Game 4 was a reality check.
The Warriors were down 3-1 after that Friday night loss. It didn’t feel like that was possible. Sure, once it was announced that Kevin Durant was going to miss Game 4 and not play, the narrative for Toronto was that they couldn’t lose. We had to prepare ourselves that the Warriors, whether it be in Game 5,6, or 7 were not going to win the series. There was just no way they could survive four games without Durant.
Eventually, the Warriors lost. They made it through 4.5 games without Durant, giving it their all in Game 5 after he went down with a devastating achilles injury that turned the series on its head. And in Game 6, it was another devastating injury that helped Toronto survive, as Klay Thompson sustained a torn ACL after putting up 30 points in almost three quarters.
Toronto went out and made smart trades, got their No. 1 guy and played an efficient, modern brand of basketball with its own tinge of old-school that made Golden State combust. It worked. Here’s a breakdown of why.
In a small-ball league, Toronto went and played big, and made it efficient
This would not have been a series for Jonas Valancuinas or Jakob Poeltl.
Despite what the Raptors did with their big men in this series, the two former Raptors would have never survived in this series. Golden State would have destroyed Valancuinas and Poeltl in the pick-and-roll, or stretched them out to the perimeter defensively and made them unplayable that way. Plus, neither of them do stuff like this.
Give me ALL of that.
This is where the Raptors got creative. They had two dudes on the court at all times that Golden State could do nothing with. Marc Gasol? Who’s there to defend him posting up, or stopping this?
Notice how these Gasol plays are all quick and efficient. If you’re going to play big guys, the production they give you has to be of this kind.
What about Pascal Siakam? The dude had 32 points in Game 1 on 17 shots. He made 14 of them. He did it with plays like this.
But he also shot threes, posted up, and hung around the rim for put-backs. His length and athleticism was too much for a Golden State team that was without KD (a perfect matchup) and had Kevon Looney (Someone who could at least minimize Siakam’s impact) battling through a painful injury.
And then put one of those two with Serge Ibaka, who turned into a shot-blocking machine in Game 5 and destroyed the Warriors on three straight possessions in Game 6 by simply hanging around the rim looking for second chance points and lobs? Draymond Green couldn’t do it by himself on the defensive end. The Warriors were just overmatched by the Raptors’ smarts and size.
Fred VanVleet did not miss
Though it felt like he shot 70%, Fred VanVleet shot 37.9% from three against the Warriors, and 44.9% from the field.
The reason it felt like 70% was because the shots mattered. When Toronto needed a big shot, VanVleet was there. The options were legitimately Kawhi Leonard and him. That’s the level VanVleet ascended to this postseason. It’s one of the most improbable hot streaks I can remember. It’s a like a pitcher in baseball or a whole team in football. They heat up and never cool down, and it leads to a championship most of the time.
That wasn’t the only way VanVleet made his impact known though.
Toronto beat up Stephen Curry when it mattered
Curry’s 49 point game in Game 3 was undeniably incredible. With literally every solid offensive option out but him, and the defensive issues we examined above fully on display, Curry knew he had to take things into his own hands in the grandest way possible and he did. It just wasn’t enough, and against this Toronto team, that was understandable.
And in other games, Toronto did just enough. Curry wasn’t enough to make up for the loss for Durant and Thompson. Despite putting up 30.5 points, six assists, 5.2 rebounds, the Raptors held Curry to 41.4% shooting and 34.3% shooting from three. They did it by beating him up. Whether it was VanVleet or Lowry smothering him at the top of the key, or fantastic rim protection, the Raptors kept the Warriors’ engine in check.
If there has been any defense against Curry the past five years, it’s been this kind. Get physical and break him down.
The workload Curry had, in Game 3 and in Game 6, was just unbearable, and though Curry missed the shot at end of the game Thursday, it was justified. It was one shot and had a 34.3% chance to go down.
Injuries are commonly labeled as excuses for teams winning or losing the title. But injuries play a key part in every series. The Warriors know this; Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were both out for the 2015 NBA Finals, leaving LeBron James on an island by himself for six (!!!) games. If Irving and Love play, that series goes at least seven, or the Cavaliers likely end up winning it in a more compact series. But we don’t count that in the history books, or put an asterisk next to it. The Warriors won the Finals that year. That is what happened. Yes, they had injury luck, but they won the Finals.
The Raptors won the Finals this year, and they got injury luck as well. Had Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson been healthy, this is a Warriors in five or six series. Had Durant alone been healthy the whole time, it’s probably the same. If Durant comes back in Game 5 and doesn’t blow out his achilles, we’re probably playing Game 7 Sunday night. The same goes for Klay Thompson last night; if his ACL isn’t torn coming down from that layup, and his shot-making continues, then we probably have a Game 7 Sunday night. The Raptors caught a break in this series. The Warriors did in 2015 as well. What happens, happens.
There is a difference though with this loss for Golden State. It’s not making an excuse, it’s more just a general observation about what these injuries mean. In 2015, we had a pretty good idea of what the Cavaliers were going to be the next season. This time around, that’s not the case at all. It feels like the way this season ended for Golden State is a sign of things to come. This same team absolutely won’t be back next season no matter who leaves in free agency or not; Klay Thompson won’t be ready till the playoffs, and Kevin Durant not until the 2020-2021 season. He may be on a different team by then (Though I think the achilles tear makes him more likely to stay). No matter what, this time around the injuries leave a greater impact than just a Finals loss. It could be the end of one of the greatest runs in basketball history. Even if the Warriors do get everyone from the past three years back for the 2020-21 season, it would create this funky, one year gap in the middle. It’d almost feel like a lockout year or something. It will be a strange feeling. Then again, the only team close to putting up a run like this Golden State team has had double the amount of time in between.