TORONTO – To beat the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, you need things to go right for you. Things that don’t normally happen. Things like, say, when you’re down 3-1 to the Warriors in 2016, and Draymond Green gets his fourth flagrant foul of the playoffs for punching your star player in his you-know-whats and gets suspended for Game 5, flipping the momentum of the series.
And then, when things go right for you and wrong for the Warriors, you have to capitalize on it.
On Sunday night, things were going right for the Toronto Raptors, and things were not going right for the Golden State Warriors. Things that don’t normally happen. Things like Kevin Durant‘s continued absence with his calf injury. Things like Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson joining Durant as the Warriors’ walking wounded over the course of Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Things like Steph Curry not feeling right during pregame warmups – dehydration? dizziness? – and then not scoring a bucket until 20 minutes into the game. Things like the Warriors being forced to start DeMarcus Cousins, fresh off his torn quad. Things like the Raptors jumping out to a 12-point lead late in the second quarter as the game appeared like it could be heading toward a blowout.
The Raptors had every opportunity to beat a depleted Warriors team.
And they missed.
It feels like teams have been saying this ad nauseam during the Warriors’ dynastic run of the past five years: We had them right where we wanted them, until…
Until the Warriors closed that first-half gap to only five points going into halftime thanks to 12 points by Curry in the final four minutes. (“We should have been down by a lot more than five points,” Draymond Green said.)
Until the Warriors live up to their longtime slogan of Strength in Numbers. As the stars nursed injuries, the role players stepped up. Quinn Cook banged home three big-time 3s. Andrew Bogut came in for seven key minutes and threw down lobs. And Cousins, he of the recently torn quad, played much more minutes and was much more effective than head coach Steve Kerr ever could have hoped for: 28 minutes, 11 points, 10 hard-fought rebounds, six assists, a couple of blocked shots, a made 3 and a team-high plus-12 in the minutes he was on the floor. The Warriors would not have won Game 2 without DeMarcus Cousins; they wouldn’t have won without important contributions from all those bench players.
And until you feel you have the Warriors on the ropes – a furious fourth-quarter push that, after Danny Green hit a 3 with 26.9 seconds left, left you just two points behind – and they stick a dagger in your heart. The Raptors were almost there on that final defensive possession. They trapped Curry with two defenders near midcourt, forced a wild pass just barely makes it to Shaun Livingston in the high post, and watched as Livingston flung a no-look pass to Andre Iguodala, wide-open beyond the arc. That was the player the Raptors wanted to have the ball in this moment: Someone who hadn’t made a 3-pointer since Game 6 of the Rockets‘ series three weeks ago, a sometimes-reluctant 3-point shooter who made only 33 percent of his 3s all year.
“He misses that, we call timeout, we go down with a chance to win the ball game, unbelievably, somehow,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “If they’re going to take a shot and give you a chance there, I’m going to probably live with the one that ended up being taken.
A missed opportunity for the Raptors.
And a win for the Warriors that, considering the circumstances – the injuries piled on top of injuries, the pedestrian game for Curry, the bench players who had to come up big – was their most impressive and unlikely win of this postseason.
“When you get to a stage like this, our DNA shows up,” Curry said of the “Strength in Numbers” mantra. “It’s not something you just throw out there to have nice shirts and give out to the crowd at Oracle and have all this marketing stuff. It’s literally how we approach every day from training camp to June, how we support each other, how guys stay ready throughout the year.”
This is the thing about the Warriors. Just when you think you got them exactly where you want them, they pull off something like Sunday night. They’re like the television archetype who always gets himself into a jam, but always, heroically, finds his way out. The Warriors are Raylan Givens, the Kentucky lawman from “Justified.” They are MacGyver from, er, “MacGyver.”
Sure, they’re a different team than the one who captured this nation’s hearts at the beginning of their run, when a 20-point deficit felt like it would inevitably be made up in a few minutes. But on Sunday night, they showed they still have some of that DNA.
It was a win that reminded us why the Warriors are still the Warriors. And it was a loss that the Raptors will long regret.