Sunday night the Toronto Raptors get to reconnect with their near and treasured past when they take on the Golden State Warriors.
The two teams will be forever linked – certainly in the minds of Raptors fans. It was against the Warriors that the Raptors won their NBA title in 2019. In was on Golden State’s homecourt where Kawhi Leonard’s “(Expletive) it, let’s get two” prophecy came to pass, as the Raptors won Games 3 and 4 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. It was against the Warriors that Nick Nurse broke out his "janky" box-and-one defence and Fred VanVleet earned a Finals MVP vote from legendary coach-turned-broadcaster Hubie Brown for his ability to stay in Steph Curry’s shirt.
But nothing stays the same in the NBA for very long. There was hope that the title be the first of more -- imagine if Leonard had stayed? Instead, it became a memorable if short-lived peak.
Leonard left almost before the mess from the championship parade was cleaned up and the Raptors' title defence in 2019-20 was undone by COVID-19, which in turn triggered the Raptors' lost season in Tampa.
Now, Toronto has its eyes on the play-in tournament and fingers are crossed rookie Scottie Barnes can save them from having to go through a complete rebuild as they try to find a way back into Eastern Conference contention.
The Warriors looked like their best days might be over, too. After three titles and five straight Finals appearances, Kevin Durant left in free agency and Klay Thompson missed two seasons and counting – first with a torn ACL suffered against the Raptors in Game 5 and then a torn Achilles in the buildup to his return for the 2020-21 season. Curry missed most of a year with a broken hand and the Warriors found themselves in the draft lottery and the play-in tournament in consecutive years.
But somehow, someway, the Warriors are back.
The 8-9 Raptors aren’t just revisiting their past, they’re taking on the early favourites for the NBA title, as Golden State has started the season an NBA-best 14-2 and boasts both the league’s highest scoring offence and its top-rated defence. They are the league’s best passing team, too, as they lead the NBA in passes per game, assists per game and secondary assists per game, and the best shooting team.
Things are different, for sure: The Raptors will be playing them in their new arena – Toronto’s Game 6 win in the Finals was the last game ever played at Oracle Arena in Oakland. Now the Warriors come to play in the Chase Center in San Francisco.
But while the Raptors are struggling to find an identity in their post-championship years, the Warriors have gone back to their not-so-distant glorious past as the most exciting show in basketball.
It’s just not another one of 82.
“I think it’s good to see their trajectory in terms of their 'rebuild' from where they were the championship year and losing KD and then we lose Kawhi,” said VanVleet. “They still have Steph ... but for them to work themselves back up into the team we are accustomed to seeing, I think it’s good to follow. But every time we play them it’s been a tough game. You always look ahead to playing them.”
Some of the surrounding cast has changed. Canadian national team star Andrew Wiggins has settled in nicely in his third season with the Warriors, averaging 18.3 points a game with a career-best true shooting percentage of 58. Jordan Poole has emerged as a legitimate second option until Thompson returns.
But the big things haven’t changed. The Warriors’ pillars remain Draymond Green for his defensive genius and playmaking savvy, and Curry for his unprecedented ability offensively.
Curry in particular has been a constant. Apart from 2019-20 when he only played five games due to his hand injury, his productivity has remained in the realm of what he won his consecutive MVP awards for at the start of the Warriors dynasty in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
But at 33 and in his 13th season, he’s lost no steps and instead is pushing the envelope as to what’s possible offensively. And with the Warriors winning, the spotlight is deservedly back, shining brightly on one of the singular talents to ever pick up a basketball.
He’s leading the league in scoring with 29.2 points a game while adding 6.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists. He’s taking 13.5 threes a game and connecting on 41.9 per cent of them. At his current pace, he will shatter his NBA record of 402 made threes in a season. For context, the only other person to even make 300 is James Harden in 2018-19.
And the Raptors are getting Curry on a heater. Only five other players in league history have made nine or more threes at least four times in their careers. Curry, who has 38 such games (no one else has more than nine), has done it four times in his past six games, a stretch in which he’s averaged 36 points and seven assists while making almost half of 15 3-point attempts per game.
“There’s never been anybody like him,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said earlier this week, quite accurately.
Kerr added: “He's an offence just by himself. He's an offence because he's gonna pull defenders 35 feet from the hoop and then it's a matter of putting smart people around him like Draymond, like Andre [Iguodala] and many others who are going to take that defensive attention that Steph gets and then make plays behind the play when Steph gets the ball out of his hands.
“The fact that Steph can be dominant on and off the ball is what makes him unique. There's nobody in the league now or as far as I'm concerned ever who had that combination of on-ball skill and pick-and-roll dominance [and] the off-ball game of Reggie Miller or Rip Hamilton flying off screens. That combination this has never been seen.”
The Raptors and VanVleet know it all too well, although their win in the Finals was in large part because Toronto was able to keep Curry somewhat under wraps — he averaged 30.5 points per game for the series, but shot just 41.4 per cent from the field and 34.3 from deep.
VanVleet was a big reason for that and will have to be again to prevent Curry from turning the Raptors' visit into another highlight video.
“He is one of the best of all time,” said VanVleet. “There’s not a lot to say there. It’s probably harder to find stuff he doesn’t do than it is to explain all the good things he does.
"But just his spirit and his passion for the game is so good for the sport of basketball and just how much he has impacted people and kids all over the world and just the way he carries it. ... I always look forward to competing against him just because he is one of the best of all time.”
The Warriors will go down as one of the NBA’s great dynasties. Two seasons ago the Raptors looked like they might have ended it.
It looks like Curry and Golden State are getting ready to write a whole new chapter.