immature. We [get out] to pretty big leads and can’t sustain them.
“It’s a part of growing. It’s a part of being mature with this group … obviously they’re a great ball club, a championship ball club. They’re gonna fight. They’re gonna come back. They’re not gonna quit. We’ve got to do a better job of being mature, learn how to close out quarter, learn how to close out games and learn how to keep leads.”
It’s not that the Warriors don’t take the Raptors seriously. Thompson, Curry and Steve Kerr all referenced Toronto as a conceivable Finals opponent — it’s just, what will happen if the Raptors ever get there?
And based on one night, it’s not hard to imagine the Warriors making like water flooding over and through a breached dam and the Raptors (or, to be fair, anyone else) running around trying haplessly to plug holes with a finite supply of fingers. Just dealing with a red-hot Durant was enough of a problem.
Imagine Curry heating up. Or Thompson (who had 23 points and was 3-of-9 from deep, fanning on some looks that could have been the difference in the fourth) having just an extra second to line up open looks.
“It presented us with a bunch of issues to deal with and we are going to have to learn how to do some of them better, both sides of the ball,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
The Warriors may be a mountain too tough to climb for anyone. Consider that Raptors are exceptionally well-suited to defending Durant.
Just ask him: “They have great defenders,” he said. “Kawhi is tough because I like to dance with the ball a little bit and you can’t do that with him because he’s got that hand right in that dribbling lane and his hands are so big and so quick he can get the ball when you’re playing around. You have to use more energy just to beat him and they have players helping out — you have Siakam there, Danny Green, they have a lot of athletic guys who can guard so I had to get my sleep last night, did a lot of work today.
“The defense did matter, but I was able to hit a couple of shots.”
Had he hit just a couple more, it would have been a considerable mood dampener for the 19,800 in attendance.
That the Raptors did survive and get the win made for a great night and helped their cause in building a collection of experiences that should serve them well in the playoffs as they try to leverage their one guaranteed season of Leonard into an NBA Finals appearance.
But you have shudder at what they might find waiting for them — or any team — when they get to June and find a full-strength Warriors team waiting there.