OAKLAND — The Toronto Raptors officially have no more surprises left.
After a first half in which the Toronto offence was eight shades of awful, clanking wide-open jumpers taken by anyone wearing a jersey number higher than two, and set up to deliver a clunker of a playoff game for the first time in weeks, the Raptors simply put on a championship performance in the third quarter of Game 4 at Oracle Arena on Friday night, running the Golden State Warriors out of the gym by a score of 37-21 in the frame to turn a four-point halftime deficit into a 12-point lead.
It was the most incredible 12-minute playoff stretch in the history of the franchise, outdoing the many times in this long post-season run that the Raptors have laid claim to that honour. They out-Warriored the Warriors, a team that has built a dynasty out of just those kinds of terrorizing bursts.
It wasn’t just the opponent, the two-time defending champions who are playing in their fifth straight Finals. It wasn’t just the setting, a game in Oracle Arena where the Warriors have been all but invincible over their five-year playoff run that includes three titles. It was that the Raptors were already six feet under and beneath a large pile of freshly shoveled dirt.
They had shot an appalling 34 per cent in the first half on the way to just 42 points, a good total for the NCAA Tournament but much less so an NBA Finals. The brutal shooting included a smooth 2-for-17 from three-point range, for 12 per cent. If rounding up, that is. Sometimes it just isn’t your night, the shots don’t fall, and any other basketball cliché you might care to name.
The Raptors could have packed it up, preserved their strength, and headed back to Toronto tied 2-2 in a series that the basketball world generally figured they had little chance to win.
Nope. They decided to fight. This has become the defining characteristic of this Raptors team. They fight and they battle and they do not go gently.
Kawhi Leonard drilled two three-pointers to open the second half, and Golden State’s lead at the break was almost instantly erased. From there, the Raptors swarmed all over the Warriors, with Leonard leading the way with 17 points in the third quarter on the way to 36 for the game. Serge Ibaka scored seven big points in the quarter, including a monster three-pointer that came after he blocked a shot in the paint on the other end. (He finished with 20 on the night.)
I think they just took it to us at the start of the third
Golden State coach Steve Kerr
At this point, Raptors fans could be forgiven for wondering if they were on some kind of weird peyote-induced hallucination.
Toronto held on to win 105-92 to take a 3-1 series lead heading home, where they will have the first of three chances to win their first NBA championship on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The balance of power could yet shift in this series if Kevin Durant returns for Golden State from a long injury layoff, and if Fred VanVleet misses significant time after a scary elbow to the face in the fourth quarter, but the reality of a 3-1 lead is this: the Raptors are the 35th team in NBA history to take such a lead in the NBA Finals. The previous 34 went 33-1 in those series, with only the Warriors, in 2016, losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Before the game, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said that over the course of these playoffs, “most of the time I’m pretty happy with our effort.” He said that was the key for them through three-plus rounds. “I think of the games that we come and play really hard, you come out of the game and you say, ‘man, the Raptors played hard tonight,’ then that’s always a great starting point. When we do that, our defense is usually pretty good. And then I always think that jump starts our offence as well.”
Everything was correct about that statement on Friday night, except for the last sentence. Lost somewhat amid the horrid Toronto shooting in the first half was that they limited the damage on the other end, holding the Warriors to 46 points and turning them over 10 times. That stern defence allowed the Raptors to escape the fist half down just four points, and then in the third quarter they took the game over.
“I think they just took it to us at the start of the third,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. He said the two Leonard three-pointers seemed to give the Raptors a burst of energy that they were able to carry through the rest of the half.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse said the same thing. “I know Kawhi’s two big threes to start the half really, I thought, changed the whole feel of everybody. I just thought everybody was like, ‘OK, man, we know we are here, let’s go,’ and we just kind of kept going from those two threes.”
The Warriors got Klay Thompson back from injury, and he was excellent, leading Golden State with 28 points. His backcourt mate, Stephen Curry, fell off his torrid 47-point pace from Game 3 to score 27 on Friday night, but on an inefficient 22 shots. The Warriors also saw centre Kevon Looney return from injury, but along with DeMarcus Cousins he is clearly not operating at full health.
Still, this is a Warriors team, with Curry, Thompson and Green, that had been 32-1 even without Durant over the past couple of seasons. They are now 1-3 without him in these Finals. Toronto has won 13 of 16 quarters in the series.
And so, back to Toronto. Nurse said he knows his team has tried not to think about where any series has stood throughout the playoffs, and they will do that again on Monday.
“We know how hard we have to play and just focus in on trying to be the hardest-working team on the floor,” Nurse said.
Not too far away from where he was speaking in a press room in Oracle Arena, hundreds of Toronto fans were celebrating in the bowl with “Let’s Go Raptors” chants.
It was a surreal scene. But the Raptors came to northern California and beat the dynastic Warriors on their court, twice. Surreal is starting to become normal, for this team.