Don’t relax: Raptors know exactly what 3-1 means

Shawn Livingston dropped a leaner in the paint and the crowd, desperate for a reason to come to life in what may be the last game played at the Oracle Arena, started clapping and rising to their feet. The Warriors had nine minutes left to erase a 10-point deficit in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, a feat that was once, during their heyday, more of an expectation than a challenge. Child’s play, really.

Stephen Curry and Livingston swarmed Pascal Siakam, a fingernail away from tipping the ball away. Kyle Lowryslipped a pass underneath Draymond Green’s splayed out legs, and Serge Ibaka — who scored 12 of his 20 points in an 11-minute stretch of the second half —turned, rose and nailed the righty hook, while Curry slapped at his elbow. The whistle blew, Ibaka pumped his fist, marched to the line and completed the 3-point play.

Three years ago in the Western Conference finals, Ibaka helped anchor the Thunder defense that nearly brought Golden State to its knees, only to watch them rattle off three straight wins and erase a 3-1 deficit. He knows what the mighty Warriors are capable of with their backs against the wall. They are the Goliath that thrives when it’s treated like David, thriving on doubt and pushing the accelerator right when they sense a lull in their opponent.

Prior to the Finals, I asked Ibaka the biggest lesson he took away from that series. “If you have an opportunity to beat them,” he said, “go for it. Don’t relax.”

So every time the Warriors made a run in the second half, there was Serge — cutting hard to the basket, making extra passes he never made before May, drilling the triple that gave Toronto its fifth and final lead, running out to contest shooters. He wasn’t the only one.

Serge Ibaka (9) and the Toronto Raptors know how dangerous the Warriors still are, even down 3-1 in the NBA Finals. (Getty)

Serge Ibaka (9) and the Toronto Raptors know how dangerous the Warriors still are, even down 3-1 in the NBA Finals. (Getty)

Serge Ibaka (9) and the Toronto Raptors know how dangerous the Warriors still are, even down 3-1 in the NBA Finals. (Getty)

In Game 2, the Raptors succumbed to the stuff of legend, a tradition that had endured despite Kevin Durant’s absence: a blistering third-quarter Warriors run. In the second half of Game 4, Leonard cut through the game’s frenetic tension by opening the half with a three in transition, swiping Draymond Green in the post, dribbling down the floor, slowing down to a halt, assessing his space and drilling another one. Few players have a sense of where they are and what they can pull off in a moment quite like Leonard does. He can simply take command of a game.

“Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big F-you shots to start the half,” said Fred VanVleet after the game. “There’s no defense for that. There are no schemes for that. That’s two big-boy shots that he came out of the half with. That just kind of let you know how we were going to approach the third quarter and the rest of the half.” Every successive onslaught the Raptors survived makes the prospect of a series comeback harder to fathom.

Of course, it would still be foolish to assume the Warriors — these Warriors — couldn’t rip off three straight victories, especially if Kevin Durant returns.

The lesson of Ibaka’s past, in the end, could be the Warriors’ rallying cry. They know the road ahead will be hard. They also know it’s not impossible.

“It’s not over. It’s not a good feeling right now, obviously, but we have been on both sides of it,” Curry said after the game. “It’s an opportunity for us to just flip this whole series on its head, and you got to do it one game at a time. It sounds cliché, and for us that’s literally the only way we’re going to get back in this series, is give everything we got for 48 minutes. In our locker room we’re talking about believing, everybody out there believe that we can get this done. We can draw on those experiences that we had back in the day and see what happens.”

Reports indicate that after two straight wins, the Raptors came out of the locker room quiet and business-like, as uncelebratory as their best player. Four of their critical pieces — Leonard, Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Ibaka — understand what it’s like to have Golden State on the ropes. The Warriors have the institutional knowledge. What they won’t have is the element of surprise.

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