The Raptors Had a Title in Their Grasp. Now They Must Regroup.
They were this close. The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty was a moment away from being extinguished. Kyle Lowry even said after the game that the ball “felt great out of my hand.” But as the ball began its arc — and everyone standing inside the Scotiabank Arena trained their eyes on the round object headed for the rim wondering if the N.B.A. was about to be changed for good — the launch looked a bit off.
Draymond Green got a fingertip — just one, mind you — on Lowry’s left baseline jumper at the last second on Monday night, altering the shot just enough to deny the Toronto Raptors their first championship. In a game of inches, to use the old cliché, Lowry was one inch off, allowing the Warriors somehow to live to fight another day.
But it’s never really just one play, as guard Danny Green said in the locker room after the game: “It shouldn’t come down to the last clip. Obviously, disappointing.”
With five minutes left in the game, the Raptors had the Warriors on the ropes, thanks once again to Kawhi Leonard, who struggled most of the game. He pulled up for 3 to give the Raptors the lead, 96-95. Stephen Curry tried to answer with his own step-back 3 on the other end. He missed. Leonard, smelling blood, scored again, this time near the rim. One 3-pointer and another pull-up midrange shot later by Leonard, and Toronto was up 103-97 with 3:28 left. (Lowry had a productive game, in spite of the missed jumper. He scored 18 points on 8-16 shooting and dished out six assists.)
Some critics would point to Raptors coach Nick Nurse calling not one, but two timeouts 23 seconds later. The Raptors had the ball coming off a Warriors miss, a screaming Scotiabank Arena crowd behind them, and a championship within their grasp. Nurse said he used the timeouts because he was going to lose them and that he felt his players could use the extra minutes of rest. (In recent years, the league has moved to limit the amount of timeouts coaches can use at the end of basketball games.) Leonard missed a shot — and the Warriors mounted a furious comeback, potentially helped by the extended break.
Asked about the timeouts, Leonard said, “If we would have won the game, we wouldn’t be talking about it.”
The Warriors, after an emotional contest in which Kevin Durant left the game in the first half because of an Achilles’ injury, looked gassed. (Multiple Warriors players criticized the fans inside the arena for appearing to cheer Durant’s injury in the moments after it occurred. DeMarcus Cousins called them “trash.” Curry said he was “very confused” by the reaction.)
Golden State lost Kevon Looney too, after he reaggravated an injury from earlier in the series that had initially ruled him out for the series. The Warriors looked like a team with nothing left. Instead, they played like a team with nothing to lose, riding a trio of 3-pointers from the Splash Brothers (Curry and Klay Thompson) in the final minutes to eke out an improbable 106-105 win, sending the series back to Oracle Arena.
Nurse said it took “a heck of a lot of balls bouncing the wrong way in the last couple minutes for us to come out on the wrong side of it tonight.”
Of course, just this postseason, Nurse watched from the sidelines when the Raptors got one of the bounces to go their way: At the end of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Leonard took a baseline jumper on the opposite side of the court that Lowry did at the same stage of the game. In that instance, the ball bounced four times and fell into the rim. Sometimes, the basketball gods are friendlier than others.
Now, Toronto must regroup for Game 6, but so far, that hasn’t been an issue for this team. The Raptors have already won twice at Oracle this series. They have shown a remarkable ability to stay poised after setbacks. This playoff run alone: The Raptors lost their first game in the opening round against the Orlando Magic at home, only not to lose another the entire series. They almost lost Game 7 against Philadelphia at home in the second round, followed by losing the first two contests on the road against the higher-seeded Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals. Toronto, again, won four straight.
Each time Toronto has been challenged, it has overcome.
“It’s not going to be easy, stay confident,” Leonard said, on what he told teammates following the loss. “We know we can win and that’s it.”
Toronto is relatively healthy, while Golden State must rely on less-talented players to make up for the holes left by the absence of Durant and potentially Looney again. Leonard had an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance in Game 5: 9-24 from the field, while the Raptors only shot 25 percent from 3 as a team. Both of those statlines are likely to revert to a more positive mean in the next contest.
But this creates a special kind of pressure on the Raptors. Golden State is not the kind of team the Raptors want to leave the door open for, which is what Toronto did in Game 5. The Warriors, after all, came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals. Even with the loss of Durant and Looney, they have two of the better shooters in league history, in addition to another bona fide All-Star in Green.
Toronto has two more chances. If for some reason the Raptors end up losing the series, that Lowry jumper might be replayed on loop. After all: They were right there.
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