There’s a chance, and maybe a good one, that this is all just playing out the string. That the Warriors’ winning Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals on Monday, while thrilling and shocking and an emotional car wreck, might ultimately not matter all that much.
Whatever you think about the circumstances surrounding his return and his subsequent injury, and whatever we don’t know about what contributed to both, it’s safe to say that Kevin Durant won’t suit up again this series. Kevon Looney might, but he could barely lift his right arm on Monday night and had to leave the game midway through the third quarter after reaggravating the fracture that seemed set to knock him out of the Finals back in Game 2. Golden State is down to four guys whom Steve Kerr can really rely on for major minutes, and one of them, Andre Iguodala, is 13-for-36 from the field and 5-for-20 from 3-point range in the Finals. The Warriors are running out of players and running on fumes; Toronto, on the other hand, has a full complement of dudes.
“Everybody’s good,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before Game 5. “Full of energy, ready to go.”
Everything seems ready to go, at this point. The NBA championship is just sitting there, waiting for the Raptors to win it. But they’re going to have to ... you know ... actually win it.
The Raptors can’t just wait for the Warriors to cough up the title they’ve held for the past two seasons. They can’t rely on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson getting tired, or struggling to get open, or missing contested shots. They can’t count on beating Draymond Green to the punch on the game’s defining defensive possession.
Toronto can’t brick 3 after open 3 created by good ball movement ahead of Golden State’s rotations—just 8-for-32 from distance for the Eastern champs, with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Danny Green combining to make just one of their 14 triple tries. The Raptors can’t let DeMarcus Cousins, who was nearly unplayable for most of this series, boss them around in the paint (14 points on 6-for-8 shooting and six rebounds in 19 1/2 minutes) as if to warrant staying on the court through his obvious defensive struggles. Even if they win the turnover battle, coughing it up 13 times to Golden State’s 16, they can’t gift the Warriors the kind of live-ball miscues that turn into 20 points headed the other way.
They can’t expect a team with as much collective experience, success, determination, and pride as Golden State to just implode; they have to be the ones detonating the charges. And given the chance, in Game 5—given a ton of chances, really—Toronto couldn’t push the button.
“We had a chance to win a championship tonight, and we didn’t do it,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “We didn’t play well enough.”
VanVleet, who’s been a two-way difference-maker in this series, scored nine of his 11 points in the third quarter to keep Toronto within striking distance. But he couldn’t quite keep up with Curry on a play that led to a 3-pointer that tied the game at 103 with 1:22 to go—part of a 9-2 run that kept the Warriors alive to play one more game at Oracle Arena on Thursday.
That run began with just over three minutes remaining in regulation. After a fits-and-starts first three quarters, Kawhi Leonard had begun to get hot, scoring 10 points in less than two minutes to give Toronto a 103-97 lead with 3:28 to go. On the Warriors’ next trip, Curry missed a 3, giving the Raptors the chance to push the lead to eight or nine heading into the final three minutes. Instead, Nurse elected to call a timeout. Two, in fact.
“We just came across and just decided to give those guys a rest. … We could use the extra energy push,” Nurse said.
Toronto would score just one basket the rest of the way—a driving layup by Lowry with 29.9 seconds to go. In the intervening two and a half minutes, Thompson sandwiched Curry’s 3 with two of his own, the second putting Golden State back on top for good.
“We have been down big before,” Thompson told reporters after the game. “We have been down fourth quarters, late in games. Coach Kerr drew up a couple great sets, and me and Steph just got clean looks. You don’t want to give us too many of those, because they will go in most of the time.”
The Raptors didn’t lose because of Nurse’s timeout; as Leonard said after the game, “If we would have won the game, we wouldn’t be talking about it.” But Toronto’s breather gave Golden State a chance to collect itself, too, and what followed was the kind of closing kick that evokes high-minded talk of poise, pedigree, and championship mettle.
“It’s not really surprising—this is who they are,” Kerr said after the game.
The Raptors’ finish, on the other hand, won’t inspire many hosannas. A brutal Lowry pass to no one led to a backcourt violation with 1:34 to go, setting the stage for Steph’s game-tying 3. Toronto’s defense, the best in the playoffs and one of the best this Warriors team has seen in its dynastic run, managed to lose the two best shooters on the planet three times in the guts of the game. And on the final possession, with a chance to win it, the Raptors could only manage this:
Kawhi has it 1v1 against Klay to end the game. Great communication on the weakside here. Iguodala times his double perfectly. Great closeout by Livingston. Gasol was doing everything he could to keep Draymond but Draymond was able to close to Lowry. Great defense. pic.twitter.com/fLIkzIGnfi— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 11, 2019
“Kawhi had it, and they doubled him, and he moved it to Fred, and moved it to Kyle, and we just didn’t quite have enough space there,” Nurse said after the game. “I thought it looked like it was going to be a really good shot, an open corner 3, but I didn’t see who got out there and got a piece of it.”
(It was Draymond. It’s always Draymond.)
The Warriors deserve a ton of credit for snuffing out the Raptors’ options and forcing a tough contested look late in the clock. But Toronto had it—the lead, the ball, the chance—and blinked.
Lowry insists he and his teammates didn’t start thinking they had it all sewn up, that they “stayed in the moment” and the Warriors just “did what they were supposed to do.” But closing out at home with three minutes to go—with the best player on the court and the healthier team—is what the Raptors were supposed to do. They didn’t, and now things can get uncomfortable.
“Our goal was to get them back on the plane, get them back to Oakland,” Thompson said. “We owe our fans one more game in Oracle.”
The Raptors were clearly pretty comfortable at Oracle last week, but closing out a title there might be a slightly different challenge. Lose Game 6, and you’ve now dropped consecutive games, squandered your margin for error, and put yourself in a winner-take-all Game 7 where anything can happen. All series, the Raptors have been maniacally focused on the minute details—playing the next possession, and the next one, and the one after that—and it brought them to the precipice of the greatest moment in franchise history. Their failure to stick to that script in Game 5, though, kept that moment just out of reach; it introduced doubt and created the opportunity for a champion to fight out of its corner.
“I think that our team has reacted all year long great to bad losses, and I would say it takes a lot to beat this team,” Nurse said. “That took a hell of a lot of blows and a heck of a lot of balls bouncing the wrong way in the last couple minutes for us to come out on the wrong side of it tonight.”
The Raptors can’t control the way the ball bounces. There’s a lot of stuff they can control, though, and with the chance to eliminate any possibility of a Game 6, they instead left the door open. All it will take now is a couple of more bad breaks to turn ecstasy into anxiety.