Recency bias is a hateful but dominant force in the best-of-seven world, so the clear assumption to be made from Game 4 of the NBA Finals is that Game 6 seems unlikely. The Toronto Raptors are the new Golden State Warriors, and the Golden State Warriors are finally all about the trailing step, the anxious shot, and the slumped shoulder. They are what they destroyed for years.
Indeed, after Toronto’s 105-92 domination in Game 4, the continental vibe from San Diego to St. John’s, and from West Palm Beach to Whitehorse, shifted viscerally from “When is Kevin Durant coming back?” to “My, didn’t Game 4 look a lot like Game 3 and Game 1?” The Raptors broke poorly, perhaps overwhelmed by the miracle cures provided to Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney, and then exhausted them and their mates the way a boa constrictor prepares dinner.
In other words, Kawhi Leonard happened with a concrete vengeance. So very much Kawhi Leonard.
Not just Leonard, though. Serge Ibaka rose yet again, Pascal Siakam played whoever was on him to a dead tie, and the poor shooting of the rest of the kids (12-of-38) was more than allayed by a superior unitary defensive performance. The 92 points was Golden State’s fourth-lowest playoff total of the championship era, and their complete absence of scoring runs was absurdly unlike them.
But someone had to be the Warriors in Oakland, so the Raptors decided to be them—We The West, if you want to be lazy about it.
They absolutely turned into the spot-on Warriors in the third quarter and made sure the dagger they inserted after halftime stayed put. They have won 13 of the 16 quarters in this series, and in the third quarter, which the popular lore says the Warriors have controlled this year, they were soul-crushed, 37-21. They failed to defend well again, they looked flustered, and other than Shaun Livingston’s high stick of Fred VanVleet in the third, they laid remarkably few gloves on their younger, more vibrant doppelgangers.
Or, in the Draymondian vernacular: “It sucks. It really sucks … It sucks. A lot.”
Now under the rules of this series, which hadn’t found a form through the first three games, the new recency bias is that the Warriors are done, and the tyranny of the math shouts it. Teams down 3-1 in playoff history are 11-233, and 1-33 in the Finals, and you get no points whatsoever for identifying the “1.” Even Durant with hydraulic legs should not be able to reject history enough times for this to end other than with a new winner and an old debate about how many titles makes a dynasty.
It may settle the “See-I-Told-You-They-Needed-Durant” crowd, which has reacted to the shouty-chat-show nitwitfests that raised the notion that Durant was largely extraneous to requirements. That, though, would take one more lurching course correction in a series that more and more looks like the Warriors being overthrown by one of their creations. They went to the trouble of changing the NBA and are finding out face-first what happens when the pupils get uppity.
This is not an announcement that free agency begins Tuesday morning once the Toronto muni cops sweep the last of the inert celebrants out of the middle of Yonge Street. We deserve to see the Warriors’ last kicks, and maybe even the eradication of the 3-1 stigmata from their collective hands. Even Game 4, which was a hot mess if you’re one of those tedious bores who like shooting accuracy, was deliciously tense.
But there is no guarantee that even that will endure. The Warriors are being asked to do the one thing nobody has ever really seen them do—punch uphill with sore hands and leaden legs. Even the 2016 team that caught and beat Oklahoma City after going down 3-1 was at least healthy and creative. These Warriors look, well, like they see the future coming sooner than they expected, and are trying to figure out whether they can do anything to prevent it. After all, recency bias is there to be defied. It’s just that this series has reached the point where that seems just too damned difficult.
Ray Ratto is developing a taste for Tim Horton’s, because shameless frontrunning comes in many forms.