OAKLAND, Calif. — When the Golden State Warriors laid a crushing 18-0 run on the Toronto Raptors in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, their leader Stephen Curry declared it was one of those moments when “our DNA shows up.”
It’s a daunting thing, that championship DNA. If you’re not careful, you can suffocate under the weight of the possibility of that dominance. Many playoff opponents have fallen victim to a franchise loaded with stars who, when they are rolling, are seemingly invincible.
Yet one thing was abundantly clear at Oracle Arena on Wednesday night: Toronto had no intention of wilting under the pressure of the championship pedigree of their undermanned opponents. When the Warriors charged, the Raptors fended off their run with clutch shooting. And, during stretches when the Raptors faltered offensively, they righted themselves with defensive stops.
In fact, in the wake of their 123-109 Game 3 victory in one of the most intimidating buildings in the NBA, the Raptors may well be in the process of crafting some promising genetic coding of their own.
“That’s true,” says Serge Ibaka, who blocked 6 shots in the game and knocked down a monster wing jumper with 10 minutes to play. “We are working on our own DNA, and it’s defense. There are some nights when you’ll make all your shots, but it won’t happen every night. One thing for sure that we can do is defend.”
No one had to explain to the Raptors what was at stake here. Kevon Looney is out for the remainder of the series. Klay Thompson was a very late scratch with a balky hamstring. Kevin Durant missed his eighth consecutive game with a strained calf. For Toronto, there was no option but to win. Lose the game, and it would be a death knell for a team who is on this grand stage for the first time and must take advantage.
They had to grab this one and take a 2-1 series lead, especially with Durant lurking in the shadows, plotting his return. So, in preparation, someone wrote a simple message on Toronto’s white board just before tipoff: Let it Rip.
“That was the plan,” confirmed veteran Kyle Lowry, who hit some of the biggest shots of his career down the stretch of this game. “Stay cool. Stay calm. Don’t let them affect what we do.”
What the Raptors did in the opening minutes was attack starting center DeMarcus Cousins in the paint, repeatedly feeding Marc Gasol in the post as if he was a reincarnation of Shaquille O’Neal. Gasol took as many shots (7) in the opening quarter Wednesday night as he did in all of Game 2. The Raptors also looked to unleash the lively Pascal Siakam in and around the key where he is most effective. By the 2-minute mark of the first quarter, the visitor’s lead was 10, while Thompson was chained to the bench, his warm-ups zipped tight. He slumped forward, his angst palatable.
“I never would have forgiven myself if I played him tonight and he had gotten hurt,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr afterwards.
“Everybody wants us to lose,” added Draymond Green, “so I’m sure people are happy (our guys) are hurt.”
It was expected that Steph Curry, the last supernova standing, would be ask to shoulder an inordinate load on his slender frame, but he was more than up to the task.
By the end of the third quarter, Curry had popped in 40 points on 13 of 26 shooting. The only problem was the rest of the Warriors collectively shot 38 percent (16-42).
And, yet, there was Curry finishing a nifty feed from Andrew Bogut early in the third quarter to cut his team’s deficit to seven (66-59). Golden State was surging, in the midst of a 7-0 spurt, but Toronto’s transcendent star Kawhi Leonard, who submitted 30 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, quieted the hopeful crowd with a killer transition 3-pointer. The Warriors cut it to seven again on an Andre Iguodala corner trey, but there was Lowry, lining up a long ball of his own to push it back to 10.
“Those moments were so important,” explains Fred Van Vleet who chipped in with 11 key points and dogged defense on Curry. “We’re still creating our identity as a team, and every time we withstand their runs, we become a little tougher, a little stronger.”
If they were a different collection of players, the Warriors might be tempted to dwell a tad on the danger before them. What if Thompson can’t go in Game 4? What if Durant remains sidelined? Do they have enough firepower without them to overpower a young and improving opponent that has exhibited its own brand of stubborn resilience?
Curry expressed confidence his team would recover from this, but offered a note of caution, saying, “We can’t fall into the trap of thinking offense alone we can win us another championship.”
Green heaped blame upon himself for not assisting Curry more with the offensive load and vowed to take better care of the ball. As he left his locker room, heading for home, he was asked if he was even a little nervous.
“Nervous? C’mon,” Green answered. “This is what we do. It’s what we’ve always done.”
The Raptors are not naïve. They know high-level, MVP caliber reinforcements could well be on tap for Game 4. But they feel confident they are building something here. Kill the beast? Not yet, not hardly, but the Warriors are vulnerable and Toronto is intent on exploiting their weaknesses.
“You’re seeing our team build toughness, resiliency,” Siakam said. “None of us were drafted super high. We built our careers from the ground up. That’s who we are.”
They are also a team that finished with all five starters in double figures. More importantly, they left the building with the belief they have the defensive temerity to thwart a line-up, when healthy, that is positively terrifying.
“That’s true,” Siakam said. “But honestly, we’re really not afraid of anybody.”