Former U.S. president Barack Obama roots for his hometown Chicago Bulls. Golden State Warriors’ star Steph Curry is his golfing buddy.
But Mr. Obama – a devoted basketball player as well as viewer – chose to make one of his rare NBA reveals in Toronto on Sunday. He was a guest of Raptors president Masai Ujiri. He took a seat in the packed stands across from the benches. It was a good ticket, but not a great one – about 10 rows off the court.
He made a point of not cheering for anyone in particular, and spent most of his time in close conversation with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
But it was hard not to read his mere presence as a sort of endorsement. Not of any particular team, but of Canada.
The NBA is the unofficial American sports league of The Resistance. Little gestures mean a lot. On Sunday, the first Finals staged on foreign soil were used as a safe place to launch a few political grenades toward home.
The Raptors were instead dealing with a procession of landmines – gruesome officiating, a boatload of turnovers and the Warriors at their very best for six killing minutes. As a result, the Raptors lost 109-104. It could have been a romp, but the Raptors pulled it close at the end. This series is truly on now.
Before the game, Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr came into his presser wearing a “Vote For Our Lives” T-shirt. When someone asked about it, Mr. Kerr delivered a stump speech on behalf of victims of gun violence.
“I offer my support to [youth activists] and to all young people, and hope that we can create a change where we don’t all have to walk around scared we’re going to get shot in our country.”
Given where he’d chosen to say it, the “our country” landed particularly hard.
This was the same coach who the other day said of his hosts, “Canadian fans are so nice that even when they’re harassing us, they do it in a very polite way.”
The Raptors, being neither very political nor very Canadian, were in a different frame of mind.
Kawhi Leonard started off in the midst of one of his run-amok games. He is so quiet about it, you can tend to overlook his dominance.
On the off-day, someone asked Mr. Leonard about trash talking – both giving and receiving.
“It really doesn’t happen too much,” he said. “I really can’t say it happens.”
It most certainly does. Just not to Mr. Leonard. One was reminded of what Dwyane Wade once said of him after a long, ugly series: “I ain’t heard Kawhi Leonard. I don’t even know how he sounds.”
The quieter Mr. Leonard gets, the more trouble you’re in.
Whatever hangover might have been expected after a convincing Game 1 victory didn’t materialize. It was Golden State who came out cold and brittle.
At one point late in the second quarter, Mr. Curry – possibly the greatest shooter of all time – hadn’t made a shot. Aside from Klay Thompson, the Warriors had cumulatively made four field goals.
At some points, Mr. Curry appeared ill, blinking confusedly on the bench. He had to leave the court briefly for some sort of treatment.
Added to the injury absence of Kevin Durant (subtly but ruthlessly mocked at courtside by Drake, who was wearing a Home Alone Macaulay Culkin hoodie emblazoned with “KEVIN???!!??”), it was looking very bad for Golden State. That’s how they fool you.
Toronto stretched their lead to more than 10 points. The Warriors called a timeout. This was both a very cruel and very clever point to introduce Mr. Obama to the crowd. A massive ovation followed, one easily as great as any received by the real stars of the show. Then an “M-V-P” chant.
Whatever point Mr. Obama was making to Canadians, they were in turn making one right back at him.
But Mr. Curry rediscovered his form shortly thereafter, and the momentum began to shift.
To that point, the Warriors were held in it by their first-half MVPs – the officiating crew. Toronto was repeatedly dinged with borderline fouls, a few which seemed to equate hard stares with physical contact. Golden State had a whopping 19 free-throw attempts in the first half. You’d complain, but it would be pointless. Championship teams get championship calls.
In the second half, the offensive storm surge everyone expected finally arrived. The Warriors tallied 18 consecutive points to start the third quarter.
You can’t stop these guys. You can’t really contain them. All you can do is hope. For one-and-a-half games hope worked, until it didn’t. Now it’s work.
There’s a reason this modern incarnation of the Warriors had never gone down 2-0 in a series. They don’t stay down for long.
The Raptors also didn’t fold, but nor did they carry through on their early domination. If you get a foot on the neck of this team, you have to keep pressing with your whole weight.
It’s 1-1 now. The NBA’s travelling feast moves to Oakland tomorrow. There’ll be a game on Wednesday.
Historically, that contest is pivotal. The team that’s won Game 3 of the Finals has won the trophy more than 80 per cent of the time. Golden State hasn’t lost a game at home since April. That’s some tough math.
If this Finals began with skirmishing, it’s a war now.