TORONTO -- The Toronto Raptor lead, which hovered uncomfortably between seven and 10 points throughout the second half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, was down to three early in the fourth quarter. It was at that moment when one could be forgiven if a teeny bit of doubt began to creep into the proceedings.
The Golden State Warriors were doing that thing they do when they erase 40 minutes of middling basketball in the blink of a run. It would have been devastating for Toronto to have come this far and blown a game they had to have. It’s been known to happen around here.
The thing about these Raptors, however, is that they are not much at all like those old Raptors.
They have Kawhi Leonard, obviously, and Kawhi changes the dynamic simply by taking the court. They also have Pascal Siakam and if you were unfamiliar with the league’s breakout star before the Finals began, you got a crash course in his whirling, spinning game with a brilliant 32-point night on 14-for-17 shooting.
The Raptors also have a defense that’s been exceptional throughout the year, but especially during the postseason. That combination of star power and lockdown team defense has elevated the Raps from the ranks of wannabe contenders to legitimate championship threat. They’ve been in tougher spots than this of late and they had a readymade response for the latest Warrior surge.
There was Siakam controlling the boards, running the floor, and flipping in shots from all angles with his go-go Gadget arms flailing all the while.
There was gutty little Fred VanVleet taking the ball to the hole with the confidence of a man who knows no fear. There was Serge Ibaka appearing from the opposite side of the court for a devastating block.
There was all that in addition to a crowd that arrived in a frenzy and maintained that energy throughout all the runs and interminable timeouts. Soon, the lead was back up to double digits and Game 1 of the Finals was securely in the Raptors’ win column. The 118-109 victory served notice that this will be no cakewalk coronation for the Warriors.
Do you believe yet?
Over the last few months, the basketball cognoscenti has tried to prepare the greater population for this possibility. The Raptors are good, we kept saying. Really, really good. And they’ve been getting better with each and every postseason test that comes through their way. They survived the Sixers, and blew the doors off the Bucks after getting down two games to none. Resiliency has become their new mantra, and a resilient team at this stage of the season is a dangerous proposition.
That should have been enough warning, but hey, these are the Warriors they’re playing. With or without Kevin Durant, Golden State is still the two-time defending champs. No matter how many impressive moments the Raptors enjoyed over the past few weeks, the Finals are just different. At least, they’re supposed to be different.
“No, my brain doesn’t function that way,” Toronto center Marc Gasol said. “You’re out there you’re playing basketball like you did your whole life and it’s the most fun. You lock in, not allow when they make a couple shots, tough shots or mistakes that you make defensively, kind of rattle you a little bit and frustrate you. You got to stay poised during the whole game. So your brain can’t go anywhere else but every possession.”
Gasol was a huge part of this win. The Warriors kept daring him to shoot from the outside — Warriors coach Steve Kerr even called Gasol’s looks “dare shots” — and Gasol kept knocking them down. Golden State’s strategy was to take away Leonard and make everyone else try and beat them. Everyone else pretty much did.
Gasol had 20 points on just 10 shots, VanVleet had 15 on eight attempts, and Danny Green finally broke out of his mini shooting slump. Even Kawhi, who shot only 5-for-14, managed to score 23 in addition to all the other things he does. All in all, it was a nearly perfect performance from the Raptors, and that’s before taking into account Siakam’s brilliant outing.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say some things this year,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “And they keep saying, ‘Are you surprised?’ And he keeps saying, ‘No, this is what I’ve always envisioned for myself.’ So I think that’s a powerful statement he makes as well. He believes in himself and he went to work at it.”
So, it’s been this way all year for Siakam and the Raptors. They know who they are and what they’re about, and that too is a dangerous combination. The Warriors still sounded like a team that needs a little more convincing.
“Well, I think that the biggest thing coming in is we really didn’t feel like we knew this team very well,” Kerr said. “So it’s going to be really good for us to have a game on tape where we can really pick it apart and see what we can do better.”
“Now that we got a feel for them, we got a tape to watch,” Draymond Green added in synchronicity with his coach. “We know what we can do better. I like where we’re at, especially like I said the way the game went tonight, we always had a chance and we didn’t play very well at all. So you know, we leave this game feeling as good as you possibly can feel knowing that, yeah, we lost but I think we figured some things out, and we’ll be better next game.”
The Warriors have earned the right to enjoy that bit of perspective. That’s the champion’s prerogative. They know they need to tighten up their transition defense, which was ragged, to put it kindly. They know they need to take better care of the ball and they know that even though their defense is loaded up to take away Leonard they can’t leave guys wide open behind the arc.
After all they’ve been through, the Warriors sounded almost energized by the mandate to take a game on the road and bring this series back to Oakland all square. It’s a weird new world for them to even start the Finals on the road, let alone facing a must-win this early in the series. At this stage of their historic run, you take your motivation where you can find it.
But regardless of what happens in Game 2, the Raptors proved their point yet again in the opener. This is no fluke, and they are very much for real. The Finals are going to be good and you might as well believe in the team from up north. They’ve earned that trust.