Fred VanVleet, one of the surprise stars of the last two NBA playoff rounds, was on his back underneath the basket, dark blood pooling under his right eye before it slid down his face to his ear. A tooth rested on the court near his mouth.
After the crowd hushed while doctors and Toronto Raptors teammates raced to his side, a chant began to build inside Oracle Arena.
“Let’s go, Warriors (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)!”
This was the moment, Golden State down a dozen points early in the fourth quarter, but certainly not out. The New Orleans Pelicans have felt this — the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz and the Clippers, the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies too. The Cleveland Cavaliers damn sure have felt it.
The Warriors were about to go on a run. They saw their opponent weakened, they saw their season at stake, they saw a chance to even the series, they saw a chance to get momentum. But this Toronto team isn’t the Pelicans, the Trail Blazers, the Jazz, the Thunder, the Cavaliers or any of the teams Golden State’s beaten in the playoffs before.
That moment — that signature Warriors run — never got out of the blocks Friday night.
If we weren’t sure before, we know it now. The Raptors are different.
“You just got to be patient with it,” Kawhi Leonard said after scoring a game-high 36 points with 12 rebounds. “…It doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We just have to stay confident in ourselves, be patient, don’t try to rush things, and see how it plays out.”
Leonard, who is different from just about any other basketball player on the planet, didn’t wait for anything in the third quarter and opened the second half by hitting consecutive three-pointers — “... You” shots, VanVleet would later call them — on Toronto’s first two possessions.
The second gave Toronto an unlikely lead after being outplayed for almost the entire first half. The Warriors opened the game playing with more emption, more urgency. And even though Golden State didn’t shoot the ball well from deep, the Warriors did enough in the first two quarters to lead by double figures.
But turnovers and Leonard kept that from happening, allowing the Raptors, not the Warriors, to make the big third-quarter push. The Warriors fought, Klay Thompson’s mangled hamstring and Kevon Looney’s cartilage fracture not keeping them off the court. Thompson had a team-high 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting.
But their impacts couldn’t offset a sluggish Stephen Curry, who scored 27 points but looked to be wearing the after-effects of his 43-minute night in Game 3. And it definitely wasn’t enough to make up for Leonard, who didn’t stop after his start to the third quarter.
With pressure mounting as the Raptors kept parrying punches, Golden State unraveled. A Draymond Green technical foul — his first of the Finals — sent Leonard to the line, sparking a 3-minute 17-second run in which Leonard scored 11 of Toronto’s 15 points to give the Raptors a double-digit lead.
“He played amazing,” Curry said. “He hit every big shot, momentum shot that in that third quarter.”
After that push, the Warriors never got within eight points in what could be their final game at Oracle Arena.
Four games into this series, the Raptors’ calm and smarts — in addition to the Warriors’ injuries and Kevin Durant’s absence — have been what’s made Toronto different from all the other teams that have come for the Warriors’ crown.
After VanVleet got off the court, after they cleaned up the blood, the Raptors went down the court, momentum feeling like it could tip at any moment.
With the Warriors’ defensive pressure ramped up, the Raptors showed why they’re the right team at the right time to be NBA champions.
Kyle Lowry had the ball at the top of the key, Pascal Siakam flashing open for a quick second. But instead of forcing the pass, he waited for Serge Ibaka to set a screen. With just five seconds left on the shot clock, Lowry beat a double team with a pass underneath Green’s leg to Ibaka.
And Ibaka, who had been terrific all game, calmly scored with Curry left to helplessly foul him after he was a half-step late on the rotation.
Instead of “Let’s go, Warriors,” it was silence.
“We’re playing a really good team that moves the ball. And I think we have had our moments defensively, but we haven’t been able to string together the stops over the course of a game that we have needed to,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “So I give them the credit. They have just played really well offensively, and they got a lot of threats out there, a lot of shooters, a lot of passers.
“They’re playing well, and we have got to do better.”
But the Warriors and Kerr, they might be reaching for a gear that’s just not there, not right now, and maybe, not anymore.