OAKLAND, Calif. — The veteran big man with a history of overpowering opponents in the NBA postseason returned to the forefront Friday night.
But while Golden State Warriors fans had hoped that might be their own Kevin Durant in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, in fact it turned out to be the opponent’s Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka relived his glory days with 20 points off the bench to complement teammate Kawhi Leonard’s usual brilliance in a 105-92 victory that lifted the Toronto Raptors within one win of their first championship.
Leonard scored 17 of his game-high 36 points in a decisive third quarter, and a scrambling Toronto defense harassed Warriors star Stephen Curry into 2-for-9 shooting on 3-pointers, delivering the two-time defending champions a loss that puts them in a 3-1 hole in the best-of-seven series.
The Raptors will go for Canada’s first NBA title at home in Game 5 on Monday night. Only once in 34 tries has a team overcome a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals — when Cleveland did so to top Golden State in 2016.
“I don’t think it’s daunting at all,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr insisted of his club’s second 3-1 postseason deficit in their five-year run of making the Finals. Golden State overcame the first by winning three straight against Oklahoma City in the 2016 Western finals.
“We go to Toronto,” Kerr continued, “and this is what we do for a living: We play basketball. So we look forward to playing another basketball game in an exciting atmosphere, and the ultimate test, the NBA Finals. We look at it as a challenge. We’ll be ready to go.”
In winning for a third straight time in Oakland this season, including once in the regular season, Toronto rallied from an 11-point, first-quarter hole by outscoring the Warriors 93-69 over the game’s final 37 minutes. The Raptors’ biggest push came in the third period, when they finally got their offense on track and added 37 points to their 42-point halftime total while taking the lead for good.
“We had a big problem with the third quarter in Game 2, so we had to make some adjustments there to try to combat the way they come out of the half,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse noted. “They have been historically really good at that.”
It took just 46 seconds for Leonard to hit back-to-back 3-pointers, erasing all the good the Warriors had done in the first half and giving the Raptors their first lead of the night.
“Kawhi’s two big threes to start the half really I thought changed the whole feel of everybody,” Nurse said. “I just thought everybody was like, ‘OK, man, we know we are here, let’s go,’ and we just kind of kept going.”
The Raptors’ pull-away began with an Ibaka 3-pointer that broke a 61-all tie with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Toronto finished the period on an 18-6 run, with Leonard (11) and Ibaka (seven) producing all the points, propelling the Eastern Conference champs into a 79-67 advantage.
“Once he gets into the series, which he did in Game 3, with the blocked shots and the rebounding and stuff, he seems to stay in the series,” Nurse said of Ibaka. “He was great tonight, man.”
The Raptors easily held on in the fourth despite losing key reserve Fred VanVleet to a cut under his right eye, which required stitches, with 9:35 to go.
Using a suffocating defense to thwart any serious Golden State comeback bid, Toronto built its lead to as many as 16 early in the final period before holding on.
Leonard’s 36 points were the product of 11-for-22 shooting overall and 5-for-9 accuracy on 3-pointers. It was his 14th 30-point game of the postseason and third straight in the Finals. He also found time for a game-high 12 rebounds.
Ibaka, who had totaled just 18 points in the first three games of the series, finished with his biggest playoff output since scoring 23 in the first round last season against Washington.
The veteran of 133 playoff games and 17 postseason double-doubles in seemingly another life had averaged just 8.0 points over a 30-game span between the 2018 playoff opener against the Wizards and Friday’s Game 4.
“When you play less minutes, you come the next day (and) you come the next day, you put in work,” Ibaka explained. “So I think that’s one of the things about us. You see each night it’s different guys, so you always try to be ready.”
Pascal Siakam added 19 points and Kyle Lowry had 10 to go with a team-high seven assists for the Raptors, who improved to 4-0 in Game 4’s this season.
Klay Thompson, returning from a one-game absence due to a strained hamstring, led the Warriors with 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting. He made six of his 10 3-point attempts.
Curry, who poured in 47 points in Golden State’s Game 3 loss, finished with 27.
“I missed some shots early that I usually make, especially from the 3-point line, but overall I feel like I got good looks,” Curry said of his 9-for-22 night. “Obviously I’m sure they were a little bit more focused considering how Game 3 went.”
Draymond Green recorded a 10-point, 12-assist double-double, and Kevon Looney, returning from a shoulder injury, chipped in with 10 points for the Warriors, who had been 4-1 in games following a loss previously in the postseason.
Golden State played again without standout forward Kevin Durant, who remains a possibility to return from a calf injury in Game 5.
The teams set a defensive tone early on, with the Warriors holding the Raptors to 12 points in the first 11 minutes en route to as much as an 11-point lead.
But Toronto was tough on Curry throughout the first half, limiting him to eight points and no 3-pointers. In the process, the visitors kept Golden State at arm’s length, trailing just 46-42 at the break.
—Dave Del Grande, Field Level Media