To say the Golden State Warriors are not used to this would an understatement for the ages. 3-1 down on the game’s biggest stage, the NBA Finals.
The circumstances surrounding their current situation are, without a shadow of doubt, unfortunate, but it would be wrong to believe the Warriors themselves haven’t benefited from a series of unfortunate events in the past. Especially during the Finals.
They are banged up. They are demoralised, physically exhausted and still unsure as to whether or not Kevin Durant will return for this series, but they are also noticeably impressed with what Toronto has done to them and has continued to do to them across the first four games of this series. From Draymond Green, to Stephen Curry, Steve Kerr and Klay Thompson, these champions have been full of nothing but respect for their opponents.
“They’re good — they’re a great team and it’s the NBA Finals.” Thompson said after last night’s Game 4 loss. “They got a lot of, everyone knows their role. They got a lot of experience, guys who have been here before. And hopefully Game 5 we have bigger runs and they can’t close the gap. But it’s just basketball. You got to give them credit.”
All credit is rightfully given, as Toronto have quite literally flipped the script on the defending champions, using their own hallmark – strength in numbers – against them to define their own individual performances and quite possibly, the outcome of the series.
It was evident again last night, as the Raptors bench went-off, outscoring the Warriors bench 28-18. And then, well, there was Serge Ibaka.
“Seems like every game, it’s somebody else,” Draymond Green said. “You know, Danny Green in Game 3, then we completely take him out of the game tonight and Serge…” The sentence didn’t need finishing, the level of respect was evident. Serge had outscored the Warriors bench by himself, on his way to his best game of the Finals and one of his most memorable performances in recent memory; 20 points off the bench for the Raptors on 9-12 shooting, four rebounds, two blocks, and one assist in 22 minutes.
He is the first reserve to score 20 or more points and shoot at least 75 percent from the field in a Finals game since the Detroit Pistons’ Vinnie Johnson did against at the Portland Trail Blazers on June 12, 1990. His historic performance wasn’t anticipated, but it also wasn’t surprising either. Everyone who knows basketball knows Serge can play.
The 6′10 forward, played a critical role on a great Oklahoma City Thunder team for 7 years, visiting the Finals once. He has always had these types of performances in him. Game-changing performances, featuring blocks that send opponents shots back to the stone age. He is just one of many, talented, if not entirely consistent players dotted across this Raptors roster, from Jeremy ‘Linsanity’ Lin, who hasn’t seen any minutes this Finals, to Danny Green and Marc Gasol, who have already had standout performances, while also showing their inconsistency.
Inconsistency is that one thing that haunts the Raptors and it raised its ugly head again in Game 4. Kyle Lowry and Green looked to be on their respective paths to forgettable nights, as ice-cold shooting allowed the Warriors to get off to a strong start. But it didn’t last long, thanks to the Raptors’ strength in numbers – Board Man, Serge and Pascal Siakam.
— Dan Sewell (@sewelly28) June 8, 2019
Board Man, for those unaware, has rapidly become another name for Raptors star: Kawhi Leonard. Once again, he lit-up the Finals, finishing last night’s match-up with a career-high 36 points to go with 12 rebounds, four steals and two assists. He shot 11-22 from the field, 5-9 (55.6 percent) from behind the arc and was a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line. It was his 14th 30-point game of the postseason, where he now joins elite company in Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as the only players in history with at least that many 30 point games in a single postseason run.
“Kawhi imposed his will on the game and his team followed him. He gets the job done.” said Draymond Green.
Behind Kawhi’s transcendent night, the Raptors dominated the third quarter for the second straight game, outscoring the Warriors 37-21 in those pivotal 12 minutes. Leonard scored 17 of his 36 points during that period, including two dead-eye three-pointers.
His performance, combined with the off the bench impact of Ibaka, meant the duo went 20-34 from the field and time after time, provided the Raptors with an offensive answer for the Warriors’ many runs. Whether it was Leonard isolating at the top of the key and driving toward the basket – more often than not drawing a foul – or Serge hitting a key jumper off the pick and roll in the mid-range, the Warriors could do nothing to stop the bleeding.
Siakam too, who had dominated Game 1, wanted his fair share of the moment and ran wild in Game 4 as he ended the night with 19 points, 5 rebounds, one assist and one block. He also led all players in contested shots with 18, including six three-pointers. Behind these core performances and a series of individual moments from its supporting cast, Toronto’s strength in numbers stole the atmosphere and simply wore down the more experienced Warriors, who could never come up with an answer.
Even behind 28 points from Klay and 27 from Curry, the top-heavy Golden State team built around three of the greatest players of all-time (four if you include the ever-present Green), showed once again that it lacks the depth required to ensure a series of unfortunate events can be reasonably managed on the games biggest stage.
“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us at all,” Curry said. And with a potentially historic Game 5 set for Tuesday morning, injury and free agency are far from the only non-controllable forces for Golden State to contend with. The Toronto Raptors, who have rallied behind their strength in numbers this postseason, will undoubtedly want their say in how this chapter of the story ends.
Game 5 of the NBA Finals takes place Tuesday morning (2am). You can catch it live on Sky Sports and NBA League Pass.
Feature photo – Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington