The better team won, and the better team has been winning for the vast majority of the Finals. No, that team is not the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, of dynasty status and five consecutive Finals appearances.
That team is the Toronto Raptors, who are leaving basketball fans around the world asking: Is this really happening?
How does Golden State stand a chance when Kawhi Leonard dominates (he had 36 points, 12 rebounds, and four steals) and the Raptors’ supporting cast steps up? Will these Warriors go the way of the LeBron James era Miami Heat, and crumble at the hands of Kawhi?
Those are among the many questions being asked after the Raptors put the Warriors’ season on the brink with a dominant 105-92 game on the road in Oakland to take a 3-1 lead in the 2019 NBA Finals.
Leonard was brilliant, while the likes of Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet continue to deliver on basketball’s biggest stage.
As we do following each Raptors game, let’s take a look at what the out-of-market media are saying about the Raptors as Canada’s team takes a very loud step closer to its first title opportunity following a convincing Game 4 win:
SI’s Andrew Sharp on the Kawhi performance we’ve been waiting for:
None of it felt completely real until the final buzzer, but here we are. The Toronto Raptors are one win away from an NBA title. By the end of Game 4, the Raptors looked deeper, stronger and smarter than the Warriors. It was a story that began with defense. The Raptors harassed the Warriors all night—Golden State shot just 45%, including 30% from three alongside 19 turnovers. That defense is what allowed the Raptors to keep the game from getting out of hand in the first half. Then, in the third quarter, it ended with Kawhi Leonard.
“He played amazing,” Steph Curry said of Leonard.
…Kawhi finished with 36 points, 12 rebounds and four steals on 12-of-22 shooting. The entire night was a masterpiece. In the first quarter, too, Leonard put up 14 points and carried the Toronto offense when it looked like the Warriors may take control of the game.
…Kawhi’s 2019 playoff run seems like it could go down in history alongside Dwyane Wade in 2006, Dirk Nowitzki in 2011, LeBron in 2016, and every other legendary run we’ll be talking about for the next several decades. But the entire Raptors rotation has been relentless every step of the way in these playoffs. Each time it looks like they’ll finally fold, they come back and silence every doubter. That happened in the second round, the Eastern Conference finals, and even halfway through the second quarter in Game 4, when what initially looked like a comfortable Warriors win quickly became a lot more interesting. Frankly, we all should have known better.
On FiveThirtyEight Jared Dubin looks into the numbers, which suggest that this Raptors’ offence has been the hardest for Golden State to handle during their five-year consecutive Finals streak:
…The best parallel to this current series came in 2014 when the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh-led Miami Heat were blown off the floor by the San Antonio Spurs. The 2014 finals marked the Heat’s fourth consecutive trip to the championship round — this is Golden State’s fifth consecutive trip — and the series played out in a manner that should sound eerily similar: San Antonio took Game 1 handily, then lost a close Game 2 at home. The Spurs then waxed the Heat in consecutive games on the road to take a 3-1 lead, before ultimately closing the series out at home.
That’s exactly how the current finals series has played out, which is fitting because the 2014 finals MVP was Kawhi Leonard, who now leads this Toronto team. It was Leonard who led the Raptors on Friday to the monster third quarter that ultimately gave them control of Game 4 for good.
…Toronto’s 37 third-quarter points came on only 23 possessions, making it the most efficient quarter either team has had all series.
…Toronto’s offensive rating for the series now stands at 115.1, per NBA.com, better than any mark the Cavaliers posted against the Warriors during their four consecutive finals clashes.
The Ringer’s Danny Chau also examines Leonard’s “transcendent performance” that has the Raptors just one win away from a championship:
…Toronto is now one win away from its first NBA title, and its first championship in the Big Four professional sports leagues since 1993. The faces of the Warriors told a story not only of the crumbling moment, but also of the suddenly deteriorating future. The look on Kawhi’s face, on the other hand, betrayed nothing but a sense of calm: He makes changing history look like solitary practice in the gym. In his customarily awkward postgame interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke, Leonard fumbled with the intent of his words: He doesn’t play for the records, he doesn’t play for the fans. The latter statement forced him to pause and stammer, and you could almost hear the creaking conversational gears in his mind grinding themselves to dust trying to make up for how bad that might have sounded to his legion of adoring Raptors fans back in Toronto. But with one more win, those fans will be able to rest easy.
Game 4 was Kawhi’s long-awaited Finals moment, a near-flawless display of the player he has become in his eight NBA seasons. He is a militant scorer who can attack from all levels of the floor; a shooter who can get his shot off from any distance, either off the dribble or off the ball; a defensive hawk who can create plays most players couldn’t even fathom; and maintain balance and control of possession in ways almost no one can. And yet, his most remarkable talent is being able to disappear within his own dominance. Leonard is averaging 30.8 points (on 45.2 percent shooting, 40 percent from 3, and 93.8 percent from the free throw line), 10.3 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and one block per game across four Finals games, but Friday’s contest will register as his first transcendent performance.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe broke down what the Raptors have done to get this far in the NBA Finals and made the case for Kawhi as being on of the greatest post-season performers of all-time.
It can happen so suddenly — the end of a season, a dynasty, an arena. Few people in and around the NBA had internalized the idea — swirled it around in their brains, digested it, felt it — that the Toronto Raptors, the NBA’s accidental pseudo-contender who catapulted themselves toward something greater with a trade for the ages, could clinch the NBA championship Monday.
…The Raptors are here for lots of reasons, but mostly because of Kawhi Leonard, who has asserted his claim as the world’s best player over the past month. Leonard did something that only LeBron James had approximated before him, and LeBron had help from another all-world scorer in Kyrie Irving, who poured in 90 combined points over the last three games of the 2016 Finals — when the Cleveland Cavaliers completed the unprecedented comeback Golden State will attempt now.
Leonard broke the Warriors.
…Perhaps we have not spent enough time amid all of that calling Leonard what he now indisputably is: one of the greatest postseason performers in the history of the sport, the rare superstar who gets better in the playoffs.
The Raptors took a page out of Golden State’s book with their mammoth third quarter run on Friday, writes Matt Ellentuck:
Friday night was an unbelievable flip-flop from the norm of not only the 2018-19 season, but half a decade of what we know to be true. This season, the Warriors outscored opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions in the third quarter. In the playoffs last season, the Warriors outscored opponents by 29.9 points per 100 possessions in the third. This has always been their time to dominate, and simultaneously the time for fans to turn off the television in assumption that the final 12 minutes were purposeless.
But the same team that’s run the back-to-back champs into a frantic state with a middle school-esque box-and-one zone found one more unorthodox way to torch them — crushing them in their own quarter.
…Game 4, like the two Raptors wins before it, never felt like Golden State had a legitimate stake in a win. Leonard finished with 36 points and 12 rebounds, Sergie Ibaka with 20 points and four rebounds and Pascal Siakam with 19 points. The Warriors held a brief 11-point lead in the first half, but that was it. Golden State simply hasn’t found an answer for Toronto’s versatile wings and bigs.
If this was the last game at Oracle Arena, the Canadian contingent said goodbye in style: