Three takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ impressive 105-92 road win against the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals to take a 3-1 series lead.
Help them, Kevin Durant, you’re their only hope
Draymond Green called Kevin Durant from the Oracle Arena parking lot, seeking reinforcements after the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals. Durant answered, capturing back-to-back Finals MVPs in leading them to consecutive titles in dominating fashion. Now, they need Durant again, this time to save them from their own 3-1 Finals deficit, and nobody knows if he’ll pick up.
It would be a storybook ending if Durant were to close this Golden State chapter of his career with a triumphant return from the calf strain that has kept him out since Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. He is maybe the only player on the planet who could dig the Warriors out of this whole, which is quite a thing to say about a team that lorded over the league even before his arrival, but the Raptors have looked fully prepared to topple a dynasty in these Finals.
In Durant’s absence, hired Toronto gun Kawhi Leonard grabbed the Best Player Alive torch and just set fire to Oracle in Game 4, scoring 17 of his 36 points in a third quarter for the ages. The Raptors are one win from the franchise’s first title, and the only player capable of countering Leonard’s two-way brilliance on the wing was in a hoodie for a game Golden State desperately needed. It’s unclear whether Durant would be up to the task even if he is cleared by Monday.
“There's been hope that he will come back the whole series, so that’s not going to change now,” Green told reporters after the loss. “Obviously we hope to have him, but we'll see what happens. We don't make that final call. He don't really even make that final call. His body will tell him if he can get out there or not. If he can, great; if not, you still got to find a way to win the next game.”
It is clear that DeMarcus Cousins is not their All-Star savior. He was a disaster in the Game 4 loss, lumbering from 3-point line to 3-point line as the Raptors played frantically from end to end. The Warriors are without an answer at center, as Kevon Looney’s gutsy effort with a broken collarbone turned sour in the second half. Andrew Bogut, who was playing in Australia three months ago, is their best option. Durant’s return could open the door for Draymond Green to play the five in a lineup that just didn’t work with Shaun Livingston filling in beside him on Friday.
Even if Durant isn’t at full strength, the Raptors would at least have to respect his offense, which is more than the Warriors can say about Livingston, Alfonzo McKinnie and even Andre Iguodala. Golden State got Curry’s best effort in Game 3 and a gem in Klay Thompson’s return for Game 4, and neither were nearly enough. If Durant doesn’t return, the Warriors will have to hope the Splash Brothers go supernova — that, with two more days of rest, they both get their legs back.
“It's not a good feeling right now, obviously, but we have been on both sides of it,” Curry told reporters, also referencing their own 3-1 comeback in the 2016 Western Conference finals. “It's an opportunity for us to flip this whole series on its head, and you gotta do it one game at a time. It sounds cliché, and for us that's literally the only way we're going to get back in this series, is give everything we got for 48 minutes, everybody that sets foot on that floor in Game 5.”
This is what it’s come to for the team of the century. They need Durant to answer the call again.
Nick Nurse is pulling all the right strings
Consider all Raptors coach Nick Nurse has done to get them here. He managed Leonard’s season in limbo between a contentious San Antonio Spurs exit and his impending free agency. He got Kyle Lowry to buy back in after they traded his closest teammate for Leonard. He emboldened Pascal Siakam. And he rebuilt the rotation after a deadline deal for Marc Gasol.
That was before the Finals. Now that Nurse is here, on the game’s biggest stage in his first season at the helm, he has made all the right moves against a decorated coach who may be out of them. His decision to replace Danny Green with Fred VanVleet to the start the second halves of Games 3 and 4 stands out. VanVleet’s effort opposite Curry ignited a 37-21 third-quarter advantage Friday night that pushed the Raptors to the precipice of a championship.
Nurse is constantly throwing things at the Warriors to keep them on their heels. He broke out the box-and-one against Curry again late in the third quarter, which directly led to a shot-clock violation, and the Raptors responded with a 9-0 run that put the game out of reach. He rode Serge Ibaka’s hot hand, finding extra minutes for him by going big with Gasol alongside, and then abandoned that approach when it wasn’t working. He’s shortened his rotation to seven guys, save for a stint or two from Norman Powell, and yet the Raptors looked fresh in the fourth quarter, executing on both ends of the court with a precision that belies a first-time finalist.
“We try to change who is guarding who a little bit here and there, just because there's so many different guys in and out,” Nurse told reporters afterward, downplaying his impact on the series. “They start somebody different every night it seems like. I don't know about any other adjustments or any of that stuff that we're getting the better of. Our guys are playing really hard, and so far, especially the last couple games, we have been fortunate that it's come out our way.”
The players obviously deserve the bulk of the credit for executing the game plan, but Nurse has earned himself a raise from the reported three-year, $10 million deal he signed last summer.
Serge Ibaka and Fred Van Vleet, unafraid
The performances of Ibaka and VanVleet have been mentioned already, but their effort in Game 4 warrants a deeper appreciation. Ibaka was practically an afterthought after the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic traded him twice in an eight-month span two seasons ago. VanVleet was an undrafted free agent in 2016. Both were spotty on the road to these Finals.
We have come to expect performances like the one the Raptors got from Leonard in Game 3, but for Ibaka and VanVleet to come through the way they have in Games 3 and 4 on the road in a hostile environment against a team that can bury the game’s best under an avalanche of pressure, that is sheer toughness, both mentally and physically. Especially for VanVleet, who took a Livingston elbow to the orbital socket and returned ready to re-enter with seven stitches.
“We put in a lot of work, and we believe in us, but one of the good things about us is our toughness — mind toughness,” Ibaka said from the postgame podium. “We’ve been getting better and better each round — first round, second round, third round, and now we are here.”
VanVleet did not return, because the Raptors no longer needed him. He had already defeated them, once again stifling Curry, who entered the game shooting 7-of-24 on 140 possessions against the Wichita State product this season. Five of VanVleet’s six assists in Game 4 came in the third quarter, and his statement 3-pointer to start the fourth gave him eight points on the night. He is now shooting 20 of 32 from distance since the birth of his son, Fred Jr., last month.
Ibaka’s 20 points (on 9-of-12 shooting) were a playoff high. His ability to space the floor on offense and switch anything defensively was a nightmare for Golden State’s center-challenged roster, and the Warriors may not have an answer if this version of him shows up again in a potential close-out Game 5. It is remarkable to think that, of all the stars on the 2012 Thunder team that reached the Finals with three future MVPs, Ibaka could be the last man standing.
The Raptors know what they’re getting from Leonard, but these are the performances they need from their sixth and seventh men to topple a dynasty, and now they need them once more. If their effort in Oakland was any indication, they will feel right at home in a close-out Game 5.
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