My driver in Oakland last week told me about a billboard. A lot of people in town—sorry, The Town—were talking about it. This was before Game 3. It had a picture of Kawhi Leonard and a message stamped on it: “The King of the North is Coming.” The driver snickered. She was a Warriors fan and thought it was cute that the North was bothering to make the trip at all. She’s probably not so amused anymore.
The North came. The North conquered. The North went up 3-1 in the NBA Finals, and then stuck around on Friday evening to party after what might have been the Golden State Warriors’ final home game at Oracle Arena.
A roaring rendition of "Oh Canada" in Oracle after Game 4 ⬆️ pic.twitter.com/cE9khILWRg— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 8, 2019
What a wild scene. A lot of Warriors fans—A. Lot. Of. Warriors. Fans—left Game 4 early. It was a total Toronto takeover from the crowd to the court. But while Raptors fans that made the trip to Oakland sang and celebrated, the actual Raptors hardly showed any emotion at all.
That is the kind of reaction you’d expect after winning regular-season game no. 47 in Orlando, not Game 4 of the NBA Finals in Oakland. The Raptors are terrifying. If the Warriors weren’t scared of them before, they should be well and fully frightened now.
Not many people outside Canada probably thought this was possible—and maybe not that many people in Canada, either. The Raptors are the 35th team in NBA history to take a 3-1 lead in the Finals. Only one team has been in that position and lost: the 2016 Warriors. The odds are very much in Toronto’s favor now and very much not in Golden State’s.
There are a lot of reasons for that. Kawhi Leonard—who had his 14th 30-point performance of the playoffs in Game 4, joining Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James as the only players to clear that benchmark, per NBA.com/Stats—has been astonishing us all postseason. His supporting cast of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, and Danny Green has taken turns helping him out in various games. Meanwhile, Steph Curry’s best Finals performance came in a Game 3 loss at home. The Warriors haven’t been able to find the extra juice they need, and their big guys—especially Boogie Cousins—have been pretty consistently outplayed by Toronto’s bigs. Kevin Durant still hasn’t put on his uniform and taken to the court, though he was finally cleared to practice on Sunday. A lot of things have gone right for the Raptors, while not much has for the Warriors. And now here we are, one win away from the first NBA parade north of the wall.
Game 4 was obviously pivotal. If the Raptors had lost and the series was tied going back to Toronto, Nick Nurse’s guys would probably start sweating. The Warriors are the defending champs, after all, and their muscle memory has gotten them out of a lot of dodgy situations during this run of five consecutive championship appearances. That the Raptors pulled out that victory, on the road, in what might have been Oracle Arena’s farewell, was an incredible accomplishment. Toronto applied maximum pressure and the Warriors buckled. It was a massive moment for the Raptors, and like so many others that came before it this postseason, they carpe’d the hell out of that diem.
Before Game 4, Nurse said all games in the Finals are “critical,” but Friday’s proceedings seemed especially so. One more win. That’s all the Raptors need now. Nurse joked about that and said “you can’t win four until you win three, I think, if my math is good there.” His math was good there—but I still can’t believe how it’s adding up. I kept counting the Raptors out throughout the playoffs—and throughout the playoffs they responded with inspired play. Early in the series, Golden State insisted the Warriors only worry about the Warriors. I bought into that narrative as much as they did. It was obviously foolish to write off these Finals as some sort of existential internal struggle for the Warriors when the Raptors have been the better team and the better story all along. At some point, we really should believe our lying eyes. The Raptors and Warriors have played six times this season. Toronto has won five of those six. The teams have played 16 quarters during this series. The Raptors have won 13 of those 16. If not for that 18-0 third-quarter run in Game 2, the Warriors might already be on summer vacation. This isn’t an accident or a fluke. This is real. This is happening.
We should have known. I should have known. The Raptors have been trying to tell us all postseason.
Not many people saw this coming. Before the season began, FiveThirtyEight’s model gave the Raptors a 12 percent shot to win the NBA title. Midway through the season in January, those chances were only slightly better at 15 percent. When the Finals began, Vegas oddsmakers had the Warriors as the heavy favorite. Not anymore. FiveThirtyEight gives Golden State just an 11 percent shot to recover from the wounds the Raptors have inflicted and win the series. On Friday night, Steph Curry called it “not a good feeling right now.” Draymond Green went further: “This sucks … Yeah, it sucks. A lot.”
If it’s any consolation, the Warriors aren’t the only ones to experience that uneasy, shell-shocked sensation this postseason. The Raptors did the same thing to the three teams they faced before Golden State. Just as Kawhi has been inarguably the best player in the playoffs, the Raptors have been the best team—even when they started slowly or stumbled along the way. Someone asked Nurse about that in Oakland last week and wanted to know whether the head coach could pinpoint the moment when the Raptors “flipped the switch” against the Warriors. Nurse rejected the premise. He said he didn’t think there was any flipping in the Finals. If anything, Nurse said, Toronto “flipped a switch about Game 2 against Orlando.”
That first game in the first round was one of the worst for the Raptors all postseason—or all season, full stop, no prefix needed. They were dreadful. D.J. Augustin scored 25 points against Toronto in Game 1—which was exactly as many as Kawhi had that evening and 25 more than Kyle Lowry mustered. Magic fans gloated. That’s the same Orlando organization that sadly trumpeted Shelvin Mack only a year before.
It felt like Toronto was doomed to suffer another postseason indignity and get bounced out of the playoffs earlier than it wanted. Again. Except this time it would have been way worse considering LeBron James wasn’t doing the bouncing. Not to mention that Masai Ujiri gambled big when he traded for Leonard and later upgraded the roster with Marc Gasol. Crapping out against the Magic in the first round would have been a truly bad beat. Instead, the Raptors stomped Orlando and won the next four games by an average of nearly 19 points while Leonard got cooking (he averaged 27.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, three assists, and 1.2 steals against the Magic on 56.6 percent shooting from the floor and 50 percent from 3).
That wasn’t the first time I doubted the Raptors’ resolve. Or the last. When the Sixers went up 2-1 in the second round, it felt like Philly—which kept boasting about having the best starting five east of Oakland—was marching toward the conference finals. Then Leonard went supernova in Game 4 to even the proceedings (he played 43 minutes and scored 39 points on just 20 shots). And then we all know what happened in Game 7.
I was in Toronto for all four of those bounces. It feels like the ball is still up there tap dancing on the rim. Given what we know now about this Raptors run, of course that shot fell for Leonard. It had to. There was no other possible outcome.
But Milwaukee. Milwaukee was when I was absolutely certain everything would come apart for Toronto. It was a nice postseason for the Raptors but it couldn’t be a great one. I was sure of it—especially after the Bucks beat them in the first two games. After that it was so clear who the better team was that I texted some of my NBA reporter pals about all the beers we would drink in Milwaukee and all the cheese curds that would clog our arteries. Instead, it was off to Toronto for Molson and poutine after the Raptors rattled off four wins in a row—including an incredible double-overtime Game 3 performance in which Leonard and Siakam combined to play 103 minutes and score more than half of the team’s 118 points.
There have been so many impressive, feel-good moments for the Raptors this postseason—including and especially that first NBA Finals game in Canada, which I watched with a few hundred new friends who are probably still partying. This run seems even more unbelievable when you consider that Toronto’s main group hadn’t played much together. Entering the playoffs, the starting lineup of Lowry, Siakam, Leonard, Gasol, and Green logged just 161 regular-season minutes in 14 games, according to NBA.com/Stats. That is not a lot to go on. The Raptors have solved the postseason puzzle on the fly. Nurse said after his guys lost the first two games in Milwaukee that they weren’t “upset or bothered or worried.” To their mind, they thought they won “six of the eight quarters” but “didn’t have anything to show for it.” They figured if they fixed a few things and made some adjustments and just kept at it, they’d course correct when everyone else expected them to veer off the postseason path. That’s been a theme for them throughout the playoffs. Now, with what is unquestionably the biggest game in franchise history on Monday evening in Toronto, the Raptors have exactly what they and Nurse wanted: something to show for all that effort.
Back in Oakland, long after Game 4 ended and the final note of “O Canada” had been sung in a wonderful, impromptu karaoke session, I saw Kyle Lowry pause on his way out of Oracle Arena to take a selfie with a young fan who had stayed behind. The boy was maybe 10 or 12, and he seemed overjoyed that Lowry stopped. He wasn’t one of the merry members of traveling Toronto fans, though. The kid was wearing a Warriors jersey. He leaned into the picture with Lowry and smiled wide. It was a hell of a snapshot on a remarkable season, and the kid should be forgiven by his fellow Warriors loyalists for momentarily breaking ranks. The boy isn’t alone, after all. The Raptors have captured all of our attention.