Did Raptors blow the NBA Finals?

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The NBA season came down to a made or missed field goal attempt by Toronto’s Kyle Lowry at the buzzer in Monday night’s Game 5.

Since their first championship season of 2015 the Golden State Warriors faced elimination six times, winning five of those games. We can increase both numbers by one following their 106-105 win to pull within one game of squaring the NBA Finals at three games apiece as they return home for Thursday’s Game 6.

The Warriors showed the proverbial “heart of champions” by overcoming a six- point deficit in the final 2 1-2 minutes with Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry combining for a trio of clutch 3-pointers. The duo combined for 57 points for the game.

But avoiding elimination is perhaps secondary to the bigger development from Monday’s game. After finally being cleared for action after missing the previous nine playoff games, Kevin Durant started Game 5. He played 12 of the game’s first 14 minutes before having to leave the game with what was initially described as an Achilles injury unrelated to the calf injury which sidelined him for the past month.

In those 12 minutes, Durant was effective, going 3 for 5 from the field including hitting all three of his 3-point shots in addition to hitting both of his free throws for 11 points in his brief return.

Yet after Durant left the court the Warriors managed to build a 13-point lead before Toronto was able to cut its deficit to six points at halftime and eventually take the lead in the fourth quarter before the Splash Brothers rallied their team to victory.

In the aftermath of Game 5, the question is: Did Toronto blow its best opportunity to win the title?

Consider that the Raptors scored just two points in the final 3 1-2 minutes of the game after taking a 103-97 lead on a Kawhi Leonard 14-foot jumper. A questionable timeout called by Toronto coach Nick Nurse after a missed Curry 3-point attempt seemed to stem the Raptors’ momentum and allow the Warriors to regroup and regain their composure for the stretch run. 

Still, trailing by a point as the clock approached triple zero, it came down to Lowry’s missed shot for the series to be prolonged.

Immediately following Golden State’s win the line for Game 6 opened with the Warriors favored by 3.5 points and for the first few hours of wagering the line see- sawed between 3.5 and 4 points. The total opened and remained steady at 211.

By mid-morning on Tuesday the action had come in on Toronto with the line mostly at Warriors -3 with a few 3.5s still available. The total was down to 210.5 with some 211s still in the marketplace.

With their move across the Bay to San Francisco and a new arena next season, Thursday’s game will be the final game the Warriors play at the Oracle. The crowd will be in an energetic, celebratory and frenzied mood to create an above-and- beyond a typical playoff game atmosphere. 

Despite again facing elimination, the Warriors should take the court in a looser- than-expected mood, given new life after what seemed like the end of their season was imminent with two minutes left in Game 5.

Golden State now has a chance to see things come full circle. You may recall that in 2016, the Warriors held a 3-1 lead over Cleveland in the Finals only to see the Cavaliers become the first and only team to date to rally from such a deficit to win the NBA title.

The time-tested theory of a team rallying around its fallen star in its next game will be put to the test for a second time in this postseason. Golden State clinched its Western Conference semifinal series in Houston after Durant was injured late in the third quarter.

Unlike that test, this one will take place at home under the circumstances just noted. Although it appeared extremely likely that Durant will not play again this season, there remains a remote possibility that we could see a Willis Reed moment in the minutes leading up to tipoff Thursday night.

Reed was the heart and soul of the New York Knicks’ 1969-70 NBA Title team who suffered a severe thigh muscle tear in Game 5 of the Finals against the Lakers. After sitting out Game 6 it was considered unlikely he would be able to return for the decisive Game 7. 

But late in the pregame warmups, Reed suddenly appeared from the tunnel to join his teammates on the court, hit a couple of shots and was in the starting lineup. After hitting his first two shots of the game Reed was unable to continue but his presence so energized the Madison Square Garden crowd and inspired his teammates that the Knicks rolled to a 113-99 victory.

I’ll be on the Warriors in Game 6, willing to lay the three points and will expect to see a Game 7 on Sunday in Toronto, about an hour after the end of golf’s U.S. Open Championship.

If there indeed is a Game 7 the line likely comes around pick ‘em barring any key injuries that arise from Game 6. The Warriors will have all the momentum with two straight wins and Toronto may be questioning how it let the title slip through their collective hands in Game 5.

It’s become evident over this past season that the Warriors’ mini-dynasty is nearing its end and we don’t know what the makeup of their roster will be entering next season. We also don’t know whether Kawhi Leonard will return to the Raptors or will be playing elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles or New York.

My call prior to the Finals was Golden State to win in six games. That became impossible when Toronto swept both games in Oakland to take that ‘commanding’ 3-1 series lead.

Champions don’t go down easily and when given the opportunity to “slay the dragon” opponents must take advantage. Toronto had that chance over the final few minutes of Game 5 but squandered that opportunity. Even there, it should not have come down to the last shot.

Should the Raptors come up short, as is currently expected, in Game 6, I’ll feel more comfortable backing the Warriors in Game 7 even though it will be on the road. They’ve already faced and overcome adversity in these playoffs and would, with a Game 7 win, have the chance to further cement their legacy as one of the best mini-dynasties in NBA history. 

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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