If you’re looking for reasons to believe an NBA empire is in the midst of crumbling, that we’re about to witness one of the great moments in Toronto sports history on Monday night, you don’t even need to be a delusional Toronto-based optimist.
The Raptors beat the Warriors in Game 4 in the same way Golden State’s early-exiting fans beat the traffic. And suddenly, with Toronto up 3-1 in the series, the swagger Warriors all-star Draymond Green exhibited in the wake of Toronto’s Game 3 win – “Fun times ahead,” Green insisted, all but guaranteeing three straight Warrior victories — was non-existent. If the Warriors looked broken, it’s only because the Raptors, based on the current evidence, are the better team. They’ve proven it over the opening four games of the series. They’ve proven in going 7-1 in their last eight games against the two best teams in the NBA standings not based in Toronto. Kawhi Leonard is a basketball-playing nuclear weapon. Masai Ujiri has put together a high-IQ lineup that appears unshakable.
So the idea that the Raptors are about to squash all hope of a Warriors three-peat while winning Toronto’s first big-three sports championship in more than a quarter century — while simultaneously and monumentally breaking the Drake curse— it’s not just the overnight campers in Jurassic Park hoping it’ll happen. It’s what any reasonable observer of this series has to expect will happen. Suddenly, the two-time defending champions are distinct long shots.
Which, by definition, means they still have a shot. Which is why the Raptors were approaching the always difficult closeout game with what Danny Green, the veteran shooting guard and 2014 NBA champion, described as “appropriate fear.”
“It’s not scared. But respectfully fearing them,” Green said Sunday. “Not many times have we seen a team come back from down 3-1. But we’ve seen it happen recently. And we know how good that (Cleveland) team was (in 2016). This (Warriors) team — totally different animal. We know how good this team is. And knowing they’ve done it before in the past (coming back from 3-1 down to beat Oklahoma City in the 2016 Western Conference final), knowing what they’re capable of, you shouldn’t be excited, happy or celebrating at any point, knowing that they could come back and win.”
If Toronto coach Nick Nurse was looking for a stat to respectfully frighten his team into playing with a certain mercilessness, he could do worse than this. The Warriors have won three or more consecutive playoff games on 12 separate occasions over their five straight runs to the NBA Finals. In other words: Yes, the Warriors are on the limp. Yes, the Warriors are probably fooling themselves if they believe Kevin Durant, four weeks and five days since he last played in an NBA game after suffering a secrecy-shrouded lower leg injury, is going to arrive as the hero and lift them out of this hole (although that didn’t stop Warriors coach Steve Kerr from hinting that Durant might make his series debut on Monday).
But the Warriors are also a team that has shown a historic aptitude for getting hot.
“We have confidence we can salvage this thing,” Andrew Bogut, Golden State’s veteran centre, said Sunday. “It starts (Monday) night. And then hopefully making them fly back to the Bay, getting them thinking about things a little more, putting more pressure on them.”
The Warriors know a thing or two about the difficulty of putting a championship on ice. While they’ve won three of the past four titles, they’ve also been guilty of luxuriating in a 3-1 series cushion at the expense of a fourth. This was in 2016, of course, when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers became the first team in Finals history to rise from the 3-1 flames and raise the trophy. In that instance, the Warriors didn’t exactly show much of a knack for taking the micro view and seeing every game as a vital get.
“We weren’t good at (taking it one game at a time) in ’16,” Bogut said. “We were on the other side of the coin, and probably looking ahead to the celebration a little bit too much than we were the next game. We know what that’s like. We know the Raptors haven’t been there before. Most of their guys haven’t played in the Finals series. So hopefully that adds a bit of pressure on them.”
The idea the pressure might overwhelm the Raptors — it’s possible. The problem for the Warriors is that, when you take a long look at Toronto’s NBA team, it doesn’t seem probable. The Raptors, for one, are led by the expressionless Leonard who, the last time he steered the fortunes of a team with a 3-1 lead in the Finals, closed out LeBron James and the Miami Heat in five games. The Raptors, for another, have shown zero inclination for anticipating a celebration. If someone’s planning a parade and chilling champagne, it’s nobody residing in the locker room’s inner circle. That evenness, Green said, “comes with experience.”
“It comes with IQ. It comes with knowing that we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Green said. “It comes with appropriate fear of knowing what that (Warriors) team is capable of … It’s closing the series. It’s the hardest thing to do. Especially in an NBA Finals against the defending champs. It’s the hardest thing. Luckily we have our fans behind us. We’re in our building. That’ll help us some. But it’s going to be tough.”
Tough is how it ought to be. Tough is what this Toronto team has shown itself to be. You don’t have to be delusional to believe the Raptors are in the process of dismantling an NBA empire. But the Raptors know they’d be silly to assume the last of the gilded bricks will come down easily.
“Kawhi certainly sets that tone, but so does Kyle (Lowry), so does Marc (Gasol), so does Danny — those four guys,” Nurse said Sunday. “And then I think the younger guys take the cue from them … I think they know there’s work to be done. I just think they just know there’s not a whole lot of energy to spend on celebrating before time. Let’s hope we understand that. We’re going to see (Monday) night. We have handled it so far, and let’s see if we can handle it again.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk