OAKLAND, Calif. — What once began as a fantasy, then progressed as hope and then grew to a reasonable wish has now evolved and crystalized once again. And this time, everyone south of Saskatoon can begin to see it and maybe even buy in.
The Toronto Raptors have the scent of a champion.
This may come as a surprise to the nostrils of anyone who saw them crumble in past postseasons or figured their chances of getting out of the East this season were dicey … but Toronto just took a pair of NBA Finals games at Oracle Arena — and maybe closed it down in the process. The Raptors are headed home with one game to win and history on their side.
Thirty-four times in The Finals have teams taken 3-1 leads, and they sipped champagne all but once. (Let’s not discuss that lone team to lose; the Warriors are suffering enough.)
This latest Raptors victory was impressively convincing, especially considering the circumstances. They stared at a desperate home team, one that welcomed back Klay Thompson after a one-game injury absence … a two-time defending champion known for rising to the occasion … and the Raptors dusted them anyway.
You understand exactly what the Raptors did Friday and how it was done? They emerged from the halftime locker room with fire and outclassed a team known for championship pedigree and owning third quarters in the postseason. Kawhi Leonard, who’s uplifting a team and a country, began the onslaught with a pair of 3-point jumpers. The Toronto defense, relentless most of the night and throughout the series as well, squeezed the Warriors and especially Steph Curry.
Time after time, Serge Ibaka delivered a counter punch with a key jumper off the pick and roll or a defensive stop. Ibaka had 20 points in 21 minutes in what was his first strong outing from jump to buzzer. Fred VanVleet, felled by a stray Shaun Livingston elbow to the chops in the third quarter, was left bloodied and missing a tooth in a scene that embodied Toronto’s grit.
The Raptors simply wore down the more experienced Warriors and Golden State never came up with an answer. Toronto stole the atmosphere — a smattering of red-garbed Raptors fans suddenly cheered louder and stomped harder and stayed buzzed long after the buzzer — and sent the Warriors off the court with heads bowed and egos deflated.
Oh, something else: Nick Nurse, the first-year Toronto coach, kept pressing the right buttons with his various defensive schemes and substitutions as Golden State failed to break 100 for the first time this postseason. And the Raptors seized control of the series, ensuring that Scotiabank Arena will be a mixture of tense and hysterical Monday for Game 5 (9 ET, ABC). And that’s just from Drake. The crowd will be hyped, too.
This is the moment that the basketball population in Toronto has long awaited, to get a sense something special is about to happen, or at least could. And this was made possible by a former Finals MVP who, this time last summer, was in exile with his reputation, at least in San Antonio, in tatters.
By November, in Toronto, none of that mattered.
“Once we saw him early in the year, your team’s vision of who they can become changes,” said Nurse.
Leonard is a victory away from another Finals MVP and trophy, and mostly a sense of redemption. His passion and championship drive was evident Friday in two stages, both influential to his team.
He set an example early by showing pep from the opening tip, carrying the Raptors with 14 of their 17 points over the first 12 minutes.
And then, coming out of halftime, Leonard went scorched Earth once again. He posted 17 points and five rebounds in the third, and this time the Raptors lent support. Toronto outscored the Warriors, 37-21, and spent the rest of the game keeping a sneaker pressed on the Warriors’ throat. Kawhi tore through the Warriors constantly, totaling 36 points and 12 rebounds. Yet it was his tone that influenced the game just as much, if not more.