The Toronto Raptors were up by 12 midway through the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday, and the vibe in Oracle Arena felt … weird. The public address system didn’t help. During a timeout, as the Golden State Warriors’ hype team fired T-shirts into the stands to try to rouse a flagging crowd, “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan blared from the speakers. An usher standing near me just shook his head. He chuckled.
“This ain’t how we do it,” he said.
In the first four seasons of the Steve Kerr era, the Warriors went 39-6 at home in the playoffs. Their trendsetting combination of bombs-away offense and suffocating defense generated the game-breaking runs that fueled the fervor of a raucous fan base, creating arguably the NBA’s best home-court advantage.
This postseason, though, they’ve had a much tougher time. The Warriors entered Friday just 6-3 in the Bay in the 2019 playoffs. Two of those losses came in the opening round against the Los Angeles Clippers, before Kevin Durant suffered the calf strain that has irrevocably altered these playoffs. The third came Wednesday, when Toronto outclassed a short-handed Golden State to take a 2-1 lead. The Raptors added a fourth on Friday, dusting the Dubs 105-92 and sending a nervous shiver through everyone who’s been waiting for the champs to show up.
On the possession right after the usher’s sad chuckle, the Raptors again swung the ball a step ahead of the Warriors’ shell-shocked defense, this time finding Danny Green for an uncontested 3-pointer in the right corner that put Toronto up 15. There was a very clearly audible roar from the stands. A loud “Let’s Go Raptors” chant followed close behind. Everybody could hear it, just like everybody could see what had become plain as day: The Raptors are just flat-out better than the Warriors right now, and by a considerable margin. Golden State may be just 48 minutes away from the end of its golden age.
Behind hot shooting from Klay Thompson, brilliant in his return from a strained left hamstring, and a great defensive effort aided by the comeback of Kevon Looney from a collarbone injury, the Warriors built an early lead and went into halftime up four. The edge felt tenuous, though. Toronto’s ball movement had led to some good looks in the half court, but the team had shot only 2-for-17 from the 3-point line through two quarters. You got the sense that whichever team got the long ball going first (Golden State was just 2-for-13 from deep at half) would seize control of the game.
Then the third quarter started.
”Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big eff-you shots to start the half,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “There’s no defense for that. There are no schemes for that.”
The Warriors responded to Leonard’s “eff-you shots” and held a slim lead with five minutes to go in the third. But the Raptors would grab the game by the scruff of its neck, closing the quarter on a 20-6 run ignited by Leonard’s excellence, Serge Ibaka’s energy, and a locked-in defense—including a brief reappearance from Nick Nurse’s old pal, the box-and-one—that frustrated the Warriors into bad shots and bad decisions. Asked after the game what he was thinking as the Raptors took over, Draymond Green, who’d been on the other end of such a tidal wave more than a few times, just smiled and said, “Oh, this sucks. It sucks really bad.”
“We played pretty well for 26 minutes, and then they took control of the game,” Steph Curry said. “It’s one of those nights where you play with a lot of energy, and you start to build momentum, and then the wheels fall off a little bit.” More than a little bit. The Warriors never got closer than eight the rest of the way, struggling to string together the stops they needed against a Raptors offense that played with poise deep into the shot clock.
The facts on the ground are difficult to argue at this point. The Raptors have outscored the Warriors by 7.9 points per 100 possessions through four games. They have won 13 out of the 16 quarters played in this series. Curry had the most remarkable individual performance of the Finals in Game 3, but Leonard has been the best player in the series; if Toronto finishes this off, he’ll likely become only the third player ever to win Finals MVP for two different franchises, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James. Toronto has been the deeper, stronger, more versatile, and straight-up better team, and now it has three chances to win one more game, with two of them slated to come north of the border.
The third straight Warriors title, the one that everyone considered a fait accompli before the season started, has never seemed further away. “You just try to win one game. That’s what we did a few years ago against OKC,” Kerr said about his team’s mind-set, evoking the other 3-1 comeback in the Warriors’ recent history. “Win one game, and then you move forward. So that’s our focus now. We’ll fly to Toronto tomorrow and take a look at the film, see what we can do better and try to win a game. We have won a lot of games over the years. So we’ll try to win another one.”
Draymond Green also referred to the 2016 Western Conference finals: “I’ve been on the wrong side of 3-1 before. So why not make our own history?” Curry, who finished with 27 points on 9-for-22 shooting, said the team is relishing the “opportunity for us to just flip this whole series on its head.” The more they spoke, though, the more it sounded like they were trying to convince themselves of something they weren’t quite sure was true.
Yes, Golden State came back from 3-1 down to beat Oklahoma City in 2016. But that edition of the Warriors had versions of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Andrew Bogut that were three years younger; a fully operational Harrison Barnes to play 30 minutes a night at small forward; and spark-plug reserves (Ian Clark, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights) capable of coming into a game cold and drilling a couple of shots to turn the tide. This one has more limited versions of the trio of veterans, trick-or-treat young guys, and an ailing and at times nearly unplayable DeMarcus Cousins.
Yes, the Cavaliers came back from 3-1 down to beat the Warriors one round after Golden State did it to OKC. But that team had LeBron at the peak of his powers. This time, the unstoppable freight train is on the other side, in cornrows. And the Warriors’ best hope of matching up with him still can’t get on the court.
“As far as KD, there’s been hope that he will come back the whole series, so that’s not going to change now,” Green said. “Obviously we hope to have him, but we’ll see what happens. We don’t make that final call. He don’t really even make that final call. His body will tell him if he can get out there or not.”
What these four games have laid bare, though, is just how difficult it is for the Warriors to beat this Raptors team without Durant in the fold. With Durant, Golden State has three of the best shooters in the world, and enough options to ensure that any lineup Kerr rolls out features multiple elite marksmen to demand defensive attention that will open the court up for teammates. Without Durant, the limitations of a roster light on shot creation and long-distance accuracy become glaring; non–Splash Brother Warriors are shooting 17-for-64 (26.6 percent) from 3-point land in the Finals.
Durant’s presence unlocks the Death Lineup, providing the length, wing depth, and versatility necessary for Golden State to roll with Draymond at center for extended stretches without compromising the integrity of the defense. His absence means heavier reliance on flawed wing alternatives—an aging Livingston, an ineffectual Jonas Jerebko—or more minutes with true bigs who range from hurt to bad and who are getting eaten alive by Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and Ibaka.
The Warriors can neither attack nor guard Toronto the way they want to without Durant, and the Raptors know it. They are locked in on every Golden State action. They have counters at the ready when the Warriors’ defense gets overzealous. They’ve got their quarry wired, its patterns down cold, and they’re pushing every pressure point they’ve found. They’re proving to themselves, possession by possession, that they’re the best team standing.
“More than anything, just once we saw [Leonard] early in the year, I think, again, your team’s vision of who they can become eventually changes,” Nurse said after the game. “I say that about Marc Gasol, too. When we got him, I think we started passing the ball, our assists started going way up, we became the no. 1 3-point-shooting team in the league because of the extra passes and the contagious passing, etc. And I think our team, again, their sense of who they thought they could become went up.”
While the vision of who the Raptors are snaps into focus, the Warriors seem to be watching the image of who they’ve been fade away. Steph and Klay are killing themselves to get open and rain fire, and the Raptors just keep dousing them. Draymond’s virtuoso ferocity can’t rattle a team this smart, experienced, measured, and confident. Cousins is too banged up to perform like the fifth member of an All-Star lineup. Durant’s not here, and if he does return, he’ll be entering the blast furnace of a must-win game after more than a month on the shelf.
“In our locker room, we’re talking about believing—everybody out there, believe that we can get this done,” Curry said. “Until the final buzzer sounds and somebody gets the four wins, we still have life and have an opportunity to win.”
Belief can carry a team a long way, but it only gets you so far when the other guys believe, too, and they’re better. Right now, the Warriors aren’t the juggernaut we’ve come to know. Right now, they’re a game of Jenga, and the Raptors, and the injuries, and the toll of five straight years of 100-game seasons all keep sliding out, piece after piece after piece.