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NBA Finals 2019: Warriors ironically vanquished by Raptors’ third-quarter Game 4 run, led by unflappable Kawhi Leonard

OAKLAND, Calif. — If this is how the dynasty ends, it’s the definition of irony.

For years, the third quarter has belonged to the Golden State Warriors. Particularly at home in Oracle Arena, the Warriors have launched barrage after barrage of 3-pointers, backdoor cuts, heartbreaking steals and breakaway dunks to successfully pilfer the life force from their hapless opponents in the moments just after halftime.

On Friday, however, it happened to them.

The Toronto Raptors, who struggled mightily for much of the first half, kept afloat by a tremendous 14-point individual performance from Kawhi Leonard in the first quarter and some instant offense from Serge Ibaka off the bench in the second, looked like a team possessed in the decisive third quarter during a pivotal 105-92 Game 4 victory over Golden State to put Toronto one win away from its first NBA title.

The Warriors were the ones scrambling, throwing their hands in the air and hanging their heads as bucket after bucket went down for their foes. The Warriors were the ones hunting fouls, forcing shots and drawing technicals — trying desperately to find something, anything to stop the tsunami of Toronto momentum potently coursing through their home arena. But the tourniquet was useless. The surgery ineffective. When the third stanza finally ended, Toronto had outscored Golden State 37-21 and held a 12-point lead after trailing by as many as 11 in the first half.

Leonard let the Warriors know they were in trouble from the opening whistle of the second half. He hit a contested 3-pointer to start the quarter, picked up a steal on a post entry to Draymond Green on the next possession, then came down and banged another 3-pointer. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that Leonard imposed his will on the game in that very moment, and everyone in the building, including the Raptors, took notice.

“I know Kawhi’s two big 3s to start the half really I thought changed the whole feel of everybody,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “I just thought everybody was like, okay, man, we know we are here, let’s go, and we just kind of kept going from those two 3s.”

The run, which very well could help win the Raptors win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, was no accident. Nurse stuck with the formula that worked in Game 3, starting Fred VanVleet instead of Danny Green to start the third quarter, in order to provide more pace and help avoid the lull they suffered after halftime of Game 2. Leonard said that the team refocused on contesting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at halftime.

“We had a big problem with the third quarter in Game 2, so we had to make some adjustment there to try to combat the way they come out of the half,” Nurse said after Game 4. “They have been historically really good at that. We made the decision to put Fred in in Game 3 and then Game 4 again tonight. And mostly it’s to try to keep up pace of our offense going, it gives us two point guards out there that can push the ball, get it in and get it going, and it kind of paid off.”

After starting off the game in a frenzy of energy and chants, the Oracle crowd was stunned, silent, despondent after the third-quarter beating. They were resurrected at times in the fourth, giving as much support as they could to their beloved Warriors as they floundered on life support. But the cushion from the third quarter proved too great for Golden State to overcome.

It wasn’t like the Warriors were too undermanned, relatively speaking. Klay Thompson showed zero ill effects from his hamstring injury, scoring a team-high 28 points on 6-of-10 3-point shooting. They got 10 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes from Kevon Looney, who was thought to be done for the postseason just 24 hours before tipoff. Green, who took blame for the Warriors’ Game 3 loss, came out with more energy defensively in a near triple-double performance.

But the Raptors, behind their unflappable, cornrow-clad, stoic leader, alternated making big shot after big shot in that third quarter while playing stifling, communicative team defense to smother the Warriors in the way that Golden State is so accustomed to smothering its opponents. Ibaka scored seven of his 20 points in just four third-quarter minutes, leading Draymond Green to exhaustively remark about the Raptors’ frustratingly endless depth.

“Seems like every game it’s somebody else,” Green said. “You know, Danny Green in Game 3, then we completely take him out of the game tonight, and Serge, and so — like I said, we got to win one game, and however we got to get that done, start with that and go from there.”

Now the Warriors face a 3-1 deficit — a series score they know all too well after being the subject of countless memes since infamously “blowing” the same lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. That very same year, however, they also came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. Now, if they’re going to win their fourth NBA title in five seasons, they’ll have to turn Toronto into the meme, with Kevin Durant’s return still as big of a question mark as ever.

“You just try to win one game. That’s what we did a few years ago against OKC. Win one game, and then you move forward,” Kerr said Friday. “So that’s our focus now. We’ll fly to Toronto tomorrow and take a look at the film, see what we can do better and try to win a game. We have won a lot of games over the years, so we’ll try to win another one.”

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