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Even in defeat, Raptors have captured Warriors’ attention

When Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was holding forth before his team’s only visit to Air Canada Centre, he was reminded that this was a meeting of the NBA’s two best teams – statistically at least.

The Warriors and Raptors are the only teams in the NBA ranked in the top five both offensively and defensively, plus they stand first and second, respectively, in net rating. Sure, the Warriors have won two titles in the past three years and are in the midst of the most dominant three years of regular-season play the league has ever seen, but how about them Raptors, Steve?

“It’s fun to play a team in the other conference that you know has a chance to be there in the end. We’re only going to see them twice, just like we see Cleveland and Boston so when you do get a chance to see these guys these guys you file it away for later, in case,” Kerr said.

“So it’ll be fun.”

It just might be.

What followed was a rollicking 48-minute reminder that the Warriors are the Warriors – fast-tracking to one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever known – and the Raptors?

They’re not bad either as they scraped and clawed to a 127-125 loss that dropped them to 15-3 at home. But like Kerr predicted, it was fun getting there.

After surviving a full dose of the Warriors’ experience in the first half when it looked Golden State was going to – in fact they pretty much did – put the Raptors away before the game was half over, the Raptors did their endearing never, ever quit thing and had carved a 27-point third-quarter Warriors lead to a measly three points by the time Fred Van Vleet hit a transition triple with 3:45 left, part of a 18-3 fourth quarter-run.

But then Steph Curry hit a three, Klay Thompson hit a three and that was too much for the Raptors, even as DeRozan was hitting 42-points worth of ones and twos in another Herculean effort. There were no threes in his 17-of-31 line.

That was it, right? You can’t trade threes for twos with the Dubs.

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Wrong again. By the time Steph Curry (24 points on 12 shots), the career 90-per-cent-plus free-throw shooter missed a pair with 44.9 seconds left after a dubious foul call on what looked like a clean Jakob Poeltl block, the Raptors had the ball down one.

But DeRozan couldn’t coax one more mid-range jumper over Kevin Durant, who was able to respond with one of his own over Pascal Siakam.

With one more possession, the Raptors needed a three and here they ran into the Warriors at their best, effortlessly switching every pick-and-roll, every player on the court comfortable guarding anyone the Raptors had on it. It was the kind of defence the Warrior have perfected to defend the three-point line – the NBA’s defining offensive feature at the moment.

The best Toronto could get was a rushed contested three by CJ Miles that missed. There was a jump ball and scramble, but the Raptors never got another shot as they dropped to 0-2 against the Warriors this season.

Their only chance to see them again will be June.

Getting to the NBA Finals would be a franchise first and incredibly fun, but once there, it’s hard to argue the good times wouldn’t likely come to a screeching halt. We get that. The Warriors are that good.

But it’s a problem the Raptors would love to have, even if the wisest conclusion that can be reasonably drawn from the Warriors’ wild win is that they are in a league of one, with 29 other teams playing for second place.

But the Raptors should take heart. Two nights ago at the ACC, the Raptors destroyed the Cleveland Cavaliers – the Warriors annual Finals playmate – who mostly seemed disinterested, June being so far from January and all.

The Warriors, unfortunately perhaps for the Raptors, seemed entirely engaged, even though they were playing their third game in four nights – and the second night of a back-to-back – having lost three hours to time zones in the process.

“Consistency, continuity. Got the same group, it travels well, the style of play, the skills at the level they have, their shooting travels well,” said Raptors head coach when asked to explain the Warriors’ NBA-best 18-3 road record this season, another example of their dominance. “Just their championship DNA, I think, is something that’s really important when you’re on the road. Most of all, they’ve been together for years. There’s nothing new. They’re doing a lot of the same offensive sets they’ve ran for years, the defensive schemes. A lot of this stuff, the chemistry’s just there. One guy can sit out a couple of games and come back in, like Steph, and not miss a beat.”

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They barely missed a shot – at least for the portion of the game when it was still in doubt.

The Raptors’ high-point in a back-and-forth opening 10 minutes was when DeRozan baited the Warriors’ Kevin Looney into a foul, converted the three-point play and pulled the Raptors to within a point, 32-31.

The game hovered there for a possession or two, and there was some reason for optimism. While the Raptors were playing without Kyle Lowry, who missed his third game with a bruised tail bone, Curry, back in the lineup for the Warriors after missing two games with an ankle sprain, didn’t seem like he was going off in any major way.

And then the Warriors cracked the game like a coconut.

Against Cleveland, the Raptors’ second unit ran loose and free, caused chaos as the lethargic Cavaliers simply had no interest in playing at the pace the Raptors’ younger crowd prefers. Against the Warriors it played directly into their hands. The pace was high, the ball was moving, the difference is the Warriors had championship-pedigree veterans like Shaun Livingston, David West and Thompson (26 points on 16 shots) running it back.

It was all part of a 25-3 run that eventually led to an 81-54 halftime lead for the visitors.

The Raptors’ defensive highlight was an inexplicably missed dunk down main street by Durant (25 points on 18 shots). The relief was short-lived. Delon Wright drove it into traffic, the Warriors collapsed, came up with the loose ball and this time Durant made no mistake, dunking it with two hands on the ensuing fast-break. Another wasted foray in the paint, another transition dunk, repeat.

It was a 14-minute lay-up line and by the end of it the Warriors had shot 71 per cent for the first half, dominating the Raptors even while making just five of their patented three-pointers. Curry? He was just a spectator, with six first-half points on five shots.

It is the Warriors greatest luxury: superstar depth.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who obviously can impact the game in a big way,” said Kerr. “We’ve been able to win without Stef this year but defending and taking care of the ball. Obviously as I said, we’ve got some other all-stars to count on.”

But the Raptors didn’t fold the tent. In the third quarter, DeRozan was on a mission, willing his team back in the game with 11 in the period. Rookie OG Anunoby seemed like he was comfortable against the world champions, digging in for 17 points on seven shots. Jonas Valanciunas and Poeltl were making life tough in the paint and working hard on the glass.

With three minutes left in the third, Valanciunas rocked the rim with a driving dunk to cut the Warriors lead to nine, but that only seemed to get Golden State’s attention.

Durant responded with consecutive threes and the Warriors had pushed the lead back to 19 with a lightning-quick 14-5 run.

The fourth quarter that followed was electric, storybook stuff, even if it wasn’t the ending Raptors fans were looking for.

But they can take heart in this: For better or worse, the Raptors have the Warriors’ attention.

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January 14, 2018

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