War­riors will need mir­a­cle to claw back ver­sus Rap­tors

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY DAN WOIKE

Fred VanVleet, one of the sur­prise stars of the last two NBA play­off rounds, was on his back un­der­neath the bas­ket, dark blood pool­ing un­der his right eye be­fore it slid down his face to his ear. A tooth rested on the court near his mouth.

Af­ter the crowd hushed while doc­tors and Toronto Rap­tors team­mates raced to his side, a chant be­gan to build in­side Or­a­cle Arena.

“Let’s go, War­riors (clap, clap, clap-clap­clap)!”

This was the mo­ment, Golden State down a dozen points early in the fourth quar­ter, but cer­tainly not out. The New Or­leans Pel­i­cans have felt this – the Port­land Trail Blaz­ers and Ok­la­homa City Thun­der, the Utah Jazz and the Clip­pers, the Hous­ton Rock­ets and Mem­phis Griz­zlies too. The Cleveland Cava­liers damn sure have felt it.

The War­riors were about to go on a run. They saw their op­po­nent weak­ened, they saw their sea­son at stake, they saw a chance to even the se­ries, they saw a chance to get mo­men­tum. But this Toronto team isn’t the Pel­i­cans, the Trail Blaz­ers, the Jazz, the Thun­der, the Cava­liers or any of the teams Golden State’s beaten in the play­offs be­fore.

That mo­ment – that sig­na­ture War­riors run – never got out of the blocks Fri­day night.

If we weren’t sure be­fore, we know it now. The Rap­tors are dif­fer­ent.

Ev­ery push, ev­ery shove, ev­ery made shot, ev­ery key stop was met with equal or greater force, the Rap­tors put­ting to­gether a masterpiec­e sec­ond half in a 105-92 win for an over­whelm­ing 3-1 lead in the NBA Fi­nals.

“You just got to be pa­tient with it,” Kawhi Leonard said af­ter scor­ing a game-high 36 points with 12 re­bounds. “…It doesn’t mat­ter un­til you get that fourth win. We just have to stay con­fi­dent in our­selves, be pa­tient, don’t try to rush things, and see how it plays out.”

Leonard, who is dif­fer­ent from just about any other bas­ket­ball player on the planet, didn’t wait for any­thing in the third quar­ter and opened the sec­ond half by hit­ting con­sec­u­tive three-point­ers – “… You” shots, VanVleet would later call them – on Toronto’s first two pos­ses­sions.

The sec­ond gave Toronto an un­likely lead af­ter be­ing out­played for al­most the en­tire first half. The War­riors opened the game play­ing with more emp­tion, more ur­gency. And even though Golden State didn’t shoot the ball well from deep, the War­riors did enough in the first two quar­ters to lead by dou­ble fig­ures.

But turnovers and Leonard kept that from hap­pen­ing, al­low­ing the Rap­tors, not the War­riors, to make the big third-quar­ter push. The War­riors

fought, Klay Thomp­son’s man­gled ham­string and Kevon Looney’s car­ti­lage frac­ture not keep­ing them off the court. Thomp­son had a team-high 28 points on 11-for-18 shoot­ing.

But their im­pacts couldn’t off­set a slug­gish Stephen Curry, who scored 27 points but looked to be wear­ing the af­ter-ef­fects of his 43minute night in Game 4. And it def­i­nitely wasn’t enough to make up for Leonard, who didn’t stop af­ter his start to the third quar­ter.

With pres­sure mount­ing as the Rap­tors kept par­ry­ing punches, Golden State un­rav­eled. A Dray­mond Green tech­ni­cal foul – his first of the Fi­nals – sent Leonard to the line, spark­ing a 3-minute 17-sec­ond run in which Leonard scored 11 of Toronto’s 15 points to give the Rap­tors a dou­ble-digit lead.

“He played amaz­ing,” Curry said. “He hit ev­ery big shot, mo­men­tum shot that in that third quar­ter.”

Af­ter that push, the War­riors never got within eight points in what could be their fi­nal game at Or­a­cle Arena.

Five games into this se­ries, the Rap­tors’ calm and smarts – in ad­di­tion to the War­riors’ in­juries and Kevin Du­rant’s ab­sence – have been what’s made Toronto dif­fer­ent from all the other teams that have come for the War­riors’ crown.

Af­ter VanVleet got off the court, af­ter they cleaned up the blood, the Rap­tors went down the court, mo­men­tum feel­ing like it could tip at any mo­ment.

With the War­riors’ de­fen­sive pres­sure ramped up, the Rap­tors showed why they’re the right team at the right time to be NBA cham­pi­ons.

Kyle Lowry had the ball at the top of the key, Pas­cal Si­akam flash­ing open for a quick sec­ond. But in­stead of forc­ing the pass, he waited for Serge Ibaka to set a screen. With just five sec­onds left on the shot clock, Lowry beat a dou­ble team with a pass un­der­neath Green’s leg to Ibaka.

And Ibaka, who had been terrific all game, calmly scored with Curry left to help­lessly foul him af­ter he was a half-step late on the ro­ta­tion.

In­stead of “Let’s go, War­riors,” it was si­lence.

“We’re play­ing a re­ally good team that moves the ball. And I think we have had our mo­ments de­fen­sively, but we haven’t been able to string to­gether the stops over the course of a game that we have needed to,” War­riors coach Steve Kerr said. “So I give them the credit. They have just played re­ally well of­fen­sively, and they got a lot of threats out there, a lot of shoot­ers, a lot of passers.

“They’re play­ing well, and we have got to do bet­ter.”

But the War­riors might be reach­ing for a gear that’s not there right now, and maybe, not any­more.


Rap­tors for­ward Kawhi Leonard, cen­ter, was the heart of his team’s win on Fri­day night: “He played amaz­ing,” War­riors guard Stephen Curry said.

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