Pre-Game: Road Warriors
In their fifth straight Finals, “your” Golden State Warriors open their quest for a fourth championship on the road for the first time. Most teams play better at home, for obvious reasons.
But, over these past five years, the team has gone from Homeboys to Road Warriors.
Not that their record is so much better on the road than at home. It’s not, but over the past two years, especially this past regular season, the Dubs tend to play a hungrier, more aggressive style when they are in a “hostile” environment.
Might tipping off in Toronto portend good things to come? Yes and no.
Being on the road, three time zones ahead of one’s circadian clock, can wreak mind-body havoc.
Time in a basketball game at the professional level goes beyond the shot clock or the game clock. And the kind of game the Dubs play, like a full ballet, requires the blending of an intricate range of timing involving multiple players.
First Quarter: Skylark Bar
Agreed. The Skylark is a weird place to watch Game One of the NBA Finals.
Outside, an old guy in a battered fedora, who looks Canadian, asks a couple of guys if the game is on tonight. “No,” says one. “Yes,” says the other, and they go off chattering to each other. Inside, the Dubs are playing against a bright red wall adorned with sea serpents and a green-and-blue octopus seducing a mermaid.
On TV, the Dubs look as out of sync as they do out of place in this bar. Daliesque you might say. The Raptors, like sea serpents, are quicker, smoother, deadlier. Two elements of the Dubs’ strategy don’t seem to be working.
First, they are sending two guys to trap Raptor superstar Kawhi Leonard to make him pass the pass to the ball to someone else. This worked well against the Rockets and the Blazers. But if Leonard makes the good pass, at the right time, the Raptors have a four to three advantage. Time and again, Leonard makes the good pass.
The main guy he’s passing to is center Marc Gasol, who the Raptors picked up in February. Dubs coach Steve Kerr started sophomore center Jordan Bell, whose athleticism, in theory, would drive Gasol nuts. Wrong. Gasol holds his own on defense and sinks two wide-open threes.
The Dubs give up wide-open shots to the Raptors, who make a fair number. Meanwhile, all the offense the Dubs can muster is named Steph Curry. He hits three three-point shots.
Otherwise, the team is laying bricks, scoring just 21 points in the quarter, and the crowd at the Skylark is shaking its collective head and ordering another drink.
Second Quarter: Skylark Bar
If you watched the Dubs-Blazers series, you know the Dubs frequently play a tentative first half and fall behind early. So breathe easy, go outside for a smoke.
DeMarcus Cousins shows up to begin the second quarter. An All-Star who has been working his way through difficult injuries, Cousins has missed the past six weeks. He looks it. Slow, awkward – but not terrible. He slips a great pass to Klay Thompson for a dunk that gets the Skylark roaring.
Who has the longer arms — Dubs or Raptors? The Raptors look like that octopus on the wall, strangling, not seducing, the Dubs’ offense. Steph only gets off two shots; both miss.
Yet with four minutes left to play in the half, the Raptors are only up by one. Over the next 60 seconds, Pascal Siakam hits three shots for seven points. And with Marc Gasol dominating at center, the Raptors go up by 10 at halftime.
“It’s not been my day since 5:30 this morning,” grumps the guy down the bar for all to hear and all commiserate.
Third Quarter: The 500 Club
Last year against Houston, the Dubs were down by double figures at halftime in Games 6 and 7. When Mission Local went to The 500 Club, those leads quickly evaporated. The club, under new management, is packed with old-timers, new timers and some timers.
And yes, the Dubs come out the second half with sharper defense, and when Curry hits a couple of three-point shots, the noise from The 500 Club is loud and knowing. The Dubs are roaring back!
But hold on. Every time the Dubs hit a few shots and look to be going on a run, the Raptors respond. Specifically, Pascal Siakam responds.
Who is Pascal Siakam? A third-year player from Cameroon, Siakam is a six-foot-nine-inch guy with very long arms, very fast feet, and a very promising future. Right now, he’s killing the Dubs when the Raptors start running. When not running, he’s beating Draymond Green one-on-one. What a quarter!!! He scores 14 points and almost single-handedly prevents the Dubs from grabbing the lead.
For the Warriors, Steph comes back, scoring 13 in the quarter. Other players begin to break down the Raptors defense, and with under a minute to play, Dubs’ center Kevon Looney tips in a shot, cutting the Raptors’ lead to four.
But once again, the Dubs are too slow on defense and former Warrior Pat McCaw makes them pay. Amid groans and sighs, the quarter ends with the Raptors up seven.
Fourth Quarter: Giordano’s
As Ricky walks into Giordano’s, the overflow crowd is chanting, “Defense! DEEEFENSE!” I acknowledge their cheers and squeeze into a corner.
The teams trade foul shots as the tension escalates. With under 11 minutes left, Dubs’ benchman Jonas Jerebko nails a three to cut the lead to four points. Unfortunately, the Dubs won’t score another field goal over the next four minutes and, by the time they do, the Raptors have built a 12-point lead. Thompson comes alive, and although the crowd at Giordano’s is exploding, it’s too little, too late. The Dubs will make it close a couple more times, but the Raptors defense holds like it has all game while their role players sink critical shots.
Raptors end it, 118-109.
Post-Game: I feel you.
“It’s only the first game! We got this thing,” a woman shouts as fans spill out onto 16th Street.
She’s right. Partially. The first game of a seven-game series is usually a game for teams to get a feel for each other. Especially, when, like this time, they don’t really know each other.
Overall, the Dubs looked like they didn’t expect Raptors’ speed and their disruptively long arms.
The Dubs turned the ball over 17 times, most resulting in Raptors fast breaks. The Dubs dared any Raptors not named Kawhi to beat them. The “others” obliged — an impressive team effort.
What have the Dubs learned, and can they turn their lessons into a win? The Dubs’ goal this trip was to win one. They’ve got another chance on Sunday at 5.