OAKLAND, Calif. — It was a pivotal game that wasn’t, a fine matchup undone by so many injuries to so many creaky Warriors stars that the outcome — a 123-109 Raptors victory — became that strangest of postseason creations:
It was a mulligan, a reluctant giveaway to the Raptors, no less foreordained for being fiercely contested. And the result came adorned with questions still unanswered.
Had the Toronto Raptors with this asterisk of a victory on enemy turf purged the nightmarish memory of their previous game, when the Golden State Warriors embarked on a run — at its peak, it featured 18 consecutive points — that left the earth salted and their team plowed under? What is the significance of this victory over a Warriors team that had lost to injury two probable Hall of Fame players — Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant — who had averaged a combined 55 points a game in these playoffs?
Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ remaining scoring gaucho, did not sound inclined to crawl into a fetal position.
“We’ll adjust,” he said. “It’ll be fun.”
Draymond Green, the Warriors’ defensive stalwart, sounded no less jaunty: “Win the next game, go back to Toronto, win Game 5, come back to Oracle, win Game 6 and then celebrate. Fun times ahead.”
The tides of fortune could shift swiftly. The 7-foot Durant is due to return near any day from a badly strained calf, and he possesses the N.B.A.’s most confounding shooting touch and the ability to contort his body this way and that as he releases that shot. As for Thompson, he spent Wednesday afternoon staring stonily at his coaches and trainers and all but demanding to play. Coach Steve Kerr smartly made him sit out the game, but we might safely assume he will return soon enough.
All of which explained why Nick Nurse, the Raptors’ first-year coach, sought no absolution for taking advantage of a wounded opponent.
“You can’t really worry about any of that stuff, right?” Nurse said. “Five guys are going to be out there, right? You can’t really worry about it.”
Right. The first team to notch four victories becomes champion.
Wednesday’s game had its intrigues. Like a jock with excellent muscle memory, the Warriors came out playing that whip the ball around, bounce pass, then cut style of theirs. Even with stars replaced by bench players known mostly to their immediate families, the Warriors laid down a few fluid runs that allowed the crowd to work itself into Pictish furies.
Curry became his own cottage industry of pure offense in the first quarter, scoring 17 points in 12 minutes with six rebounds and three assists. And Andre Iguodala, at 35 the Warriors’ own Old Man River, hit clutch 3-point shots and played stout defense. Their teammates offered little help, however. Green shot an air ball from the 3-point line, as did Boogie Cousins, the mammoth center.
Shaun Livingston, long and lean as a church parson, started in place of Thompson, and he has had a fine career. But he’s in his 34th year, which makes him a senior citizen by N.B.A. standards, and he has averaged just 4.1 points a game in these playoffs.
More perilously, he could not match Thompson’s spectacular shooting range, which extends well beyond the 3-point line. Livingston has not attempted a 3-point shot in his last 98 playoff games, spanning five years. When he was on the floor, the Raptors defense could withdraw to the fastness of its inner perimeter.
Toronto was led by Kyle Lowry, the pride of North Philadelphia. He probed and pushed on offense, and his jump shot, which can flicker like an old television set, was sparkling. He sank five 3-point shots. Pascal Siakam, the young Cameroonian star in the making, laid down a dribble fake or three that nearly separated the Warriors’ big men from their sneakers.
Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ reigning star, has found himself in a cross between a chess match and a wrestling match in this series. He has faced Green, arguably the league’s greatest mano-a-mano defender, and Iguodala, a clever defender. They squatted low and collapsed on Leonard and at times left him frustrated enough that he was tossing uncharacteristic long, off-balance shots at the hoop.
Leonard’s charm as a star is that his work ethic is limitless. Like waves crashing against a shore, he keeps coming and bouncing off the defender and feinting and deking. This game appeared not one of his best, and yet he finished with 30 points, two steals, two blocks and seven rebounds.
Just don’t expect him to expand on his performance. He is the N.B.A.’s own Greta Garbo, a man of few words in a team huddle, on the court and in the postgame news conference. You were injured so much of last year and you missed the playoffs, a reporter noted. How did it feel to get a win in Oracle Arena, the heart of the enemy territory?
He peered at the reporter.
“It feels good,” he said.
Reporters seek narrative as a hungry dog seeks a T-bone. So Wednesday night they tried to make much of a couple of inspiring words written on the Raptors’ backboard, though none of the players really bit on that one. They won because it’s the championship round, and that’s plenty of motivation right there. A few of my colleagues also retailed the narrative that the Warriors must be pleased at their effort, as they were outmanned.
“How proud are you of your guys?,” a reporter asked Curry.
Curry rubbed his head and squinted at the reporter. He has won three championships and could not really abide faux myth making.
“I mean, we fought — but we lost. So we got to go back to the drawing board and just recalibrate,” he said. Curry paused and added, “It’s the finals, man.”
His realism, and the return of a few stars, holds the splendid promise of a hard -ought series and no more mulligans.
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