The Raptors won Game 4 of the NBA Finals 105-92, bringing them one win from an NBA Championship.
1.) “Give 48 minutes of more effort than they give.”
That was Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s plea to his team before the game: just outwork the Warriors for 48 minutes.
This article won’t beat up on the Golden State’s effort level (it’d be in poor taste coming from a writer comfortably sitting at home eating eggs with generous butter). But in terms of playing a complete 48-minute game, Toronto definitely had them beat.
The game was 46-42 Golden State entering the half. It felt like the Warriors should have been up more than that on a night where non-Kawhi Raptors combined to score 3 points in the first quarter. The Warriors kept making the kind of high-intensity high-IQ defensive plays we’ve come to expect from them, and Toronto shot 34% in the half.
Then, the third quarter happened.
2.) Beating Golden State at their own game.
Toronto outscored Golden State 37-21 in the third quarter. Serge Ibaka gave them 7 points in 4 and a half minutes and Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet got in on the scoring action, but the real story, of course, was Kawhi Leonard.
“Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two F-you shots,” VanVleet said. “There’s no defense for that. There’s no schemes for that. That’s two big boy shots.”
VanVleet is talking about the two triples Leonard nailed at the start of the quarter, including one in semi-transition over Draymond Green. It was an auspicious start to a 17-point, 5-rebound quarter.
3.) Playing whack-a-mole – no answers for Toronto’s versatility.
The Golden State Warriors used to be the team that beat you with depth and versatility. That’s a distant memory at this point.
Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are still the same duo that might go down as the greatest backcourt in league history. Nothing’s changed with them. What has changed is the potency of the guys around them. There are no serious weapons surrounding those guys, so they’re relying on Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Quinn Cook to get buckets. There’s just not enough firepower.
The Raptors, meanwhile, have all their guns firing. Five Raptors scored 17+ points in Game 3. Kyle Lowry was quiet in Game 4 after being a huge contributor in Game 3, and it didn’t matter because Serge Ibaka had a 20-point night. Ibaka got a lot of easy looks because the Warriors were so aggressive on Lowry in the pick and roll, but he was also just feeling it (what the heck was that off-the-dribble contested mid-ranger over Cousins?).
You stop Fred VanVleet (whose tooth might still be chilling by the free-throw line after a gnarly elbow to the face) and Gasol gets going in the paint. Stymie Siakam and Green hits a few. That’s the way it’s been for the Warriors in this series. There are too many holes to plug.
4.) But all of that changes with Durant.
Let’s stay away from the narratives (NBA Twitter is ablaze with “this proves they need Durant,” but if a few things went differently last night and the series was 2-2, people would say the opposite; it’s all nonsense). Beyond the easy, hollow soundbites that make for good YouTube titles, there’s a lot to dissect.
If Durant is playing, it’s a completely different series. Kawhi Leonard can’t take turns making Curry’s and Thompson’s lives difficult because he has to guard Durant. The Warriors have the option of the Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green death lineup, which dramatically changes things. That spares them from having to run out Cousins and Bogut for 25+ combined minutes (Cousins was really bad last night). It means the Raptors don’t have the luxury of throwing a box-and-one at Curry to slow him down, and it means you can sit a splash brother and still have a reasonable array of weapons on the floor.
All of that’s before you get to the question of Durant’s all-world defense. The Warriors are giving up a 115.1 defensive rating in this series; their highest in the Finals and a whopping 9.6 points worse than last year. Who knows how differently things would be going on the defensive end if Durant was playing.
5. Looking ahead to Game 5.
Someone tweeted during the game that, even though it was the fourth game of the series, it still felt like the teams were feeling things out. That bodes well for the Warriors, who’ve played nowhere near their ceiling (even their Durant-less ceiling).
There are certain adjustments they can make. Making sure Cousins is operating in the high post (where he was making phenomenal passes in Game 2) when he plays will be one focus. He had three bad turnovers in the first 5 minutes of Game 4. He can’t be making plays at the top of the key, and he can’t do anything in the low post right now against Marc Gasol. Facilitating from the elbow is the only spot he looks comfortable in.
Klay Thompson playing in the low post was an interesting look. As tough as Lowry is, Klay has a serious size advantage down there. He knocked down a sweet turnaround jumper, which prompted the Raptors to immediately double team him, and he showed the ability to find good passes to cutters. Committing to high pick and rolls with Curry will help free him up. Draymond finally having Looney back to be a lob target out of the short roll might diversify the offense a bit.
It’s just hard to imagine how Golden State can pull away with this series. They’ve had no answer for Kawhi Leonard, and Toronto’s supporting cast has offered more than enough complimentary firepower. There’s this sense we’re all waiting for the Warriors to “flip the switch,” but that’s what people always say. You expect the team holding onto its reign to keep turning it on; it’s hard to envision them losing until they do. We’ve seen this Warriors team come back from down 3-1 before, and nobody should be shocked if they do it again. But with Durant’s impending free agency and with how dominant Toronto has been in this series, fans should brace themselves. This dynasty might be finally coming to an end.