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Leonard puts Raptors on brink of history

By Agencies - Jun 09,2019 - Last updated at Jun 11,2019

Kawhi Leonard (centre) of the Toronto Raptors drives to the basket against Stephen Curry (left) and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors during Game Four of the 2019 NBA Finals in Oakland, California, on Friday (AFP photo)

OAKLAND, California — The Golden State Warriors may never play another game at the Oracle Arena, the concrete relic they call home, but that is suddenly a secondary concern at best for the NBA’s reigning but reeling champions.

The Toronto Raptors moved to the brink of their first NBA championship on Friday night by outlasting the Warriors 105-92 in a Game Four slog.

Fuelled by a Golden State-style haymaker in the third quarter, Toronto seized a 3-1 series lead to take back to Canada for tomorrow night’s Game Five.

The Warriors, who have revelled in three NBA titles in the past four seasons, will know what is at stake.

A 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven finals has led to 33 titles in 34 previous finals series. The only exception: their loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.

The Warriors will now need their own Cleveland-style comeback to ensure that their dynasty of the past half-decade — as the first NBA team to make five successive trips to the finals since the Boston Celtics in the 1960s — does not end in defeat.

They could also clearly use Kevin Durant, expected to have returned by now from a strained right calf.

Golden State welcomed Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney back from injury in Game Four, but the hosts could not muster a response to Toronto’s 37-21 edge in the third quarter.

Kawhi Leonard scored 17 of his team-high 36 points in the period, and Serge Ibaka finished with a crucial 20 points off the bench.

“We were taking a lot of punches early, but we just kept standing in there and playing,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse of his team, who are seeking their first crown of their 24-season history.

“We know this is a great team and we know how hard we have to play to beat them. We’re going to get back there and they [Warriors] are going to be going crazy in Toronto.”

The first half belonged to the Warriors but the tide turned in the third period when the visitors outscored the two-time defending champions behind five-for-seven shooting and two momentum-swinging three-pointers from Leonard.

Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals’ Most Valuable Player in leading San Antonio to a title over Miami, was 11 of 22 overall from the floor, five of nine from three-point range and nine of nine from the free-throw line to secure the victory.

He played down his heroics after the game, saying: “I don’t play hero basketball. I’m just playing to win.

“The key was pretty much playing defence. That second half we started to make some shots and just pretty much stayed in the game. Just got to be patient. It doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win.”

Thompson led the Warriors with 28 points, and Stephen Curry added 27. But Curry missed seven of his nine attempts from three-point range, and no other Warrior scored more than 10 points.

Without Durant, who may or may not return for Game Five, the Warriors had to settle for Thompson (hamstring) rebounding from his one-game absence and Looney (chest) rejoining the rotation.

But it was not enough against the gritty Raptors, who were not without their own injuries — Kyle Lowry (10 points) played through the pain of an injured left thumb, and Fred VanVleet (eight) needed seven stitches in the fourth quarter after taking an elbow to the face.

“It’s not over,” a defiant Curry said. “It’s not a good feeling right now but we’re still fighting and trying to get over the hump. We still have an opportunity to win.”

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