OAKLAND, Calif. — When the Toronto Raptors emerged from the visitors locker room at halftime of Game 4 of the NBA Finals trailing the Golden State Warriors by only four points — despite being badly outplayed in the opening 24 minutes — they knew they had a chance.
Kawhi Leonard then made sure they took full advantage of it.
A stunning display to open the third quarter — Leonard opened the scoring with a 3-pointer over Draymond Green, then stole the ball from Green, dribbled it up and made a second 3-pointer over his outstretched arm — erased that deficit in a span of 16 seconds, and it gave Toronto its first lead of the game.
By the time the quarter was over, Leonard had scored 17 of his 36 points in the quarter alone, blowing the game open almost single-handedly as the Raptors claimed a 105-92 victory over the Warriors.
Toronto now has a commanding 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series, and it can claim its first championship with a win back at Scotiabank Arena in Game 5 on Monday night.
“Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big F-you shots to start the half,” Raptors teammate Fred VanVleet said. “There’s no defense for that. There’s no schemes for that.
“Two big-boy shots we came out of the half with, two back-to-back 3s … that just kinda let you know how we were gonna approach the third quarter and the rest of the half.”
Time and again during these playoffs, Leonard has delivered for Toronto. His efforts in Game 4 in the Eastern Conference semifinals in Philadelphia allowed the Raptors to survive that game, before his incredible series-ending buzzer-beater in Game 7 allowed them to advance. Switching onto Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals swung that series in Toronto’s direction, as the Raptors swept the final four games to advance to their first NBA Finals.
But his performance Friday night — those 36 points on 11-for-22 shooting, including 5-for-9 from 3-point range, to go with 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, a block and no turnovers in 40 minutes — might have been his very best yet.
Part of that is because of the magnitude of the moment, as the Raptors found themselves staring at a chance to put a stranglehold on this series. And part of it is because of the degree of difficulty with which Leonard was presented. The Warriors, desperate to prevent this from being the final game at Oracle Arena, came out playing suffocating defense in the first quarter, and they quickly jumped out to a 23-12 lead.
But while his teammates combined to go 1-for-13 in the opening 12 minutes, scoring a total of three points, Leonard went 5-for-8 and scored 14 by himself, allowing the Raptors to end the quarter, somehow, trailing only 23-17.
“I mean, at the same time, I knew I had faith that it was going to turn around for us,” Leonard said. “We were missing a lot of wide-open shots.”
That faith was well-placed, as Leonard missed all four shots he took in the second quarter, but the rest of the Raptors went 9-for-17 to allow Toronto to go into the break trailing by only those four points, setting the table for his third-quarter explosion that put the game away.
Leonard finished the third quarter with those 17 points, powering the Raptors to a 37-21 advantage in the quarter that allowed Toronto to take a 79-67 lead into the fourth quarter. It was a performance that had the feel of a heavyweight boxer hitting an opponent in the body with one power shot after another, as Leonard went 5-for-8 from the field and another 5-for-5 from the foul line to slowly but surely pound the Warriors into submission.
It was especially jarring because the third quarter is typically when the Warriors take off.
This time, Toronto beat Golden State at its own game.
“Kawhi’s two big 3s to start the half really, I thought, changed the whole feel of everybody,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “I just thought everybody was like, ‘OK, man, we know we are here. Let’s go.’
“We just kind of kept going from [there].”
At times in the fourth quarter, the Warriors made mini-runs to begin to cut the deficit. But at every turn, the Raptors did what they have done so many other times during these playoffs: respond to a big play by an opponent with one of their own.
By the time it was over, so many guys had stepped up. Serge Ibaka had 20 points off the bench, going 9-for-12 from the field. Pascal Siakam recovered from an ugly first half by scoring 13 points in the second and finishing with 19 in the game. VanVleet continued to play strong defense on Stephen Curry, who scored 27 points but shot 9-for-22 overall and 2-for-9 from 3-point range. The Raptors’ guard had to leave the game in the fourth quarter after taking an inadvertent elbow to the head from Shaun Livingston that required seven stitches. Toronto committed only 11 turnovers and forced Golden State into 19.
Nothing, though, could match what Leonard did. And, thanks to his latest sublime showing, and yet another piece of evidence in an ever-growing number of them declaring that he has become, in fact, the best player in the world, Toronto has moved to within one win of a championship few could see coming.
Don’t think, though, that the Raptors are going to start celebrating just yet.
“We didn’t do nothing yet,” Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. “We haven’t done anything. We won three games.
“It’s the first to four. We understand that. They’re the defending champs, and they’re not going to go out easy. They’re going to come and fight and prepare to play the next game, and that’s how we’re preparing ourselves.
“We got to prepare ourselves to play the next game. We haven’t done anything yet.”