TORONTO — There were no hints of nerves or awe, no indication that the first NBA Finals game in franchise history was weighing on the minds of the Toronto Raptors.
The hosts forcefully introduced themselves to the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, launching a barrage of early three-pointers and cranking up the defensive pressure against Stephen Curry. By night’s end, the Raptors had claimed a dream opener, dictating the action throughout to defeat the defending champions, 118-109.
“We’re vulnerable like everybody else,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said before the game, words that proved prophetic.
For the first time since Kevin Durant was lost to injury in the second round of the playoffs, the Warriors looked like an incomplete team. Toronto’s half-court defense smothered Golden State’s offense, hanging tight with Curry, denying clean looks at the rim and forcing 10 first-half turnovers. Center DeMarcus Cousins returned to the lineup after missing the previous two rounds with a leg injury, but he struggled to move defensively and scored just three points.
“Their defense was great, and it wasn’t our best night,” Kerr said afterward. “We just got outplayed.”
After a Western Conference finals in which they enjoyed oceans of space and played at light speed, the Warriors labored through half-court possessions and never got out much in the open court. Raptors Coach Nick Nurse promised that his pregame speech would be centered on transition defense, and his words landed. The Warriors managed just 17 fast-break points, many coming in a futile late flourish, and never seized control of the game flow.
Curry did his best to force the issue, scoring a game-high 34 points and getting to the foul line 14 times, but the balance around him was lacking. Only three Golden State players scored in double figures — Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — as Toronto’s scrambling help defenders did well to cover for each other.
“We’re not that familiar with this team, but that’s no excuse,” Thompson said. “Our goal is to come [to Toronto] and get one. I know we’ll respond like the champions we are.”
Golden State lost Game 1 for just the second time in 20 playoff series under Kerr — the other coming in the 2016 Western Conference finals against Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder, another team that frustrated the Warriors with its mobile and versatile defense. The Warriors, winners of 73 games during that regular season, beat the Thunder in that series in seven games.
Toronto enjoyed an energy advantage all Thursday night. An expectant crowd can carry a team or swallow a team; in this case, the Scotiabank Arena fans, some of whom began lining up early Wednesday morning, lifted the Raptors.
Toronto fans delighted in heckling ESPN analyst Paul Pierce, a former nemesis, and cheered as the franchise’s former stars, including Tracy McGrady and Damon Stoudamire, were acknowledged before the game. Sensing their opportunity, the Raptors launched eight of their first nine shots from beyond the arc, making it clear from the start that they had no plans to engage in a feeling-out process with their opponents.
Die-hards in full-body dinosaur costumes roamed the arena’s exterior, and the rowdies inside repeatedly erupted in appreciation for Pascal Siakam, who led the Raptors with 32 points and tied for the team lead with eight rebounds.
“He played with really good composure,” Nurse said of Siakam. “He got to his spots and got on balance and was patient, and when he needed to go quick and get around him, he did as well. He had a couple of really tough ones go in for him as well.”
The crowd reached deafening levels in the game’s final minutes as Kyle Lowry hit a dagger three-pointer to finish off the win.
“We gave Siakam a couple of wide-open threes, [Marc] Gasol some wide-open threes,” Green said. “There was no [defensive] rotation. If you give those guys open shots, it’s a different beast. Our rotations have got to be better. We’ve got to fly around a little bit more.”
Starting out a series on the right foot is critical for any underdog but especially this one. The Raptors, after all, must contend with the possibility of a Durant return and with Kawhi Leonard’s uncertain health. Leonard, the driving force of Toronto’s postseason offense, finished with 23 points but shot just 5 for 14 from the field and seemed to be limited, at times, in his explosiveness and top-end speed.
Center Gasol stepped up to compensate, scoring 20 points and holding his own defensively on Curry away from the basket. Fred VanVleet added 15 points off Toronto’s bench and diligently chased Curry through screens. Those contributions, plus the staunch defense on Golden State’s supporting pieces, proved more than enough to survive an off night from Lowry.
“They were blitzing Kawhi on the pick and roll,” Gasol said. “They did that with [Portland]. We understood the spacing that we were going to have and what kind of shots were going to be open.”
Durant, whose ability to score in a half-court offense carried the Warriors through dry spells early in the playoffs, wasn’t around to bail them out. Golden State went 5-0 in its first five postseason games without its all-star forward, but the Game 1 defeat underscored his value. Faced with long and active defenders, the Warriors looked naked without their security blanket.
“It doesn’t matter until [Durant] is out there,” Kerr said. “If he’s out there, he’s pretty good. If he’s not out there, we play with the guys we have. We’ve got enough.”
If the Raptors opened this series by convincingly proving they were ready for the pressure, the Warriors must now confront their biggest question: Can they score enough and win this series without Durant?
Highlights and quarter-by-quarter recaps
Fourth quarter: Raptors 118, Warriors 109
Kyle Lowry put this thing away.
Look away, still-hurting Sixers fans . . .
The Warriors, playing an energetic bench unit, trimmed the lead to three in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter. The Raptors responded with two quick baskets, then Siakam tied his playoff career-high (30 points) with over eight minutes to go. It was his 11th straight made field goal. He also did this:
A three from Danny Green a minute later stretched the Raptors’ lead to 12. Green’s bounce-back (3-for-5 from distance at that point) was welcome in Toronto: He only made four total threes in the previous series, against Milwaukee, which went six games.
His teammate, Serge Ibaka, meanwhile, was doing this.
A Curry stopper?
Third quarter: Raptors 88, Warriors 81
Get to know this kid: He’s an early candidate for Finals MVP. Siakam was the star of the show in the third, tallying 14 of his then-26 points while going 6-for-6 in the quarter. Curry also had 26 points after three quarters.
A former Finals MVP’s struggles continue.
This happened at halftime. Muggsy!
Also at halftime. KD sighting.
Second quarter: Raptors 59, Warriors 49
After 11 points in the first, the Warriors saw Curry go cold in the second quarter, held scoreless in the period until a pair of late free throws.
But the Raptors also watched their main players struggle, as all-stars Kyle Lowry and Leonard were quiet compared to Siakam (everywhere on the court), Gasol (a then-game-high 14 points) and VanVleet (energetic bench play). They helped spur a 12-4 run to close the quarter.
It was a particularly rough go for Leonard, to the tune of three first-half fouls and a 1-for-6 start. Including this disrespect.
You knew this was going to happen at some point.
Here’s a man who is excited to be back in the Finals for the first time since 2012.
Bananas. Just look at this.
To start the quarter, DeMarcus Cousins took the court for his first time in an NBA Finals, despite a scary quad injury earlier in the playoffs and a long recovery from a torn Achilles last season.
First quarter: Raptors 25, Warriors 21
In front of a boisterous crowd cheering every moment, Toronto got out to a fast start, somewhat surprisingly led by savvy veteran center Gasol’s eight points and four rebounds. Siakam and Green added five points each.
Curry, meanwhile, came out cooking for the Warriors, repeatedly shaking his man and hitting three three-pointers in the first 10 minutes. He finished the quarter with 11 points.
Oh, and his teammate is good, too. Klay threw it down.
Green has been ice cold lately, and the Raptors were clearly looking to get their sniper going early. He responded with a quick three. And turns out, it was somewhat (?) historic.
After a raucous pregame scene, that atmosphere wasn’t letting up.
Paul Pierce is a good sport, I guess. He picked the Raptors to win the series!
The noise. Awesome.
It’s Drake. What else did you expect?
NBA Finals preview
>> For years, a certain superlative — “best player in the league” — has been the sole domain of LeBron James, whose streak of consecutive NBA Finals appearances ended at eight this season. Right on cue, the LeBron-less void of this year’s playoffs has birthed a fascinating and layered debate about James’s successor. These Finals will feature three stars — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard — who can make compelling cases for the throne. (Read more)
>> Kawhi Leonard is back in the NBA Finals, but this will be a very different series than the one that helped make Leonard a household name five years ago. He no longer defers or plays in anyone’s shadow, he isn’t surrounded by legends, and he isn’t coached by one of the sport’s all-time greats. Crucially, he won’t be leading a team-wide plan to slow down a single superstar. Instead, he will be on the receiving end of such an effort. (Read more)
>> Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard should be counting the days until free agency only because they can’t wait to sign new contracts to remain in two of the best situations in the NBA. Instead, it feels like the Finals represent a dual ending. For Durant, it could conclude one of the most successful and polarizing three-year stints a professional athlete has ever had. For Leonard, it could be a one-and-done season for the ages with a team that risked it all by trading for him without assurances he would sign long-term. (Read more)
>> The Raptors franchise is making its NBA Finals debut this week, so “pinch yourself” moments are inevitable. Toronto, though, appears as ready as it will ever be for its turn on center stage when the Finals open. (Read more)
>> The Raptors have finally broken through to the NBA Finals, and to say a certain segment of Canadians are jazzed about this is to diminish the meaning of the term “jazzed.” They are not only line-up-at-4 a.m. jazzed, but line-up-at-4 a.m.-to-get-into-the-watch-party-outside-the-stadium jazzed. (Read more)
>> While they may not be able to rely on Kevin Durant breaking down defenses in isolation, the Warriors have gone back to what made them successful before Durant’s arrival: the Steph Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll. (Read more)
>> We’re not going to come out and say the Raptors have no chance of beating the Warriors in the NBA Finals. It’s a seven-game series, Toronto has home-court advantage and Kevin Durant may or may not play for Golden State. But based on this list of picks by people who get paid to follow the NBA ardently, it certainly doesn’t seem as if the Raptors have much of a chance. (Read more)
Full NBA Finals schedule
- Game 1 at Toronto — May 30: Raptors 118, Warriors 109
- Game 2 at Toronto: Sunday, June 2, 8 p.m. (ABC)
- Game 3 at Golden State: Wednesday, June 5, 9 p.m. (ABC)
- Game 4 at Golden State: Friday, June 7, 9 p.m. (ABC)
- Game 5 at Toronto (if necessary): Monday, June 10, 9 p.m. (ABC)
- Game 6 at Golden State (if necessary): Thursday, June 13, 9 p.m. (ABC)
- Game 7 at Toronto (if necessary): Sunday, June 16, 8 p.m. (ABC)
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