TORONTO – In the history of the NBA playoffs, 244 teams have trailed 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. Only 11 of them (four per cent) have come back to win it.
The Golden State Warriors saw both sides in less than a month.
Back in 2016, the season they won a league-record 73 games, the Warriors dropped three of the first four contests to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
On the brink of elimination, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson put the team on their backs – averaging 32.7 and 29.7 points respectively – and won three straight games to advance to the Finals.
Serge Ibaka was a member of that Thunder team and remembers the collapse well. He calls it the lowest point of his basketball career. It still haunts him to this day.
“Come on, man, [up] 3-1 in the Semi-Finals of the NBA, I don’t see any tougher loss than that,” the Toronto Raptors forward said a couple weeks ago. “It still hurts.”
The Warriors would experience that same feeling a few weeks later. Facing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals for the second year in a row, Golden State took a commanding 3-1 lead. The rest is history, literally.
Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5, which the Warriors lost. Then they lost another, and another. LeBron did as he promised, bringing a championship to Cleveland, and the Cavs became the first team to ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit in the Finals.
A few weeks later, Durant was a member of the Warriors.
Now, with the Raptors one win away from making their own history and winning their first NBA championship, the Warriors are hoping they can turn the tables.
“We were on both sides of this equation,” Curry said on the eve of Monday’s Game 5. “You can kind of relive those experiences, understand what the emotions were like and how important literally every possession of those potential closeout games were on both ends, and what it took for those comebacks to happen.”
“We have had our backs against the wall before with this same group,” said Thompson. “What I remember from that [Thunder series] is the same as I’m feeling now. It’s just basketball and you just got to get one to start.”
“I was also on the other side of 3-1, losing a lead [to Cleveland]. So I’m trying to reference that standpoint of how I was feeling back then. I don’t know if the Raptors are feeling this, but you feel very confident; all you got to do is win one. So you see both sides.”
The Warriors are good enough to make a series of this and maybe even come back to win, they’ve proven that. But Golden State doesn’t just need to come back from a 3-1 deficit, Toronto would also need to cough up its 3-1 lead. Given how well the Raptors have played and how unrelenting their best player is, it’s hard to see them squandering three opportunities to close this out.
Since the very start of these playoffs, Kawhi Leonard has been a man on a mission. He’s put up historic numbers, produced iconic moments, and has shown an incredible will to win. The Warriors have to beat this guy three times in three games.
“I mean obviously he’s a specimen, we all know [that],” said teammate Pascal Siakam. “To be able to use his length and athleticism, it’s incredible the way he does it, and obviously his hands. It’s amazing to watch.”
Leonard has only lost three straight games five times during his eight-year NBA career. However, two of them came in the playoffs – both to Durant and the Thunder.
Durant, who has been out for over a month with a calf injury, is listed as questionable for Game 5. He was finally cleared to practice on Sunday, and getting him back on the court and scrimmaging with his teammates was believed to be the next – and perhaps last – big hurdle in his return.
Even if he is able to play, it’s hard to know what we should expect from the Warriors superstar. He was playing some of his best basketball ever before going down in Game 5 of the Conference Semis against Houston. Still, he’s been out for a long time, was only recently able to get back on the court in any capacity, and is clearly far from full strength.
With all of that in mind, his return would certainly change things for both teams. The Raptors have to game plan and account for one of the best players in the league, while also worrying about the trio of Curry, Thompson and Green, which is precisely what’s made the Warriors so lethal since they signed Durant in 2016.
Meanwhile, Durant would also give Golden State a much-needed lift – both tangibly on the court and emotionally, in terms of the team’s confidence.
Whether Durant is able to return on Monday or not, the Raptors would be best served to stick with what’s been working for them. There’s little reason to believe they won’t. Following Leonard’s lead, the team has been unflappable. After big wins or following bad losses, their demeanour hasn’t changed. Now, they’re on the cusp of knocking off the Warriors and potentially breaking up one of the greatest dynasties the game has ever seen, and they’ve barely cracked a smile.
This is not a team that’s gotten fat and sassy, it’s not a team that has allowed success to get in their heads. They mean business. They haven’t let up, at least not yet.
“We've just been like this all year,” Kyle Lowry said. “Kind of just like, we haven't done anything. You don't do anything in this league unless you win the trophy. You can accomplish this or that, but at the end of the day we have certain goals and standards that we want to reach. Our end goal would be a championship, and that's what we have been working for all year.”
Unlike past years, when the Raptors would follow great regular seasons up with playoff flameouts, the focus has been on peaking at the right time. It’s something they’ve preached since training camp, starting with rookie head coach Nick Nurse. That’s why they experimented with the rotation, exercised caution with injuries, and preserved Leonard.
Now here they are, playing their best basketball on the NBA’s biggest stage. Since falling behind 0-2 to Milwaukee in the Conference Finals, Toronto has won seven of eight games – all of them against the team that had the best record in the East and now the team with the best record in the West.
“In terms of what we did in the past, the lesson we learned was this is why we play,” Siakam said. “We could be great in the regular season, but at the end of the day this moment is what’s important. I think we always, always understood that during the season. Even when you heard coach talk about it, or Kawhi, every time they talked about it it was like, ‘Oh ok, this is great, but we’re preparing for something greater’. So I think that’s been the mentality from the beginning, that was everyone’s mindset. From coach to Kawhi, it kind of spread around to everyone.”
Their work isn’t done. Those that have been deep into the postseason would tell you; the last win is the toughest to get. The Warriors won’t go down without a fight, but the Raptors are good enough to bring it to them.
“We’re focused,” Leonard said. “We know that it doesn't mean anything until someone has four wins. You never know what could happen and you got to take advantage of it and don't get overly hyped and excited. Still a great basketball team on the other side. I think that was our mindset. We had a goal going out there, and we accomplished it. Now in a possible three games, we have to win one.”