Toronto Raptors not afraid of the moment, playing “fearlessly” in Game 1

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Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) celebrate defeating the Indiana Pacers in NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO _ The Bay Area has been put on alert. Kawhi Leonard is coming.

The morning after the Raptors’ historic victory over defending champion Golden State in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, commuters in Oakland, Calif., were greeted by a giant New Balance billboard of Leonard looking ominous, arms crossed, cold stare.

The billboard near the Warriors’ Oracle Arena reads: “The King Of The North is Coming.”

The ad also has a list of the Raptors’ playoff opponents, with red Xs through “ORL,” “PHI,” and “MIL,” representing the three Eastern Conference teams Toronto beat en route to the Finals. “GS” hasn’t been crossed off _ yet.

Patrick Cassidy, the global director of consumer marketing for New Balance, said there was a matching full-page ad in Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle.

If anyone had believed the Raptors might crumble in their NBA Finals debut, Toronto slayed that notion with a gritty Game 1 win.

The cheeky New Balance ads are further proof: Leonard and the Raptors aren’t afraid of the Warriors.

“We know that they’re human,” Leonard said of the Warriors, who are making their fifth consecutive Finals appearance. “They’re a great basketball team, talented players, high basketball-IQ players. You’ve just got to go out there and compete, take the challenge.”

The Raptors welcomed the challenge. Thursday night was perhaps the biggest moment in Canadian basketball history. But it wasn’t too big for the Raptors.

Moments before tipoff, Warriors coach Steve Kerr talked about the enormity of the Finals. He called it “much different” than the previous three rounds of the playoffs, a massive moment that’s impossible to prepare for. The Raptors apparently didn’t get that memo.

“They went for it. They played fearlessly. They attacked,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

Pascal Siakam, who’s the frontrunner for the league’s most improved player award, led the way, at times turning Warriors stars Draymond Green and Stephen Curry into virtual cardboard cutouts as he scorched the Warriors for 32 points.

The 25-year-old from Cameroon has become a sprinting, Euro-stepping, dunking advertisement for perseverance. Team president Masai Ujiri said this week that he didn’t forsee so much success for the forward when he saw him as a high schooler back in one of his Giants of Africa camps.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Nurse said of Siakam’s steep trajectory this season. “Give the kid credit, he’s worked his tail off.”

If there were times during the season that Nurse wondered if Siakam could keep climbing at that torrid pace, his young forward always had an answer, whether it was something specific such as more consistent three-point shooting, or something bigger like shining in the pressure-cooker of the playoffs.

Rapper Drake reacts court side as the Toronto Raptors play against the Golden State Warriors during first half basketball action in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Toronto on Thursday, May 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

“His work ethic and his mindset just keeping building for him,” Nurse said.

The Warriors had kind words for Siakam, who shot 14-for-17 on the night, including a perfect 9-for-9 stretch.

Draymond Green said guarding Siakam last season, he had “no clue” he’d be this good a year later. But he’s “become a guy,” Green said. A player he respects.

“It’s a different respect,” Green said. “I respect guys who are top-five, top-10 guys in the league. For instance, like LeBron, he came in the Chosen One, King James, all these things out of high school, and he actually lived up to it. That’s incredible.

“It’s a different type of respect when you’re talking about a guy who . . . the guys who really got it out the mud. You come into this league and there’s really no space for you. You’re essentially someone who comes in . . you can be out in a year, you can be out in two years, you can be out in four years. And to gain that respect and to become one of those guys, I think it’s special.”

Warriors star Stephen Curry talked about Siakam’s “non-stop” motor.

“So even if you feel like you’re in transition, you’re running shoulder to shoulder with him. He has another gear he can get to.”

The hype is huge around the Raptors in their first Finals in the team’s 24-year history. It’s the first time the Finals have been played on Canadian soil. There’s been a massive groundswell of support felt across the country.

But Nurse noted that his team has stepped up to big challenges all season.

“It seemed like going to Game 1 at Milwaukee (conference semifinals), we were really wondering how we were going to handle the emotional high from just two nights earlier, that (Leonard) buzzer-beater to win the series,” Nurse said. “And I think you talk about how fortunate we are to have a bunch of guys that have played deep _ some guys who have won it all, some guys who have played really deep, (Serge) Ibaka, (Marc) Gasol, (Danny) Green, Leonard.”

Leonard and Green won an NBA championship with San Antonio, while Ibaka played in the Finals for Oklahoma City. Still, the Warriors are by far the more experienced team, boasting a combined 140 Finals games between them, compared to Toronto’s 38.

No matter, said undrafted backup guard Fred VanVleet, who was solid off the bench with 15 points.

“You work yourself to be able to perform at the highest level on the highest stage, and here we are,” VanVleet said. “We earned it. We deserve to be here. So just getting here is not good enough for us. We want to go out there and have a chance to compete for the trophy.”

A chance to compete for Canada’s first NBA Finals trophy.

“We love this country,” VanVleet said. “We love playing for Canada.”

Game 2 is Sunday, then the series shifts to Oakland for Games 3 and 4.

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