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Raptors reach brink of first NBA title by beating Warriors

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by Jim SLATER

Toronto advanced to the brink of a first NBA title as Kawhi Leonard scored 36 points and the Raptors ripped defending champion Golden State 105-92 Friday in the NBA Finals.

Serge Ibaka netted 20 points off the bench and Pascal Siakam added 19 for the Raptors, who grabbed a commanding 3-1 edge in the best-of-seven series, which could end with game five Monday in Toronto.

“We’re going to get back there and they are going to be going crazy in Toronto,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We have never really talked about the series score and we know this is a great team and we know how hard we have to play to beat them.”

The Raptors are one victory shy of the first crown in their 24-season history but Leonard kept his emotions on a level keel.

“Just got to be patient,” Leonard said. “It doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We have to stay confident in ourselves, be patient, don’t rush things and see how it works out.”

The Warriors must sweep three games in a row to win a third consecutive title and fourth in five seasons.

“It’s not over,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said. “We’re still fighting and trying to get over the hump. We still have life and have an opportunity to win.”

Only once in 34 chances in NBA Finals history has a team rallied from 3-1 down to win the title, that being in 2016 when LeBron James led Cleveland back to defeat the Warriors.

“I don’t think it’s daunting at all,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We look at it as a challenge. We’ve got to lick our wounds tonight, a tough loss, but the game’s a few days away. We’ll have plenty of energy and we’ll be ready to go.”

Leonard scored 17 points in the third quarter when Toronto seized command, while Ibaka and Siakam’s second-half surge helped ensure Golden State did not overtake them late.

“We played really tough,” Nurse said. “We were taking a lot of punches early and we just kept standing in there and playing. Then we were able to exert our will in the second half.”

Klay Thompson, who missed game three with a left hamstring strain, led Golden State with 28 points while Curry added 27.

“It didn’t affect me,” Thompson said of his injury. “You’re going to be banged up. You just got to dig deep.”

– ‘The wheels fall off’ –
But the Warriors remained without playoff scoring leader Kevin Durant, out the past month with a right calf injury, and lacking him they were no match for the fast-moving Raptors.

“We played pretty well for 26 minutes and then they took control,” Curry said. “It’s one of those nights where you play a lot of energy, you start to build momentum and then the wheels fall off a little bit.

“They played another great game and we got to do something about it if we want to extend this series.”

It could have been the final game at 53-year-old Oracle Arena for the Warriors, who move into a new arena next season in San Francisco. Oakland has been the club’s home since 1971.

Leonard, who grabbed 12 rebounds in the game, scored 14 points in the first quarter but the rest of the Raptors shot 1-for-13 and the Warriors jumped ahead 23-12.

Leonard opened the second half with back-to-back 3-pointers, giving the Raptors their first lead at 48-46.

“Kawhi hits two straight threes to give them the lead and there was a surge of energy for them at that point,” Kerr said. “That was a really key moment.”

– Lost defensive tenacity –
Toronto closed the third quarter with a 20-6 run to seize a 79-67 lead entering the fourth quarter, Leonard scoring 11 and Ibaka adding seven in the pivotal span.

“They just took it to us right from the beginning of the quarter,” Kerr said. “They turned up their defense and they just got on a run. And we just sort of lost that defensive tenacity we had in the first half.”

Fred VanVleet opened fourth quarter with a 3-pointer for Toronto but was taken to the locker room moments later for seven stitches after a bloody gash was opened under his right eye when he was struck by the left elbow of Golden State’s Shaun Livingston under the basket.

The Warriors got within 97-89 on a Curry 3-pointer with 2:56 remaining but came no closer.

(Agence France-Presse)