OAKLAND, Calif. – None of it felt completely real until the final buzzer, but here we are. The Toronto Raptors are one win away from an NBA title. By the end of Game 4, the Raptors looked deeper, stronger and smarter than the Warriors. It was a story that began with defense. The Raptors harassed the Warriors all night—Golden State shot just 45%, including 30% from three alongside 19 turnovers. That defense is what allowed the Raptors to keep the game from getting out of hand in the first half. Then, in the third quarter, it ended with Kawhi Leonard.
"He played amazing," Steph Curry said of Leonard. "He hit every big momentum shot in that third quarter. It gave them the lead. And then kept the separation. They took control of the game. It's one of those nights where you play with a lot of energy and you start to build momentum and then the wheels fall off a little bit."
On the way into Game 4, I wrote this is in our preview: "If I were a Warriors fan, I would be wary. Kawhi can play better than he has. He can dominate in the midrange, he can hit from outside, and when the game slows to a grind, he can take over. The Raptors have gotten a great win at home (Game 1) and a killer game from their role players (Game 3), and now Golden State is wobbling. Game 4 would be the perfect time for Kawhi to step forward and provide a knockout punch that changes the entire series and sends the Warriors into full-on crisis mode."
In the end, that's exactly the way the night unfolded. The Toronto defense smothered a confident Warriors team and made them work for everything in the first half, and then Kawhi buried shot after shot to take control of the game after halftime. The Warriors' third-quarter spurts have been legend over the course of this team's run at the top of the league—exhibit A would be this ESPN long-form article, or exhibit B would be Game 2, when Golden State seemed to take control of the series after a 20-1 run at the end of the second quarter and into the third.
Friday, the entire story flipped. So did the series. Toronto was able to hang around in the second quarter and narrowed a double-digit Golden State lead to just four points by halftime. In the third, the Raptors won the quarter by a whopping 16 points. The run was jumpstarted by back-to-back Kawhi threes to begin the half and it was punctuated by 11 points from Leonard in the final 3:17 of the quarter.
Kawhi finished with 36 points, 12 rebounds and four steals on 12-of-22 shooting. The entire night was a masterpiece. In the first quarter, too, Leonard put up 14 points and carried the Toronto offense when it looked like the Warriors may take control of the game. The other Raptors went 1-of-13 from the field for just three points through that stretch, but Kawhi kept the team afloat and Toronto made it to the second quarter with the margin still in single digits.
The rest of the Raptors deserve credit alongside Kawhi. Their defense was excellent, and players like Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry made plays all night long. "Most teams will take cues from their star players," Nick Nurse said of Leonard afterward. "But Marc's pretty steady out there. Kyle's been great with his emotional makeup this season. Pascal, for being a young guy, has probably taken the cues from those older guys. And Freddie, Freddie's pretty steady too."
Kawhi's 2019 playoff run seems like it could go down in history alongside Dwyane Wade in 2006, Dirk Nowitzki in 2011, LeBron in 2016, and every other legendary run we'll be talking about for the next several decades. But the entire Raptors rotation has been relentless every step of the way in these playoffs. Each time it looks like they'll finally fold, they come back and silence every doubter. That happened in the second round, the Eastern Conference finals, and even halfway through the second quarter in Game 4, when what initially looked like a comfortable Warriors win quickly became a lot more interesting. Frankly, we all should have known better.
On the Warriors side, the next few days will be dominated by questions about Kevin Durant's health and plenty of soul searching. Klay Thompson returned from injury with an excellent night—28 points on 11-of-18 shooting—but Curry struggled. He scored 27 points but he was 9-of-22 from the floor and hesitated on several threes. By the end, he looked exhausted and so did the entire team.
Now the Warriors are on the brink. It seems impossible that Golden State would finish this series losing three straight games to this Toronto team, but so far in the Finals, the Raptors have been flat-out better on both ends of the floor. Outside of 18 minutes in Game 2 and the first quarter in Game 4, Toronto has controlled practically the entire series. Also, for the record, it once seemed impossible that the Warriors would return to Oracle and lose both games at home.
"We're playing a really good team," Steve Kerr said postgame. "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. 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. So they're playing well, and we have got to do better."
The series isn't over, but the Raptors have control. The Warriors are staring at the toughest challenge we've seen them face in their past five years at the top of the league. Kawhi is in the midst of a historic run, his teammates continue to step up on both ends of the floor, and Golden State looks shorthanded and exhausted. All of this is going places that nobody in basketball could have imagined even 10 days ago. At the end of the night, another media member ventured into the press room and laughed at the game we just watched. "What the f--k?" he asked.
I'm sure the Warriors are asking the same thing.