Raptors looking for redemption against Warriors

When he was in the ninth grade, the greatest player in the 2019 NBA playoffs decided to put the cleats down and take basketball seriously, telling his trainer that he wanted to one day be the best player in the world.

One decade and tens of thousands of jumpers and post moves later, Kawhi Leonard climbed the escalating ladder of greatness and built himself into an all-around wrecking ball. He was finally there, staking his claim against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals.

“We were rolling,” recalled Danny Green. “That game was one of the best games I’ve seen him play completely, all around. He was picking them apart, scoring and facilitating, rebounding and defending. As a group together we were playing well, so I think we were pretty confident going into that second half.”

Four minutes into the second half, Leonard had nailed 11 free throws, muscled down four offensive rebounds and scored 26 points on 13 shots.

That’s when Zaza Pachulia’s foot landed under Leonard’s ankle. It was one in a series of twists that landed Leonard, improbably, on the Toronto Raptors. In 20 minutes, the Warriors dissolved a 23-point lead, winning Game 1 and sweeping the series. Arguments over the nature and validity of a different Leonard injury broke his trust in the Spurs’ medical staff and led him to demand a trade, creating the opening for Raptors president Masai Ujiri to bank his franchise’s best player on a year of Leonard’s services.

Kawhi Leonard has another shot at the Warriors. (Getty Images)

So it is that in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Warriors are preparing to take on a team that would never have existed if not for their dominance. They dismantled Marc Gasol’s Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder team that pushed the Warriors to a 3-1 deficit with Serge Ibaka as the defensive anchor, only to collapse and relinquish the series in three straight losses.

Leonard, Green, Ibaka and Gasol have all pushed the Warriors, only to cower against the best that the best have to offer. And now, they are together on the Raptors, with a chance — beyond revenge or redemption or victory — to rewrite the past, buoyed by rare institutional knowledge.

“You can’t overreact. You can’t allow things to affect you as a team negatively,” offered Gasol, on what he learned from facing the Warriors. “I thought that we showed a lot of mental toughness against Milwaukee. A lot of things are new to us as a team, but I think as players I think that we have faced a lot of those things.”

If you had to pinpoint the moment the world became Stephen Curry’s oyster, you could do a lot worse than May 11, 2015. Facing a 2-1 deficit against the Memphis Grizzlies, Curry and the Golden State Warriors were being smothered by Tony Allen on the perimeter and suffocated in the paint against Zach Randolph and Gasol, two big men who put the girth in grit.

In the time before pace, space and small-ball were gospel, a contingent of analysts considered the Warriors’ success gimmicky, and this series looked like their vindication.

But head coach Steve Kerr doubled down. Center Andrew Bogut “guarded” Allen and his crooked range from inside the paint. The floor shrunk for Memphis, Allen became unplayable, Steph got free, and the Warriors won the first of three straight games. Curry’s rise already highlighted the power of the three. Kerr’s adjustment proved that a contender couldn’t live without it.

There as it was, is and always shall be: glitz ’n’ grind overpowered grit ’n’ grind. Age and injuries caught up to Memphis, but worse, the Warriors rendered the formula — two big men packing the paint with a non-shooter on the floor — obsolete.

The moment knocked Gasol’s career into basketball mediocrity. He quibbled with his coach, got knocked out twice in the first round, missed the playoffs last year and would have this year. Until February, when an ambitious front office doubled down on the bet that defined the year and traded for Gasol, giving him the opportunity that carried him to this spot: facing off as a member of the Toronto Raptors, on an even bigger stage, against Curry once more.

In the intervening years, Curry’s shot would rock the world like nothing else before it. The floor would mold around him. Shooters got paid. Star big men turned into overpaid mercenaries. Some of them got priced out of the league. Behind Curry, the Warriors ended careers and reshaped others, and some of those players they will face in Game 1 on Thursday.

Gasol, who might be so zen that nobody knows he’s zen, wouldn’t speculate on whether winning his first championship would feel sweeter against the Warriors. It’s simply an experience he hasn’t had yet. Nor does it motivate him more. “Nah. You don’t process things that way,” he said. “They beat them, they beat you — it’s not relevant.”

But Ibaka, who swallowed up a hobbled Curry on switches and helped the Oklahoma City Thunder amass that 3-1 lead over the Warriors in 2016, feels differently. “When you lose against the best team and you have an opportunity to play against them, of course you’re gonna have some motivations because you know you’re playing against the best and you lost against them before,” Ibaka said.

Ibaka admits the collapse still stings to think about it. The Warriors won three straight games, completing the comeback that killed the Thunder’s future, prying Kevin Durant from the Chesapeake Energy Arena and into the Bay Area’s clutches. Twenty-five days after the Thunder got knocked out, Ibaka was traded to the lowly Orlando Magic. Would beating the Warriors make the past sting a little less? “For sure,” Ibaka laughed. “One hundred percent.”

What, then, was the biggest lesson he’ll carry over into this series?

Ibaka paused for the briefest moment, his eyes turning inward, as though overcome by a jolt of anxiety. “If you have an opportunity to beat them, go for it,” he said. “Don’t relax.”

On the other end of the series, though, the Raptors face another great who has found himself, somehow, back to the road not taken.

Three years ago, Curry was on top of the basketball world. He swung around the floor teeming with swagger and arrogance — the man who looked like a boy turning grown professionals into confused children. He cracked the Spurs and Thunder, becoming “bad for basketball” yet perfect for the Warriors, until falling in seven games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. His back-to-back MVP’s were never stamped with a second championship or a Finals MVP, and he was tagged with some familiar sleights: too small, too gimmicky, a product of a system — not the system itself — with no chance to redeem himself and claim his mantle as a true great after the arrival of Kevin Durant.

Until now. Durant is sidelined, and Curry has reignited the production that turned him into the international phenomenon that flipped the game on its head. All he needs is a decisive Finals victory, and all the Raptors need — with a series of versatile defenders in Leonard, Green, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry — is to stamp him down.

There is a collective sense of deja vu in this series, an opportunity for so many characters to rewrite sad chapters and reroute their fates, for Curry or Leonard to stake his claim as the world’s best. But history, they say, is written only by the victors, the losers doomed to add one more line to a ledger of misfortunes.

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