NBA Finals 2019

Mystery misery for Warriors

Not knowing the Raptors well enough earlier could lead to champs Golden State's downfall

TORONTO • The Golden State Warriors openly admitted it when these National Basketball Association Finals began. The two-time defending champions said they did not know the Toronto Raptors as intimately as they would have liked at the start of a series this big.

"Not very familiar with this team" were the words Klay Thompson used after their Game 1 defeat.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said as much even before both teams tipped off, noting that the Warriors "hardly know" the Raptors.

They know now.

The Warriors are all too aware, four games into these Finals and staring at an early exit, that Kawhi Leonard is better than ever.

It is clear that the rest of the Raptors, under a sharp rookie coach in Nick Nurse, have taken on their star's unflappability - and were all ready for this moment with that withering defence they play.

Suddenly facing a 3-1 deficit, Golden State will not be overly concerned by the smothering "We the North" passion that surely awaits in Toronto for tonight's Game 5 at Scotiabank Arena.

  • 97% 

  • Teams in the NBA Finals with a 3-1 series lead who have gone on to clinch the championship. The only team to have lost from this position are, incidentally, Golden State, who collapsed against Cleveland in 2016.

But that is a distraction.

The Warriors are facing a team who believe they are their equal.

That is the real issue.

That and the Warriors' health woes, which remain significant.

"I give them the credit," Kerr said on Friday night, after Leonard's near-flawless Game 4 (36 points, 12 rebounds and zero turnovers in 40 minutes) led Toronto to a second straight win at the Oracle Arena.

"They have just played really well offensively, and they've got a lot of threats out there, a lot of shooters, a lot of passers."

Kerr could easily point to the injury absence of Kevin Durant as the true culprit, along with the fact that so many of his regulars - Thompson, Andre Iguodala, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney to name four - were playing hurt in what history tells us was a must-win game.

One suspects that a clutch of pundits will do that for him and slap an asterisk on the end of this series if the Raptors can clinch the first title in franchise history today (tomorrow morning Singapore time).

Do not expect the Warriors to do that, though, if their dreams of a three-peat and a fourth title in five years are indeed crushed.

They are banged up, undeniably demoralised and still thoroughly unsure if Durant can come back and try to save this group - but they are also genuinely impressed by what Toronto has done to them.

In Game 3, it was Danny Green who shook loose for six three-pointers after making only four in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In Game 4, it was Serge Ibaka rumbling for 20 points in support of Leonard - after he had totalled just 18 points in the first three games.

Green and Marc Gasol, who were brought in via trades, combined with the gems Toronto have unearthed - Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet - have the Warriors dazed.

Leonard keeps trusting them when the Warriors' coverage force him to and they keep delivering.

It is easy for Golden State, synonymous for years with the post-half-time surge, to look at the Raptors and wonder how they managed to pilfer so much of the Warriors' playbook in such a short time.

For Leonard especially, these past few days had to be sweet redemption - or as much sweetness that the Raptors' famously reserved franchise player will ever allow himself to savour.

Of course, Leonard being Leonard, he betrayed almost zero satisfaction.

Asked what it will mean to Toronto if the Raptors can clinch the title - a first on Canadian soil - he offered a vintage response: "I'm really not sure."

He is bound to find out soon enough. Of the 34 teams in Finals history to take a 3-1 series lead, 33 have gone on to win it all. The Warriors are the lone exception, thanks to their collapse against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2019, with the headline 'Mystery misery for Warriors'. Print Edition | Subscribe