TORONTO – Whichever team comes out of this thing with an NBA championship, whether it’s the Toronto Raptors or the Golden State Warriors, the opposing ways in which they processed emotion will have played a crucial role in their journey.
Led by their inscrutable superstar Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors have made a concerted effort to block it out and stay balanced, not getting too high or too low.
That’s fit the personality of the team and is largely responsible for why they’re one win away from the title. They haven’t celebrated success or hung their heads after failure. They’ve been businesslike all the way through, allowing them to maintain their focus regardless of how big the moment has felt.
“It’s what we have done all year,” Kyle Lowry said last week. “Even in training camp, it wasn’t like, oh, trash talk. It’s like, let’s come in and get our work in and boom, boom, boom, let’s get out of here. Let’s work and get going.”
On the other side of the coin, you’ve got the Warriors, who aren’t shy in expressing their emotions, on or off the court. Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and even Steph Curry – what do they have in common? In good moments or bad, you’ll know how they’re feeling. They wear it on their sleeves.
Now more than ever, they’re embracing those emotions.
After making a short-lived return from the calf issue that kept him out for more than a month, Durant went down with a serious Achilles injury in the second quarter of Golden State’s Game 5 victory on Monday. It was as sombre a scene as you’ll see in a playoff game.
As the superstar forward tried to beat former teammate Serge Ibaka off the dribble, his leg gave out and he knew immediately. He limped off the court and into the locker room with the help of a trainer. Andre Iguodala and Curry followed Durant to the back.
“Sometimes the spirit tells you what to do,” Curry said afterwards. “You don’t really make decisions, you just act on it. So I can’t tell you what went through my head, it just felt right.”
The Warriors rallied from there. They went on a 13-4 run in the immediate aftermath of Durant’s injury, and while the Raptors would storm back to take a six-point lead with three minutes left in the game, Golden State closed it out and staved off elimination with the 106-105 win.
Curry led the way with 31 points, including the game-tying three-pointer with just over a minute remaining, but his biggest contribution of the night may have been the speech he delivered to his team at the half.
“He kind of rallied the troops,” Green said, after Golden State narrowed Toronto’s series lead to 3-2. “He talked to everybody, went around the huddle and just told everybody to stay locked in and do this for Kevin. And I think we did a good job of coming together.”
The post-game scene was bizarre. Warriors’ general manager Bob Myers called an impromptu press conference and fought back tears as he revealed Durant had suffered an Achilles injury.
“If you have to [blame somebody], you can blame me,” he said of the decision to medically clear Durant.
Cousins dropped multiple F-bombs in his scrum when asked about the people who were calling Durant soft for missing the first four games of the Finals. Curry said that something like this is bigger than basketball or championships, and Klay Thompson had a strong message: We’re going to win it for KD.
“We'll think of him every time we step on the hardwood,” said Thompson, who scored 26 points and hit the go-ahead three with just under a minute left. “It obviously inspires you to play harder knowing your best player can't be out there. You think of him every time you dive for a loose ball or go for a rebound, because I know him and I know how bad he wants to be out there. That's why he was out there.”
If they’re able to come back from a 3-1 series hole – something that only one team has ever done in the NBA Finals (the 2016 Cavaliers against Golden State) – that would undoubtedly be the biggest story. It wouldn’t just be a narrative, either. For the Warriors to pull off the near impossible, they’ll need this to bring them together. This has to be their rallying call.
“It's going to be a rough go in terms of just trying to recalibrate,” Curry admitted. “Until this point it's been about our hope that [Durant] could play and our hope to stay alive in this series.
“So I don't know really if there's going to be a speech in the locker room, if there's going to need to be words at all. We understand the moment and I think we can rally.”
After failing to take advantage of Durant’s injury and their late-game lead on Monday, the Raptors will have two more chances to close this out and win their first ever championship, beginning on Thursday in Oakland for Game 6.
If they’re able to take care of business it will be because of the way they’ve kept their cool and blocked out potential distractions along the way.
From Leonard’s load management during the regular season to his impending free agency, from the Raptors’ awkward summer of business to their injuries and fluctuating rotation, they’re default setting is to pay it no mind.
While the Warriors have made headlines and faced controversy – during the regular season, throughout the playoffs and in this series – the Raptors have successfully tuned out the noise and let their play do the talking.
“We’ve got the heart of a champion,” Fred VanVleet said after the loss. “We’re built for this moment. We gave ourselves a chance to win. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously when all the chips are on the table and the stakes are high it feels different when you lose like that. But at the end of the day, it’s a seven-game series.”
As the last two teams standing, the Raptors and Warriors have very different ways of processing and handling emotion. Neither is right or wrong – it’s what feels natural to them and their personnel – but only one will help make them a champion this week.