TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors are still a game away from a maiden NBA title, but the mood surrounding Game 5 will be markedly different from the one that fills the air in Oakland on Thursday night.
For a quarter or so, the basketball world was finally getting a taste of what this series should have been about all along: Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant. Two behemoths of the game who have stolen the spotlight of the postseason and offseason simultaneously, showing that even in a league of pace and space, time can stop on a dime and defenses can be bent to the forces of their will.
Toronto proved over the course of the first four games that it is clearly the better team in the absence of the Warriors’ best player, winning 13 of the 16 quarters played and possessing a plus-6.5 net rating. What would it look like with him?
In the 12 minutes Durant spent on the court, the Warriors were whole once again and the historically safe 3-1 series lead looked anything but. The seven-foot do-it-all star racked up 11 points, including a perfect 3-for-3 from the outside, and reminded the world of who he is. Having two colossal giants on opposing ends of the court seemed to have brought back the soul this series needed, but as Durant went down and looked on in anguish, one of the strangest stretches of Finals basketball played out under a cloud of “what if?”
For the Raptors, there is simply no time for that. People will speak of asterisks and just how much the Warriors looked like themselves with an obviously less than 100 percent Durant on the court, but none of that will matter when the series has its victor.
“Would people put an asterisk next to the Houston Rockets when they won the championship because Michael Jordan didn’t play that season because he retired? No,” said Michael Wilbon, co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. “That’s too dumb a notion to entertain, intellectually, it’s just too dumb a notion. Because there’s injuries all the time in any season, which sometimes teams overcome, sometimes they don’t.
“I don’t even engage in that conversation, it’s too lame and not understanding of sports.”
Over the course of history, Wilt Chamberlain missed a Finals where Bill Russell added one of his 11 rings. There’s the memory of Isiah Thomas’s ankle game for the Detroit Pistons against the Los Angeles Lakers where he scored 25 third-quarter points to inspire his team to a 3-2 series lead, but it goes down as a title for the Lakers after they rallied to win in seven.
Even more recently, Kendrick Perkins missed a Game 7 of the 2010 Finals for the Boston Celtics but all that matters is that Kobe Bryant and the Lakers found a way to get the job done.
Entering this 2019 edition, the Warriors were looked at as the team that won three of the past four titles. Not two of four because Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were injured during the 2015 Finals; not three out of four but the one they lost shouldn’t count because Draymond Green missed Game 5 of the 2016 Finals. No, it’s three out of four and a dynastic run of five straight Finals appearances, plain and simple, point blank.
Context matters, sure, but never before have injuries taken away from what the victor has had to endure to be the last team standing. Leonard has played games this postseason on virtually one leg. Kyle Lowry has had a thumb injury for the majority of these playoffs that will require surgery in the offseason. Fred VanVleet has been bruised, bloodied and chipped a tooth.
The Raptors have a job to do. It is most unfortunate that Durant is lost for this series, and maybe even as long as a year, and that may take center stage regardless of how the series plays out from here. But as the past has shown, titles are earned, not given.
“They went through the hardest grind of any team this postseason run,” Michael Lee, a senior writer for The Athletic’s NBA team, said about Toronto. “I think that their opponents sort of groomed them for this moment of trying to win a championship ... the West was not what it was in the past, it’s not the behemoth, the East, I think, the top four or five teams were on par or better collectively than the top four or five teams in the West and no one’s really given them credit.”
The Milwaukee Bucks won 60 games and boasted the league’s likely MVP while the Philadelphia 76ers boasted the best starting five in the league after the acquisition of Tobias Harris. The Raptors dismissed the Orlando Magic with four straight wins despite that team boasting one of the top defences in the second half of the season and an all-star in Nikola Vucevic.
They are battle tested and hardened because of it, which is why they went into a building where the Warriors have been 53-8 in the playoffs over the course of their five straight Finals appearances and took both games. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse felt they needed only of them, but Leonard was the one to say, in Nurse’s words, “[Expletive] that, let’s get both.”
The narratives and talking heads will find a way to keep the spicy headlines rolling, but now is the time for the Raptors to exude the calm and poise they did when they walked away from Game 4. There’s a task still at hand, and that’s winning the final game of the playoffs.
“They have a group that reminds me a lot of the 2011 Mavs, kind of a group that just came together all at the right time,” Tim Bontemps of ESPN said. “At the end of the day, whoever gets to 16 [wins] earns the title and if the Raptors get one more, they’ll have 16.”
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