Three takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 118-109 win in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals — the only series-opening loss for the Golden State Warriors since the start of the first of their three championship runs over the past four years:
Home-court advantage looms large
Game 1 of the NBA Finals was the best Canadian tourism advertisement you will ever see. Raptors fans showed up in force — around the country, outside Scotiabank Arena and inside, where every Warriors run was met with a Toronto response spurred by a crowd that started somewhere around deafening and built to full-blown nuclear with each Pascal Siakam bucket.
“It was pretty crazy in here tonight,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry told reporters after the victory, confirming he had never heard the building louder than it was on Thursday. “We’ve got the best fans in the NBA, and they’re just showing it every single night. We really appreciate it.
It can be cliche to say role players play better at home, where fans serve as a sixth man, but you cannot come away from that game thinking otherwise. Siakam, Marc Gasol and Danny Green may not be your typical role players — they are a budding star, a fading one and a Finals record-setter, respectively — but they emerged from a Kawhi Leonard eclipse to play as well as we’ve seen them all playoffs. Throw in super-sub Fred VanVleet, and it is hard to imagine that quartet combining for 78 points on 66 percent shooting if Game 1 were held in Golden State.
“We have always started the Finals at home, but we are relishing this opportunity,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said after posting a triple-double in defeat. “At the end of the day, you got to come on the road and win one, so that's still the mission. I like where we are. We didn't play very well tonight at all, and we still had a chance the entire game. It was a great atmosphere. This is a team, a city, a country that hasn't seen a Finals ever, so we expected it to be a great atmosphere, and it was. But we can still play better, and I know we will.”
Veterans Gasol and Green lifted the Raptors in the first half, draining the open 3-point looks the Warriors curiously granted them (4 for 7 combined from distance by the break), and Siakam carried them in the third quarter. The 25-year-old Cameroonian didn’t miss in the frame, scoring 14 of his 32 points on six shots, capped by a sidestepping drive around Green, the former Defensive Player of the Year, that gave Toronto a double-digit lead with 16 minutes remaining.
Golden State’s Western Conference finals win over the Portland Trail Blazers reminded us how quickly the two-time defending champions can erase deficits, slashing big third-quarter leads en route to their final three wins in the sweep. You expected another run to come in this one, and it did. The Warriors cut it to 90-87 on a DeMarcus Cousins free throw 82 seconds into the fourth quarter, but the Raptors responded. VanVleet made a wild layup that sent fans into hysteria, and the building shook when Serge Ibaka blocked Shaun Livingston’s layup on the other end.
“It gave us a couple nice bounces,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of his team’s home cooking. “We had a couple shots go in that were kind of eye-openers. The fans obviously were great. They were loud. They were excited. They were into it, and that's the way it should be, man. That's what home court is, and our fans deserve a bunch of credit for being a big part of that.”
Two more Siakam drives pushed the lead back to nine, and the Raptors recovered the momentum, never to look back. They avoided drowning under the waves of buckets by the Splash Brothers that always seem to turn into a deluge in Oracle Arena. The tide was reversed in Toronto, and Canada can host three more games in this series, including a potential Game 7.
Kawhi Leonard doesn’t look right
In Toronto’s Eastern Conference finals win over the Milwaukee Bucks, Leonard limped through two overtimes of Game 3 and hobbled again after a poster dunk in Game 4. But Leonard’s Jordan-esque performance in eviscerating the Bucks seemingly answered any questions we had about whether the left leg injury that cost him almost an entire season had flared up again.
Leonard’s performance in Game 1 against the Warriors left the door open for a little more doubt. Shuffling his way through long stretches of his 43 minutes (!) on the floor, Leonard didn’t have the burst to get past Andre Iguodala or the lift to shoot over Kevon Looney when the game called for it in the third quarter. Part of that was Iguodala’s stingy defense and Golden State’s concerted effort to trap him in every pick and roll, but the limp clearly still lingered a week later.
Leonard still found a way to strike when it mattered most, firing another run-busting 3-pointer late in the third quarter and bullying his way to 12 free-throw attempts on the night. He finished with 23 points on 5-for-14 shooting, with eight rebounds, five assists and more fantastic roving defense, which is the sort of substantial statistical line you get from a superstar not at his best.
The Raptors survived Kawhi’s least efficient shooting night in more than a month — and another shooting dud from Lowry, to boot — because their supporting cast was so sensational. That is unsustainable against a Warriors team that is bound to catch fire. Toronto will need Leonard at his best to withstand the championship response that is surely coming from Golden State.
The Warriors are limping to the finish line
It turns out the Warriors may need Kevin Durant after all. The human dagger was ruled out on Thursday with the calf strain that has sidelined him since Game 5 of the conference semifinals, and coach Steve Kerr called his Game 2 availability “a long shot.” Kerr’s parting words on the eve of the series — “hopefully at some point in the series we'll get him back” — were ominous.
DeMarcus Cousins did make his return from the torn left quad that had kept him out since Game 2 of the first round, but outside of a couple cheap trips to the free-throw line and a pair of creative passes, the All-Star center was largely ineffective. He was a step slow defensively (if not more), which was never more apparent than when Ibaka grabbed two offensive rebounds and beat Cousins down the floor for a dunk in a 67-second stretch to start the second quarter.
Making matters worse was an apparent re-aggravation of the left leg injury that cost Iguodala Game 4 of the Portland series. The injury kept him from practicing fully in the days after the conference finals, but he played great defensively opposite Leonard in the early going of Game 1. Then, following a turnaround bunny in the paint that cut Toronto’s lead to eight with two minutes left in the contest, Iguodala came up limping. The 35-year-old clapped his hands, as if recognizing he had tweaked it again, and Kerr removed him for the final 79 seconds of the loss.
“I think he’s doing OK,” Kerr said afterward, clarifying that the team would have an official update on Iguodala’s status on Friday. For his part, Iguodala said, “I’ll be fine,” calling the injury “just bumps and bruises of the game.” The Warriors will hope that’s the case, because he is their best defensive option opposite Leonard and another offensive option for a team that required 20 second-chance points to stay in the game against Toronto’s swarming defense.
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