Barber: Raptors' 3-minute meltdown has Warriors soaring

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On a night that brought so much darkness, the Warriors received a glimmer of hope.

They have been back on their heels for practically all of these NBA Finals, pursued by a Raptors team that is hungry, relentless and almost without emotion — a collection of Russian villains from cheap 1970s cinema. But in the final three minutes or so of Game 5 in Toronto, a minor crack opened up. A crack in the Raptors’ impenetrable facade. A crack in the gloom that has made this series such a burden for the Warriors.

For a few minutes, the Raptors looked vulnerable. The Warriors took advantage, as champions do, and they returned to Oakland on Tuesday with newfound hope, even as one of their own, Kevin Durant, flew to New York to receive the official, terrible news about his right Achilles tendon.

I suppose you could argue that we had already seen the Raptors’ weakness, at the start of the third quarter in Game 2. That was when the Warriors tore through a dazzling 18-0 run to seal their first victory in the Finals.

It’s true that the Raptors seemed a bit paralyzed by that blitz. It’s also true that they recovered from it. They stopped the bleeding with a Fred VanVleet 3-pointer, and by the time 26 seconds remained in the game, they had turned a 13-point deficit into a two-point, one-possession stare-down. It took Andre Iguodala’s classic 3-point shot to seal the win.

From that point on, the Raptors appeared able to counter every challenge Golden State presented, and to go one better. And that included Monday night, when Toronto overcame both Durant’s return to the court and his sudden, cruel removal — the first a strategic gain for the Warriors, the second an inspirational one — to take control yet again.

The Raptors’ surge from the 11:32 mark of the fourth quarter to right around 3:05 was nothing short of fearsome. It encapsulated everything that has tormented the Warriors in this series. Toronto outrebounded the visitors 9-4 in that span and connected on 11 of 15 shots, while holding the Warriors to 5 for 14.

In particular, Kawhi Leonard was all but unstoppable for those 8 minutes and 27 seconds. He scored 13 of the final 15 points of the Raptors’ flurry, and assisted Normal Powell’s unabated dunk on the other two. Leonard calmly blasted 3-point shots, scored off of offensive rebounds and finished difficult, contested pull-ups.

Before the NBA Finals began, I wrote that Leonard is the best player in the NBA, and he’s done nothing to change my mind. This fourth quarter was his signature moment, as if he needed one after his miraculous shot to eliminate Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But you saw what happened in the final 3 minutes. The Warriors have stars, too, and they rose when summoned, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry and Thompson again hitting three straight 3-pointers, and Draymond Green finishing the game — finishing the Raptors — with a brilliant defensive stop on Kyle Lowry’s attempted buzzer-beater.

It isn’t just the result that should have the Warriors optimistic. It’s the nervousness the Raptors revealed — a trait we hadn’t seen from them in the Finals.

A lot of people, or perhaps a few very loud people, have criticized Leonard for passing to Lowry out of a double team on that final possession. What nonsense. The Warriors had Leonard bracketed. He made the right play.

But the Raptors generally lost their flow over those 3 minutes. They have been so poised and unhurried during this series. They have dictated to the Warriors rather than receiving. That changed at the end of Game 5 as the Raptors settled for bad shots and forced opportunities that weren’t really there. One possession, with Toronto clinging to a 103-100 lead, ended in a turnover when Lowry had to run down an errant pass that crossed the halfcourt line.

You know who else showed his vulnerability? Nick Nurse, the Raptors’ coach.

Nurse has been one of the stars of the NBA Finals. He has gotten the better of Steve Kerr in most every way, has made all the right substitutions and strategic tweaks, has said all the right things to keep his players confident as they took on this underdog’s challenge.

Now Nurse is under the microscope. Astute observers of Raptors basketball noted that Pascal Siakam, the North’s athletic forward, sat on the bench for the entirety of the final 9 minutes, 2 seconds on Monday. True, Siakam hadn’t had a great game. But he has been a big part of Toronto’s three wins. He wasn’t in foul trouble and, as far as I know, wasn’t hurt. His absence was puzzling, and I’m guessing it was greeted warmly by the Warriors.

Then there were those back-to-back timeouts with 3:05 left in the game. Nurse’s team was rolling at that point, having built its largest lead of the game at 103-97. The Warriors were staggered. But it was Nurse who brought the action to a stop.

“Yeah, well, we had two free ones that you lose under the three-minute mark, and we just came across and just decided to give those guys a rest, and we had back-to-back ones there that we would have lost them under the three-minute mark,” Nurse said afterward, sounding as though he were trying to convince himself. “And just thought we could use the extra energy push.”

You may recognize 3:05 as the pivot point. It was the Warriors who got that energy push. And Nurse is being pilloried for his decision.

None of this adds up to a guaranteed Warriors victory in Game 6 or, should they win that one, a close-out for the defending champs at Toronto in Game 7. But the pressure has shifted to the Raptors. They have answered every time their names have been called in this strange and electric series. Now they face the biggest challenge of all — the challenge of knowing they have never won anything truly meaningful together, and that they are playing a team that’s done it over and over.

“When you’re down six with a couple minutes to go in an elimination game for these guys to win a championship, we could have thrown in the towel,” Draymond Green observed. “We could have folded, but we didn’t. I said it before: I’ve never seen this group fold. And that stands true still.”

The Warriors are hurt and lagging behind. But their belief is undiminished. Can the same be said of the Raptors?

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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