OAKLAND, Calif. – Five things we learned from the Toronto Raptors’ 105-92 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals on Friday at Oracle Arena:
1. Dynasties eventually become ‘die-nastys’
Will we get one more game at Oracle Arena? The scene of so much Golden State wonderfulness the past five seasons? A building about to be abandoned when the Warriors move from Oakland to a state-of-the-art arena across the Bay?
Hold up. Asking one more game out of the Warriors seems a lot at the moment.
These guys just suffered their second consecutive home playoff loss by 10 points or more, something that hasn’t happened to this franchise in 50 years. After three straight games scoring precisely 109 points, the Warriors came up 15 short Friday. They are 0-9 overall this season when held to double digits, and 0-11 in the playoffs during the Steve Kerr era, when they score 94 or fewer.
And now they’re on the wrong side of a 3-1 deficit, lacking everything from certain healthy bodies to an edge, a sharpness that was missing in the second half.
Granted, Golden State once held a 3-1 edge in a Finals, all the way back in 2016 … when LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers chased them down and became the only Finals team to claw out of such a chasm. The Warriors did the same to Oklahoma City in the 2016 Western Conference finals. So they not only have a blueprint, they have the know-how and an opportunity to do it again.
Like Kerr before him on Friday’s postgame podium, Warriors forward Draymond Green spoke of simply trying to win one basketball game, the next game, as the proper way to dig out of this series hole. But then he dropped his guard and mentioned winning three in a row, something the Warriors have done often.
But they’re a whole year removed from doing that in a Finals (last year’s sweep of the Cavs) with a healthy Kevin Durant. This is a more worn-down, tired team.
In fact, Game 4 was more than Golden State’s 102nd game of 2018-19, regular and postseason combined. It was the 102nd playoff game of their five consecutive Finals runs, which means they have crammed an extra season-plus into their schedules compared to the underachievers on lottery teams sitting at home.
From the looks of it Friday, these guys are ready to be toppled, like the Lakers in 1989 and again in 2004, like the Heat in 2014 and the Cavaliers last June.
The boisterous Raptors fans who staged their takeover of the Warriors’ building after Game 4 were merely mirroring what their favorite team did on the court from halftime on. Golden State could not stop it. Rudy Tomjanovich might still be inclined to scream into the darkness. (“Never underestimate the heart of a champion!”) But pride only takes you so far, and that’s mostly what the Warriors have left.
2. Third quarter? That’s Toronto’s now
It took the Raptors more than 18 minutes to score 30 points Friday night, stymied by the pace of the game and particularly Golden State’s scrappy, hustling defense.
Immediately after halftime, it took Toronto only 12 minutes to put up 37.
The time of death for Golden State on Friday was immediately after Kawhi Leonard drained consecutive 3-pointers – “F-you” shots, teammate Fred VanVleet memorably coined them – that boosted Toronto from a four-point deficit to a 12-point advantage. The Warriors already had played well enough to rightly feel they should have had a bigger cushion; falling behind so rudely seemed to buckle the defending champs.
That they feel third quarters are their birthright made the switcheroo intolerable.
“We had a big problem with the third quarter in Game 2,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “We had to make some adjustment there to try to combat the way they come out of the half. We made the decision to put Fred in, [first] in Game 3 and then Game 4 again. Mostly it’s to try to keep up pace of our offense going. It gives us two point guards out there that can push the ball, get it in and get it going, and it kind of paid off.
“I know Kawhi’s two big 3s to start the half really changed the whole feel of everybody. Everybody was like, ‘Okay, man, we know we are here, let’s go,’ and we just kind of kept going from those two 3s.”
For the Warriors, who have done that to so many others, turnabout was a pain in the rump. “Oh, this sucks,” Draymond Green recalled thinking as Toronto took control of the quarter. “It sucks really bad. You just try and do whatever you can to change it. Get a stop, get a bucket, get some momentum. Every time we did, they answered.”
Green was asked about the difficulty of rattling the stone-faced Leonard with whatever defensive tactic Golden State could muster, and brushed the question aside. “I don’t think you’re ever going to rattle Kawhi. Not sure we used that word one time in our scouting report, ‘We’re going to rattle him,’” Green said.
But it’s not just Leonard now. It’s the Raptors. Time after time, whenever Golden State revved up with a couple of scoring possessions, signaling to their fans they ready to make a run, Toronto snuffed it with a 3-pointer or a well-executed pick and roll. They’ve got a team of Kawhis-in-training, unflappable lately if not as inscrutable.
“Most teams will take cues from their leaders or their star players, so I think that spreads around a little bit,” Nurse said. But he also praised vets such as Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Kyle Lowry and VanVleet for how steady they’ve been.
Now, with the temptation to imagine hoisting a championship trophy, the Raptors might be expected to buy into the stat that, of the 34 teams in The Finals who have led 3-1, 33 of them got their rings.
But this team is so focused, so resolute in taking care of business down to the smallest and most mundane task, that all Nurse might have to do is remind them how many aspiring champs won three games in a Finals and still headed into summer empty-handed. (It’s 19.)
No trophy, no rings.
3. A surge from Serge
The chemistry between Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry was evident in their playful banter on the podium Friday night. Each slipped into his role, Lowry as the instigator, Ibaka as the target of his playful jibes.
“You joining me?” Lowry asked, as Ibaka got to the podium a half minute after him. “Serge Ibaka, everybody. You all know him. Nice outfit. Worth a lot of money. Is that jacket real leather?”
“Yes, it’s real leather,” Ibaka said.
“Pants too tight, he can’t even sit down,” Lowry said.
On court, Ibaka’s defensive impact and 20 points in reserve dampened a lot of Warrior enthusiasm.
There are nights when Ibaka comes across like Chief in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a large, lumbering and rather stiff option near the rim with very little to say. Some nights, he even seems to be asleep.
But still waters often run deep, too deep for the Warriors in Game 4, it turned out. Ibaka’s here-today, gone-tomorrow shooting touch had him playing in a way that none of Golden State’s three centers – DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney or Andrew Bogut – could match.
“Once he gets into the series,” Nurse said, “which he did in Game 3 with the blocked shots and the rebounding and stuff, he seems to stay in the series. He usually gives you all of it.”
Said Lowry, about knowing when a Serge surge is coming: “He doesn’t say anything. When Serge is effective defensively is when he’s at his best. I think the scoring just comes. We’re going to make sure he gets that pick-and-pop jump shot, he’s rolling … When he brings that intensity and that fierceness, it’s kind of tough to stop him on both ends of the floor.”
4. Stephen Curry had a bad game
One of the most famous pieces of magazine journalism ever was entitled, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese, a profile written when Sinatra obviously was ill of body and temper, and didn’t even grant Talese an interview. So our headline kind of tells the story as his did: Curry, one of the top five players in the NBA and probably the greatest overall shooter of all time, was not his two-time MVP self. He wasn’t even the Game 3 version (47 points).
The Warriors point guard scored 20 fewer points in this one, and was 2-of-9 from 3-point range. He missed all five of his shots from the arc in the first half and he picked up some obvious frustration fouls. Curry played 43 of the 48 minutes, and Golden State was outscored by 11 points when he was on the court.
“It wasn’t his best game,” Kerr said.
Evaluating Curry, for the Warriors, was going to come down to breaking down video and keeping the faith. Evaluating him, for the rest of us, is getting complicated these days by a sense that Curry did not get his due in past Finals – at least in terms of winning the Bill Russell Award as Finals MVP.
But that’s no excuse to don rose-colored glasses every time he hits the floor. As scintillating as his performance was in defeat Wednesday as the Warriors’ only healthy threat, his Game 4 work was raggedy and unproductive.
“They have been aggressive all series and trying to take space away from me and Klay,” Curry said. “I missed some shots early that I usually make, especially from the 3-point line. But overall, I thought I got good looks.”
Every game doesn’t need to be a referendum on the level of Curry appreciation. He might have deserved more consideration as Finals MVP in 2015, when Andre Iguodala snagged it with a strong performance in the clinching game. And even though Kevin Durant was an easy choice in 2017, there were some who felt Curry was more essential (including this voter).
In some cosmic and just way, Curry probably should have been recognized with hardware somewhere among the three.
But all signs are pointing to Leonard now, so Curry might have to muddle along with “only” those two Maurice Podoloff trophies for regular-season MVP, along with his All-NBA berths and assorted accolades, his ginormous contract and bounty of commercial endorsements, three rings (unless this series turns around) and a better life than most people who’ve ever walked the planet.
5. Durant to play in Game … 8?
It’s possible that Durant will come walking through Rick Pitino’s proverbial door and seize what’s left of the championship series by the throat, playing like the two-time Finals MVP he is. Failing that, if there’s a Game 6, maybe that’s the night Durant at least does a Willis Reed impersonation, limping through the Oracle tunnel to a thunderous roar and hitting a couple of early shots to inspire his teammates to something special. (There still, alas, would be a pesky Game 7 for which to account, back in Toronto, likely muddying the drama.)
Then again, maybe Durant doesn’t come back at all. For The Finals or with the Warriors, period.
Speculation at this point is all over the map. Some think the Warriors planned to hold him out until things got really dire, to buy extra healing time and maybe not use him at all. Others now believe Durant’s rehab process of his strained right calf back-slid to some degree on Thursday, when he participated in a checkpoint workout with the training staff. A few folks think he never was going to return, regardless.
After all, the All-NBA forward hasn’t played since May 8, missing nine fairly important games. This is a league where injuries typically face an “If this were a playoff game, would he play?” threshold. Durant has been nearly as absent from this NBA postseason as LeBron James.
Look, all injuries are different, and even the same type of injury can have different timelines with different sufferers. Klay Thompson rushing back from his hamstring issue after skipping only Game 3 is at the crazy-resilient end of the durability scale. Kevon Looney basically rose from the ashes, giving the Warriors a rim runner and 10 points with six rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench. He had been ruled out for the rest of the series after suffering a rib cartilage fracture in his crash to the floor in Game 2.
After anticipation of Durant’s availability got out in front of his reality for a few days, the chatter is more tempered now. There’s a shrug and a whiff of uncertainty folded into every mention. If Durant had his Thursday workout, he would have played Friday. If he had a setback …
Heck, at this point it might be more pragmatic for the medical peeps to declare him out and let the Warriors who’ve come this far see this through, yea or nay.
“As far as KD, there’s been hope that he will come back the whole series,” Draymond Green said. “So that’s not going to change now. 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. And if he can, great. And if not, you still got to try to find a way to win the next game.”
The Warriors had been holding out hope for Durant’s return as if he was their ace in the hole, imagining him with zero rust or rhythm issues once back and no limitations on his gait.
But he has passed the “In case of emergency, break glass” point of urgent help possibilities. Now Durant resembles more the keg hanging from a Saint Bernard dog’s collar. It’s a nice idea, but when was the last time one of those dogs saved somebody who literally drank from the little barrel?
Toronto is in a foreign land, by NBA standards. But it ain’t the Alps.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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