When I was a kid, my dad introduced me to the game of pool. I was 10 or 11 years old, and I saw a bunch of kids throwing balls around a table at an adult party. I fell in love. My father bought a second-hand table, and he taught me how to play. Over the years, I’d spend hours in the basement, listening to System of a Down and the Counting Crows, learning how to control the cue ball. My dad was good, but from a young age, I became much better. Yet for a long time, when we played each other I wasn’t able to beat him.
It was weird. I would somehow find ways to lose, each increasingly more creative than the last. I knew I was the better player because he took me to Friday night tournaments at a smoky pool hall downtown, and I’d finish better. It took a lengthy lesson to solve my dilemma. We played a race to 100 games, and I smacked him up and down the table. Over the multi-week challenge, I must have beat him by 30 games. Something clicked. It’s felt like I haven’t lost to him since. He was the older, more experience player, but when I learned that I could win, that’s exactly what I did.
The Toronto Raptors lost 109-104. But for 42 of the 48 minutes played in game two, the Raptors were a far better team than the Golden State Warriors.
The Toronto Raptors’ defense, as has famously been proclaimed in corners near and far in NBA media, is breath-taking. Their ability to show multiple bodies to shooters like Steph Curry, and rotate behind him to eliminate any cracks or seams, is unlike anything this Warriors’ dynasty has ever faced. In only fractions of seconds, Raptors’ defenders make the correct choice when faced with difficult decisions.
For two quarters, the Warriors looked unable to score against Toronto’s fortress of unity. If Golden State wasn’t hitting contested triples, or finding points at the free throw line – they attempted 19 free throws in the first half – the Warriors seemed completely flummoxed. None of their players could score when dribbling inside the arc. They were helpless against Toronto’s defensive poise.
On the other end, Toronto’s offense wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. Their shooters hit enough shots. They shot incredibly well at the rim and from the free throw line. When the Warriors tried to downsize, Toronto feasted with easy post-ups and duck-ins. The Warriors seemed to be outmatched. Toronto, however, only led by five at halftime.
“It felt like we should have been down by a lot more than five,” said Steve Kerr.
“We should have been down by a lot more than five points,” agreed Draymond Green.
It was a lack of focus that doomed the Raptors, that didn’t let them build a cushion with enough plush to survive the eventual onslaught. Toronto made some mistakes to end the first half, mostly in letting Steph Curry get free for his easiest baskets of the night, which constituted a miniature 5-0 run in the final minute of the half.
Golden State’s run continued into the third quarter, where the Raptors mostly beat themselves. They couldn’t make an impact on the offensive end, gunning hopelessly from deep. After a Nick Nurse timeout to settle the troops, the Raptors turned over the ball on four consecutive possessions. When the dust settled, the Raptors had gone scoreless for almost five minutes to start the second half. The Warriors enjoyed a 20-0 run over the second and third quarters.
“Certainly the offense hurt the chance to get the defense set up there,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “So, yeah, I’m going to have to re-watch that. I’m probably not going to enjoy that very much but I’m going to have to check it out.”
Later, when Toronto finally learned to score again, they let countless lobs to the rim go unchallenged. After the Raptors had discouraged or stolen attempted lob passes for much of the first game, the musty old bones of Andrew Bogut were allowed to tip three lobs into the net in game two.
The Raptors mostly returned to their solid base midway through the third quarter, as their defense again became their calling card. A box-and-one zone with VanVleet checking Curry kept the Warriors scoreless for much of the fourth quarter. The Raptors almost clawed their way back into the game, as Kawhi Leonard exploded, proving unstoppable when he put his head down and drove decisively at the rim. The Raptors were a botched steal from having a shot to win the game.
“I was feeling really good because we stopped their scoring, right, and finally got something figured out there to slow them down,” said Nick Nurse about the end of the game. “And we were getting a bunch of wide-open shots… A bunch of stops in a row and we didn’t get much to show for it at the other end.”
In hindsight, it was all a classic case of too little too late. The Warriors had landed their knockout blow, their uppercut to the chin, to start the third quarter. Whether because of inexperience, lack of belief, or simply poor play, Toronto couldn’t duck the punch. Golden State’s killing blow only required a few short minutes of gametime. Like Andy Ruiz Jr., the Warriors are always a wild punch away from finishing any opponent.
Also like Andy Ruiz Jr., the Warriors should be considered the underdogs in this title fight. Toronto has a clear path to victory. Walking it requires qualities they’ve displayed in spades for much of this postseason: patience, discipline, and focus. Kawhi Leonard, their leader, is the NBA’s foremost adherent to Mr. Miyagi’s philosophy, embodying the wax-on, wax-off patience that allows players to ride the waves inherent to competition. Toronto embodies Leonard’s mindset. After falling down 0-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors won the next four to reach this stage. Poise is their defining feature.
Yet somehow Toronto lost their collective cool while leading by double-digits in game two of the NBA Finals.
The Warriors lost Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson to injury during game two. Andre Iguodala seemed to be hurt on a Marc Gasol screen in the second quarter. Steph Curry didn’t feel like himself throughout the game, which Steve Kerr said was dehydration. The Warriors were not the Peak Warriors even in victory. Golden State absolutely stole this game, but it was because the Raptors outplayed themselves. The Raptors threw away an eminently winnable game while missing 27 3s, but there is always a silver lining in such heartbreaking losses.
The Raptors have a sustainable, replicable path to victory. Score the ball, just a little bit, and then let your defense maul and brutalize and clamp down on your opponents until there’s nothing left of them but dust. That’s what they did against the Sixers, and the Bucks, and for six straight quarters, that’s what they did against the Warriors. They can do it again.
“Yeah, we’re good,” said Fred VanVleet. “You guys didn’t think this was going to be a sweep, I don’t know like what you guys thought this series was going to look like, but we went into it expecting a dog fight. And, yes, we won Game 1, I think everybody else outside of our locker room was a lot more excited than we were. We understand what this team brings and what type of effort it’s going to take to beat these guys.”
My father beat me for many years despite me being the better pool player. It took me a race to 100 games to learn how to win, how to keep from beating myself. This series won’t last 100 games, but the Toronto Raptors are a better basketball team than the Golden State Warriors. Hopefully, the Raptors can learn that truth before it’s too late.