“If you try to kill the King, you better not miss.” —Omar Little, The Wire —James Woods, Twitter
The Warriors do this cruel thing where they let opponents think they have a chance, only to snatch it away. Over the last three postseasons, they have trailed at halftime of 20 playoff games. Opponents feel good about this. They’re up at halftime against the all-time-great Warriors! How could you not feel incredible?
And then the Warriors happen. Golden State is the greatest third-quarter team in basketball history. It’s led the league in third-quarter net rating each of the last five regular seasons, outscoring opponents by 17.4 points per 100 possessions in third quarters in 2017-18. (Nobody else cracked double digits.) Klay Thompson’s famous 37-point quarter in 2015 was, of course, the third. Of the 20 playoff games in which they have trailed, the Warriors have come back to win 11, or 55 percent. You are not supposed to have a winning record in games you trail at halftime. In this year’s Western Conference finals against the Trail Blazers, the Warriors were behind at the half in three of four games, including by double-digit deficits twice, and still swept Portland. It’s formulaic: The opponent is a bit slow after the halftime break, and the Warriors, the greatest 3-point-shooting team of all time, blast their opponent off the court with their sheer firepower.
If you look at the play-by-play of Sunday night’s Game 2 of the NBA Finals, you might think the same thing happened. The Raptors led by 10 with a minute to go in the first half, and five at halftime. But the Warriors scored the first 18 points of the third quarter, part of a streak of 20 unanswered points. That streak was the longest in Finals history. They led by eight at the end of the third and won, 109-104, to even the series at 1 in Toronto. Same story as always: third-quarter Warriors brilliance.
But Sunday night was different. The Raptors weren’t wiped off the face of the earth by the Golden State asteroid. The Warriors shot OK during the 20-0 run (8-for-12, 2-for-4 from 3), but that’s not the team at its most extinction-level-event. This was a loss the Raptors could’ve done something about.
During the 20-0 run, the Raptors got an open 3-point look for Marc Gasol, who had been shooting 50 percent from 3 during Toronto’s five-game win streak. He bricked it. They got a wide-open look for Fred VanVleet, who’d shot 14-for-17 from downtown during a three-game stretch against the Bucks. He, too, missed it. Pascal Siakam took three shots within 5 feet of the hoop, just a few nights after he shot 14-for-17 from the field. He missed all three. And the Raptors had six turnovers in the seven-minute stretch. While a normal Golden State run features offensive brilliance overtaking regular basketball play, this one featured Golden State playing regularly while Toronto was too broken to routinely generate good looks and too nervous to make the ones it got.
It was a night of missed opportunities. The Warriors were without defending NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant, who remains injured with a strained calf, as they have been for weeks. They lost Kevon Looney in the second quarter and Klay Thompson in the fourth (to chest and hamstring injuries, respectively), meaning the team closed the game with just three of its six top players in terms of regular-season minutes. Andre Iguodala missed time in the first half with what appeared to be a head injury, Stephen Curry took a trip to the locker room with an undisclosed sickness, and DeMarcus Cousins showed lingering signs of the quad injury that caused him to miss the second and third rounds. There must be some sort of exchange rate on basketball teams, because the Warriors took only 74 percent of a basketball team to Canada.
And Toronto played hard. The Raptors clamped down on Golden State at the end of the game, employing a unique box-and-one defense to shut down Steph Curry (well, unique at the NBA level, if not the middle school one). It worked, as Curry attempted no shots and the Warriors went more than five minutes without a basket. Except Toronto couldn’t capitalize, going 2-for-12 from the floor with five missed 3s. A wide-open 3 from VanVleet in the corner—missed. A wide-open 3 from Siakam in the corner—missed. A wide-open 3 from Leonard when he faked out Quinn Cook in transition—missed. A wide-open 3 from VanVleet at the top of the key—missed.
But the Raptors held the Warriors scoreless for long enough that even with all the bricks, they cut the score to two in the game’s waning seconds, only to have this happen:
That play is the ultimate missed opportunity. The Raptors had chances to foul some subpar free throw shooters early in the play, but tried to force a turnover with heavy pressure. That’s a death risk against a ball handler as skilled as Curry, but the Raptors came at him with everything and nearly got him to cough up the ball. He almost lost it on the dribble and was forced into a frenzied, haphazard pass to Shaun Livingston. That pass was nearly swiped out of the sky came by famed sky-swiper Kawhi Leonard, but, by a few inches, it got through. And the Raptors soon realized that their all-out, near-successful effort had left a shooter open. Luckily, it was Andre Iguodala, a 33 percent 3-point shooter. But he swished it.
If only the Raptors had done the same. The Raptors had thirty-one 3-point attempts described by NBA.com/Stat’s tracking tools as “open” or “wide-open.” In the regular season, Toronto shot 40.9 percent on wide-open 3s, third best in the league. But Sunday night, they went 9-for-31 on open and wide-open shots, just 29 percent. If they shot up to their own standards, they would have won comfortably. But they just kept hurling rocks.
Hit those shots, or don’t allow 20 unanswered points, or don’t disappear offensively in the critical moments of the game, and the Raptors would be up 2-0 in the NBA Finals. The Raptors! This strange franchise that has spent the past half-decade coming close but falling short would actually be in charge. The Warriors haven’t been down 2-0 in a series since the start of their dynastic run. (They’ve won 12 of their 19 series either 4-0 or 4-1.) Instead, the Raptors are tied and have lost home-court advantage. They’ll need to win at least one game in Oakland, where the Warriors are 45-8 in the playoffs since 2015 (25-3 since Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, with two of those losses coming in a weird first-round series against the Clippers this year).
That’s what’s so frustrating. Things have gone well for Toronto. Twice, they’ve built double-digit leads against the Warriors. Golden State hasn’t played particularly well, and some of its critical players have been absent or hampered. And what do the Raptors have to show for it? They are now decided underdogs in a best-of-five series with more games in the U.S. than Canada.
The good news for Raptors fans is that even if everything goes to hell, this isn’t so bad. Even if the Warriors win in five and the Raptors never return to prominence again, this moment when Toronto made its first NBA Finals and took a game from these Warriors will be a proud memory. (Trust me, I’m a Knicks fan. We talk about the Finals-participant teams of the 1990s like they’re our children.)
The bad news for Raptors fans is that it’s entirely possible everything’s going to hell. The Warriors are heading home, where they will certainly play better than they have thus far. And while beaten-up Golden State has proved capable of destroying everybody in its path thus far, the glacial pace of these Finals will allow the team to heal. (This series seems like it’s being played with a ticking clock counting down to Durant’s return; the Raptors want to be up by a huge margin before it hits zero.) And there’s no promise that Kawhi Leonard will stay, and there’s no promise that anything good will happen to any franchise in the future. (Again, trust me. I’m a Knicks fan.)
The Raptors can win this series, but it will be harder than the first two games have been. They’ll have to win on the road against a healthier team, most likely with fewer good looks. That’s not impossible. Clearly, these Raptors are great enough to cause Golden State trouble. In two games, they’ve taken double-digit leads on the Warriors. But after Leonard’s bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce bucket game-winner to send Toronto to the conference finals, Raptors fans know this game is sometimes determined less by how good of a shot you have and more by whether it happens to go in. But Sunday night, the Raptors had the shots and missed them. They didn’t get blown off the court by Golden State like so many have before. For the second straight game, they looked in control against a banged-up version of this Warriors squad, but this time they couldn’t follow through. Maybe those scoreless minutes will just be a few minutes. Maybe they’ll last a lifetime, those bricks permanently clanging in Toronto’s ears.