Raptors squander golden opportunity to lift first title

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors blew it. There’s no other way around it.

There are two more chances to close it out, but one does not simply throw away a golden opportunity to close out the two-time reigning champs. An entire nation was ready to celebrate its first major championship in nearly three decades, and all the Raptors needed to do was hold on for three minutes against a wounded foe.

The Golden State Warriors were down for the count. Kawhi Leonard threw haymaker after haymaker to finally give the Raptors the breakthrough they needed. Leonard delivered a personal 14-0 run — including an acrobatic assist to Norman Powell on a streaking dunk coupled with 12 points by his own hand — to give the Raptors a six-point advantage with three minutes left. The roof was ready to blow at Scotiabank Arena, 85-year-old Bill Russell was ready with the Finals MVP trophy, and the ropes were about to be unfurled for the first time north of the border.

That’s when Nick Nurse called a regrettable timeout that killed all the momentum. It was a use-it-or-lose-it situation, and Nurse explained postgame that he wanted to give his team a breather. But instead it was the Warriors who got the boost, as they roared back to life with three straight triples to take the lead. As they have done so many times over this dynasty, the Splash Brothers gave the Warriors new life when they were otherwise down on the mat. They played with the heart of a champion.

On the other hand, the Raptors just lost their mojo. Leonard jacked up two tough looks — an awkward turnaround jumper that was mostly a heat check, followed by pull-up three over Klay Thompson that was supposed to be a dagger — but those were understandable decisions given the run he was on. If anything, it was curious as to why the Raptors chose to call timeout to ice their own player, because Golden State made a concerted effort to double and force Leonard to pass after the timeout, which forced his teammates to make clutch plays.

Most of that responsibility fell on Kyle Lowry, who just couldn’t deliver. Lowry was rolling earlier in the game with his crafty drives to the rim, but that same aggression was missing down the stretch. He clanged a wide-open three from the wing off a broken possession, and he tossed Marc Gasol a grenade off a drive to the rim with less than two minutes left that ended up as a sad turnover. Lowry did settle down after the timeout by feeding Gasol on the roll (DeMarcus Cousins got away with a blocking foul that went uncalled) and by sneaking a layup past Cousins, but it was hardly a confident approach by Toronto’s floor general.

And yet, the Warriors still gave the Raptors a chance to steal it. Green committed a silly backcourt violation, and then Cousins was whistled for a ticky-tack moving screen to give the Raptors possession down one with 16 seconds left. The stage was set for another dramatic ending similar to Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. The play would be for Leonard, and surely, he would get a shot off.

Nurse had one timeout remaining, but he chose to sit on it. Instead, Leonard ran the play from the top of the key, and the Warriors swarmed him. He was caught with a quick double team by Andre Iguodala at the top of the key, and Leonard did the right thing by swinging the ball. However, the Raptors just didn’t have the proper spacing to capitalize as Lowry and Gasol were bunched up along the baseline, which allowed Green to rotate over and deflect Lowry’s corner jumper.

All in all, it was a deserving result for the Warriors, who rallied around Kevin Durant’s devastating Achilles’ injury and held the lead for most of the night. Golden State was clearly shorthanded, and the game was right there for the taking, except the Raptors never made a serious push until Leonard stepped up. It would have been almost cruel for the Warriors to lose in such fashion. But the Raptors gave it right back by making too many mistakes down the stretch.

The odds still favor Toronto as the series returns to Oakland for the final game at Oracle Arena. Durant is out for good, and Kevon Looney exited the game after re-aggravating his shoulder injury. But the Warriors still have their core intact, and on any given night they could catch fire from deep. Toronto should still take the series, but if it repeats the same lackadasical approach from Game 5, the Raptors might just have nothing but regret.

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