Even until now, two days after the Toronto Raptors took a commanding 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, it still feels surreal. I mean, read that sentence again.
The Toronto Raptors have a commanding 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
That seems like a sentence lifted from a bizzaro NBA Wattpad fanfic. It was strange to even fathom the Raptors, who have been the butt of plenty playoff jokes (throwback to this Pulitzer-worthy tweet), playing in the NBA Finals, let alone being in control. Even without Kevin Durant, seeing these Warriors on the cusp of elimination this early in the series is equally unreal. But somehow, a dizzying array of factors and events have resulted in this stunning reality: the Toronto Raptors are a win away from an NBA championship.
The narratives of each of their three victories have been distinct. In Game 1, the spotlight shone on Pascal Siakam, who buried the Warriors with a 32-8-5 performance on 14-17 shooting. After a Game 2 loss, the Raptors regrouped and weathered Steph Curry’s 47-point storm in Game 3 with a brilliant team effort (each Toronto starter scored at least 17 points against the Klay-less Dubs).
In Game 4, Kawhi Leonard, the man who willed Toronto to the Finals with averages of 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in the first three rounds, finally painted his magnum opus of the 2019 NBA Finals. His line of 36 points and 12 boards on 50% shooting (including 5-9 from three and 9-9 from the stripe) was incredible, but the manner by which Leonard trounced the Warriors elevated his performance to transcendent status.
The Raptors entered the third quarter of Game 4 down by four points, 42-46, with their suffocating defense keeping the score at bay despite a terrible first-half showing. Under normal circumstances, being down by that small of a margin doesn’t portend that much danger –– there’s still plenty of basketball to be played, after all. But against the Golden State Warriors, especially at the Oracle? You can pencil in a double-digit deficit, a demoralized Raptors squad, and shattered hopes and dreams of every Toronto fan watching after the conclusion of those 12 minutes.
Golden State’s menacing third-quarter runs have been a staple of their success for the past five years. The Raptors had every reason to fear this not only of its legendary status, but also because they themselves experienced first-hand the terror of these third-quarter runs just two games earlier, after the Warriors exploded out of the (Golden) gates with an 18-0 run in Game 2. The never-ending barrage of jumpers and backdoor cuts ignited by their smothering defense sucked the life out of Toronto, resulting in a Warriors lead that was never relinquished.
On Friday night, Kawhi Leonard didn’t let the Raptors succumb to the same circumstance. Instead, he beat the Warriors at their own game.
Leonard opened the third with back-to-back triples –– both over the outstretched arms of Draymond Green, no less –– in a span of 15 seconds. It was a statement sequence; Leonard let Golden State know that they were in for a load of trouble from the get-go.
“Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big F-you shots to start the half,” Fred VanVleet told ESPN. “There’s no defense for that. There’s no schemes for that.”
Kawhi capped the quarter old-school. The Board Man drained a trio of crowd-silencing mid-range jumpers –– the last of which gave Toronto a comfortable lead entering the fourth. By the end of the quarter, Toronto outscored Golden State 37-21, with Leonard nearly out-scoring the Warriors by himself with 17 at the third period alone. If that third-quarter explosion by Leonard and the Raptors –– the same type of run that has characterized Golden State’s dominance for the past half the decade –– indeed ends Golden State’s dynasty, that is the definition of irony.
Leonard’s performance in Game 4 will probably go down as one of the greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history, up there with the likes of Dwyane Wade’s 43-point showing in 2006 or Michael Jordan’s Flu (or hangover…?) Game in 1995. This all, of course, hinges on the Raptors actually winning the championship. No one will remember his masterful Game 4 destruction of the Warriors if the Raptors, well, pull a Warriors and blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
The individual brilliance of Kawhi Leonard and the suffocating Raptors defense are showing no signs of slowing down (it also helps that KD remains questionable for the series). This isn’t the same Toronto Raptors that choked or fumbled their way out of the playoffs for five straight years. These are the new-age Raptors, lead by their militant superstar who is showing that he is not only capable of slaying one dynasty, but maybe two.
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