For a while there, it looked as if the Raptors were on their way to making a date with destiny by once again riding on the coattails of superstar Kawhi Leonard. When he checked in with nine minutes and change left in the fourth quarter, they hitherto seemed unable to overcome the obstacle erected courtesy of the cameo appearance of injured Kevin Durant. But no matter; with the game on the line and the championship within sight, he promptly went to work. In a little over three and a half minutes, he came up with a block, a rebound, two points, an assist, a rebound, three points, two points, three points, and two points to preside over a 12-point turnaround and get them six up with just about the same period left to play. Scotiabank Arena was ready to explode.
The Warriors weren’t done, though. In the face of their greatest challenge yet since they began their half-decade reign over the National Basketball Association, they hung tough and showed their chops. And with Durant sidelined, the usual suspects buckled down to work. Three straight treys from Splash Brothers Klay Thompson and Steph Curry coupled with outstanding defense led by do-it-all Draymond Green swung the pendulum back in their favor. A last-second attempt by the Raptors could have rendered their efforts inutile, but it missed, and they got to live another day.
No doubt, the Raptors will stew on the outcome for a bit. Game Five was most certainly a squandered opportunity for them to stamp their class with finality, and, in large measure, borne of self-inflicted wounds. They were continually late on rotations and, on the other end of the court, proved too willing to return to predictable isolation sets under pressure. Earlier on, Durant’s forced departure should have been a signal for them to bear down and strike. Instead, they found themselves having to engage in an exhausting uphill battle that told on their sharpness in the crunch.
The Warriors have momentum now, buoyed by Durant’s sacrifice and the compelling calling to reward it with a determined stand in Game Six. They were alternately defiant, sad, triumphant, wistful, and optimistic in their post-game assessments, fully cognizant of the unfair burden they placed on the Most Valuable Player of their last two championship runs, and, moving forward, of the risk he assumed in having to carry it. And because a return for him is clearly no longer in the cards, they will be carrying a mindset they should have had from the get-go: They can win without him. They don’t have an escape valve anymore. They have only themselves. Enough to take the measure of the Toronto Raptors? Time will tell.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.