Published On: Sun, Jan 14th, 2018

Warriors bring their special sound, and Raptors almost have answer

I mean, what are you going to do? You’ve fought back from a 27-point deficit against the NBA champions after they put together a first half that their coach, who played on three title teams with Michael Jordan and two more with Tim Duncan, called “probably the best offensive half of basketball I can ever remember.” The calls don’t all go your way, but you have a shot from your offensive superstar to take the lead in the final minute. Good deal.

And they stick a seven-foot small forward who is third in the league in blocked shots, and he makes the shot difficult, so you miss. He is also a former MVP, and they stick him in a pick-and-roll with a two-time MVP who is nearly a foot shorter. What are you going to do?

In this case, you’re gonna watch Steph Curry find Kevin Durant for a lethal midrange jumper for a 125-122 lead with 22 seconds left, and your offence will break down on the next possession. The rest was mess and muck, and the Toronto Raptors lost to the Golden State Warriors 127-125. It was a hell of a game.

“They played great,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “They were physical. I give them credit.”

The Raptors got all fussed about some late calls — a Jakob Poeltl block of Curry called a foul, a replay that overturned an out-of-bounds call with one second left. They had a point, but it’s a long game, and if you give up 81 in the first half, maybe don’t go the “we were playing five-on-eight” route. The Raptors were angry they lost. Team president Masai Ujiri, coach Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan — who had 42 commanding points on 31 shots — everyone, they were mad. They should be. They could have beaten the best team in basketball without point guard Kyle Lowry. They came for the king, and they missed.

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“We’re not really into moral victories around here,” said point guard Fred Van Vleet, who had 13 points off the bench. “So you gotta look and see what you coulda done better.”

“We fight,” said DeRozan, “period.”

But there is a sound in basketball that’s reserved for the very best players, or the best teams, or in some rare cases, all the best players on the best team, on the road. It’s a combination of the crowd gasping in fear, excitement and appreciation, that moment where an opponent wins over the home crowd’s tribal affiliation and forces a sort of delighted surrender.

And when Durant hit that shot — for that matter, when he canned back-to-back threes when the Raptors first cut the lead into single digits, in the third quarter — you heard it, too. Wow. Did you see that? Wow. And when it came down to the tough stuff, after Toronto’s defence locked in after halftime, after Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl and Van Vleet and C.J. Miles and DeRozan led the fourth-quarter comeback, after the bench had been taken apart in the second quarter before that . . . well, that’s where the difference could be found.

Durant could slide over and guard DeRozan, and force something resembling a difficult shot for him. Durant could slide off Curry, because it’s almost impossible to switch a pick-and-roll with a six-foot-three waterbug genius MVP and a towering six-foot-11 assassin MVP. DeRozan is one all-star; the Warriors have four. Complain about the officials if you want, but the Warriors piled up 22 assists and one turnover and 71 per cent shooting in the first half.

“We were just too antsy, too antsy, jumping at everything that we did, overreacted,” DeRozan said. “In the second half we just buckled down and stayed solid.”

In other words, they decided not to treat them like the champs, and that’s the lesson. Over the last three years, the Raptors have played the Golden State Warriors pretty well, without beating them. This game was what Cleveland failed to do when they came to Toronto on Thursday and barely put up a fight in a 133-99 demolition, and it’s a hell of a contrast between those two contenders’ habits. Golden State came in a league-leading 34-9 despite Kevin Durant missing eight games, Curry missing 14, Draymond Green missing six. Absurd.

But once the Raptors played like they belonged in the game, they belonged in the game. They’re better with Lowry, obviously. But Golden State entered the game first in offensive rating and third in defensive rating; Toronto came in third, and fourth. But the Warriors are a different class.

“What the league couldn’t figure out about them (was) positionless basketball,” said veteran wing C.J. Miles. “But with them, all the guys at the position are better, are great at that position. It’s positionless, but Steph is a great point guard, Klay is a great two guard, Durant is a great small forward, Draymond is a great power forward. And then it’s like, Kevin is also a great power forward. Klay’s a good small forward. Steph can play two guard. You know what I mean?”

“They just play, and it allows everybody’s talents and skills to be under a magnifying glass. Everything looks bigger. So what you need on the other side is guys who can make it tough, who compete.”

That was these Raptors, in the second half. But DeRozan isn’t Durant, and doesn’t have three all-stars alongside him. What are you going to do?

You fight. That’s all.

It must be nice being the Warriors, and building something so beautiful and harmonious that a superstar dropped from the sky. Before the game, Kerr was asked about ESPN’s recent story about Charlotte coach Steve Clifford, who had to step away from the job because of the toll it was taking on his health. Kerr has dealt with complications from back surgery that nearly drove him from the league, but otherwise, there was no similarity.

“I can’t relate to that one bit,” Kerr said. “My health was strictly related to a surgery gone bad. I love my job, I love everything about it, I don’t get too stressed about it. Maybe because I have great players.”

It’s a good life. But the Raptors have built their own thing here, with less extravagant building materials. And here’s what the last two games did: They showed themselves, and the kids on this team, that they can run with the biggest dogs. They are fighters, and they are a real team. Here in Toronto we are obsessed with the impossible idea of surmounting LeBron; the Cavs may look old and slow now, but they won’t forever. LeBron always has the answers, in the East.

But there’s a taller mountain beyond those peaks, too. And it must be a hell of a feeling to stand atop it, and hear that sound.

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Warriors bring their special sound, and Raptors almost have answer