They’re the Raptors, hear them roar

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PHOTO: GREGORY SHAMUS/REUTERS

Before a 233rd-straight sellout crowd inside a raucous Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night, the Raptors didn’t shy away from their unique brand of basketball and showed no signs of cowering against the Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors were not at all intimidated by the two-time defending champions. They were simply the better team in the Finals-opener, beating the Kevin Durant-less Warriors, 118-109, to secure Game 1 on their home court. They posted a strong effort and executed near perfection on both ends of the floor. It was exactly what the Raptors needed from their stars, as they took control of the series early. It was a timely reminder that the Warriors have entered the gates of Jurassic Park, basketball’s danger zone.

It was the first time the NBA Finals was played outside the United States. For the first time since the early 90s, the last time the country has seen a championship in any of the four major sports, Toronto is genuinely enjoying the best moment in sports history. The city and fans, they badly want to see their Raptors be crowned world champions.

The Raptors, bolstered by Pascal Siakam, not only shot well, but they played a pretty good floor game and stymied the Warriors on defense as well. Basketball fans in Toronto were on their feet loudly cheering, watching in amazement at the show they were treated to, punctuated by Siakam’s efficient shooting.

He turned in a solid performance with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting in his first NBA Finals appearance. He became just the seventh player ever to put up 30 points or more on 80 percent shooting in the Finals. As he did all night, Siakam lit up the scoreboard, going 6-for-6 from the field and 2-for-2 from the free throw line to erupt for 14 points in the third quarter. It was a brilliant offensive game by the probable most improved player to begin what could be an epic seven-game series.

With a hot-shooting hand, Marc Gasol finished the first half with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting. He went on a 3-point shooting spree, making a pair early that set the tone. For the game, Gasol netted 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting and snagged seven rebounds before fouling out late in his Finals debut. At 7-foot-1 and 255 pounds, he was fierce on the glass, especially on the defensive end, showcasing his mobility and versatility.

A lot has been written about Siakam, the guy who authored a signature moment. His remarkably balanced, high-level game was utterly impressive and hopefully sustainable for the rest of the series. The Raptors were getting accustomed to these kinds of performances from Kawhi Leonard.

The quiet, mellow superstar has been ailing. The Kobe-like scoring assassin has amazingly been flying up and down the floor on one leg. Toronto will need all of his production if it is to have any luck beating the Warriors. Leonard, the soon-to-be free agent, has been a menace to opposing teams because of his relentless motor and winning mentality. The player that gets his hand on the ball more than any Raptor still managed to finish with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists, shooting 5-for-14 from the field.

Shooting woes still haunt Kyle Lowry in big moments like these. In his first Finals, the pattern has repeated itself and it’s very discouraging for him when he’s capable of  making his shot. But he didn’t put forth his best offensive performance, going 2-for-9 with just seven points.

It is tough playing teams that can shoot the three effectively, but it’s also difficult to make threes at a high percentage against teams with a primary emphasis on defense. Toronto’s stellar defense tightened up around the perimeter, limiting the Warriors to just 43.6% shooting from the field, and in part due to the Raptors’ defensive tactics, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 15-for-35 from the field.

Their physicality wore down the purest shooters and the most prolific scorers in the game. Their defensive onslaught led to an attacking offense. And the real shame of it was, for the Warriors, that their 17 turnovers led to 17 Raptors points.

Built for speed and size, the Raptors were in rhythm early, they moved the ball extremely well and put on an offensive clinic. By halftime, the Raptors had sunk eight of their 19 3-point attempts on 20-for-40 shooting, putting the Warriors’ defense on their heels. The strength of the Raptors’ offense pushed the pace and dictated the tempo.

It may seem as though Golden State has no glaring weaknesses, but the Raptors exploited the Warriors’ weaknesses by taking away potential baskets and creating more possessions. Although most have dismissed the idea that Toronto could stun Golden State, there’s a real sense that the Raptors are equipped to withstand the short-handed Warriors, and there is every reason to believe that this team can do even more. On paper, sure, the Warriors should defend their NBA title once again. For those sleeping on the Raptors, wake up to the loud roars.

The Warriors weren’t prepared for the Raptors offense after getting physically outmanned, but they’ll make the necessary adjustments needed to counter Toronto’s strategies in Sunday night’s Game 2 of the Finals. The Raptors will try their hardest to take a 2-0 commanding lead. An extraordinary finish to a historic run would forever change basketball in Canada.

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