The 1893 Chicago World Fair was marred by potentially hundreds of murders committed during the exhibition by serial killer HH Holmes. The fair itself was glorious, as architects constructed buildings intended to shock and awe; the grounds became known as the White City. Still, history remembers the event for Holmes’ ghastly crimes. Unexpected violence, and our reactions to it, can overshadow otherwise exciting events.
The end of game five between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors was actually thrilling. But it was overshadowed by a horrific injury to Kevin Durant and Toronto’s unexpected reaction. The Raptors lost 106-105 to the Warriors in exciting, if disappointing, fashion. The Raptors punted the first three quarters, played as poorly as they’ve played since game two in the Milwaukee Bucks series, and still had a shot to win an NBA Championship at the buzzer. For a minute there, it seemed like the thing was actually signed, sealed, and delivered. Toronto had a firm grasp on the game with a six-point lead with only three minutes remaining.
It all fell apart.
The game actually started well, in terms of entertainment value. The crowd was more energetic from tip-off than any since Toronto’s closeout game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Even though the Golden State Warriors were flamethrowers, hitting eight of their first 12 triples, the Raptors stayed competitive. They created great shots at will with Marc Gasol screening in the pick-and-roll. Gasol himself jumped out to 10 points in the first quarter, as Toronto actually stayed within punching distance despite the Warriors’ eruption. Defense wasn’t a priority, but that just makes basketball more fun.
The first quarter was the high water mark for the actual basketball played, at least for some time.
Early in the second quarter, trying to isolate against Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant went down with another non-contact injury. Remember, Durant has been out of the playoffs for just over a month with a calf strain. He went to the ground clutching the same area of the same leg, and early reports are that it is likely to be an achilles tear. With pressure from media and fans, Durant returned with the Warriors teetering on the edge. He had been playing brilliantly, scoring 11 points in the first quarter. He is almost certainly not going to return to the series.
Bob Myers addressed Durant’s injury after the game, and to add to the strangeness of the situation, Myers was on the verge of tears during his address to the media.
“He was cleared to play tonight; that was a collaborative decision,” said the emotional Myers. “I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to, you can blame me.”
To add to the madness, the Toronto crowd seemed to cheer Durant’s injury when it occurred. To the crowd’s credit, Kyle Lowry and others indicated for the crowd to clean up their act, and the crowd turned their chants into “KD! KD! KD” as he left the floor.
“I’m very confused around that reaction,” said Steph Curry. “It’s not my experience of people with this city. I commend Danny Green and Kyle Lowry, especially, I think they were the ones signalling to the crowd… You hate to see that when a guy’s going through pain like that. That’s not my experience with that city. I just hope that ugliness doesn’t show itself again.”
“I think that I don’t think the fans knew the significance of the injury,” said Lowry after the game. “They kind of just seen he went down. In this league we’re all brothers. At the end of the day, we’re all brothers and it’s a small brotherhood and you never want to see a competitor like him go down.”
The damage was done, though. The air had been completely sucked out of the building. The emotional energy had changed. The crowd was quiet for the next several minutes, and though both teams’ focus and effort waned after the injury, the Warriors were actually the team that rebounded better from the event. They went on an immediate 7-0 run. Both teams had their play affected during the strange stretch.
“I did get some reaction from guys on our bench, and some of the guys on our bench were really shook up,” said Nick Nurse. “And I even know at halftime when they came out and I don’t know what the official word is, but somebody on the bench said he tore something. And I know Kyle was on the bench sitting there and was shook up by that, and both Klay and Steph stopped and talked to Kyle there at halftime on our bench about it.”
“So I think it’s always a little eerie feeling for everybody when something like that happens on a big stage like this.”
“There was nothing to be said [to my team],” said Steve Kerr. “The Raptors players were telling the crowd to be quiet, out of respect, which I appreciated. Some of the fans were cheering when it happened, and I think the Raptors players understood how serious it was, and they sort of quieted the crowd. There was just a couple minutes there where it all seemed so eerie and strange, and it took maybe a little bit for both teams to collect themselves.”
It’s telling that both coaches used the word “eerie.” It was clear that the Durant injury and following malaise affected the players to the extent that it changed the shape of the game. On top of that, ticky-tack fouls kept both teams out of their flow, as 28 first-half fouls kept the game the wrong kind of slow. When the dust settled, the Warriors led 62-56, but the Raptors seemed lucky to be down only six at half.
Toronto turned it around quickly in the fourth. Ibaka dunked a ball on a cut and then swatted a Curry layup. The crowd – just as stricken with ennui for the second and third quarters as the Raptors – finally roared back into the game like a newly active volcano. Norman Powell threw down a one-hander in transition reminiscent of his Pacers dunk of playoffs gone by. Just like in the third quarter of game four, Leonard hit a pair of icy pull-up triples after walking the ball up the court both times. The Raptors led, and the crowd vibrated through the entire arena and beyond. For a moment, the crowd’s frenetic energy was reminiscent of Toronto’s carnivalesque game six home win against the Bucks.
But Nurse called a timeout with Leonard having scored 10 straight points. He did it because the Raptors would have lost the timeouts if he hadn’t used them, and he wanted to get his players some rest. The decision was questionable, as the Raptors lost all momentum coming out of the timeout. The Warriors responded with championship poise. Thompson and Curry combined for three consecutive triples in the next few minutes. Though Lowry had a chance to win the game with a last-second shot from the corner, Draymond Green blocked the shot. These strange delights have strange ends.
All in all, the Warriors outscored the Raptors 60-24 from deep. The game had incredibly strange flow and rhythm. Kawhi Leonard had one of his worst games in the playoffs, shooting 9-for-24 from the field, including five turnovers. He had trouble all night creating any separation from Andre Iguodala. The Raptors have a variety of causes to which they could point for the loss. Over it all, Durant’s injury continued to cast a shadow of gloom over the basketball game. But the reality remains, the Warriors won, and the Raptors missed a golden opportunity to win an NBA title. There will be more chances to win, but Toronto gave a chance to a faltering champion.
Tonight was supposed to be a celebration for the Raptors, a fair, the building of a shining white city to signify a franchise’s progress. Instead the Raptors seemed overwhelmed by a new impetus, unable to recover their focus after Durant’s injury. They gave away two quarters of an NBA Finals game. Tonight was supposed to be a basketball victory of the highest order, but instead of basketball, we’re talking about a far more gruesome subject. The Raptors are trying to capture history, but the narrative thread got away from them tonight. Pray for Kevin Durant, for his health and happiness are more bigger than basketball. But pray, too, that the Raptors can make this series, and this championship, once more about them.