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Bruce Arthur: NBA glory takes heart and a steady hand

Bruce Arthur: NBA glory takes heart and a steady hand
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OAKLAND, CALIF.—Monday night in Toronto, Kyle Lowry had two shots at a championship. It wasn’t just his potential series winner from the corner, which was partially blocked. Two minutes before that, with Toronto up 103-100, the Raptors point guard had a wide-open three from the right wing. Lowry had delivered a marvellous fourth quarter. He’s a great shooter, and he wasn’t afraid of it; he just came up a little short. Maybe he would have won a title at the buzzer if not for Draymond Green’s fingertip. We’ll never know.

“If Draymond doesn’t get a fingertip on it and Kyle makes that three, then it’s the greatest play ever,” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet.

There were other moments that passed by, but more will likely come. The Raptors have played 23 playoff games this spring, and in every one but Games 3 and 6 in Philadelphia, and Game 2 in Milwaukee, a play here or there would have made the difference. Of the 23, they had a chance to win 20.

In Game 6 of the NBA Finals here on Thursday night — leading the series three games to two against the ragged, glorious ruins of whatever is left of the Golden State Warriors dynasty — some Raptors will take the biggest shots of their lives, under oceanic pressure. Every one will be a test of nerves, poise and will, and might decide a championship. What does it take?

“A willingness to accept the consequences of missing,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who hit the shot that won Chicago the 1997 title, among a long list of big shots. “Until you get to that point, it’s going to be tough. So you have to go into it knowing that even if you are the best in the world, you’re going to miss half the time. If you can hit half your game-winning shots, that’s a hell of a percentage.

“But if you go into it thinking, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to miss, it’s a big situation,’ then you’re defeated already.”

Game 5 was the first time these defensive-minded Raptors had scored at least 104 points per 100 possessions in a playoff game and lost. With their season and dynasty on the line, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry hit Golden State’s 18th, 19th and 20th threes of the game. The Raptors still nearly won.

“As far as stepping into those shots, we practise those every single day,” said Thompson, who might be the second-greatest shooter in history behind Curry, or thereabouts. “We know what it’s like to take those, and we can live with the make or miss. It’s just what it comes down to.”

But the Warriors, riven by injuries, are barely holding on. For the series on open threes, Kawhi Leonard is 7-for-21, Lowry 8-for-27, Pascal Siakam 2-for-15 (and 0-for-12 from three overall in his last four games), Danny Green is 9-for-25, Marc Gasol is 6-for-16, and Fred VanVleet is 10-for-27. If the Raptors make enough shots in one game, they will win a title.

“(It takes) probably just another higher level of focus,” said VanVleet, who has hit 54 per cent of his threes since emerging from a deep slump eight games ago. “I think that I found another step up of just trusting yourself and trusting your shot, and not getting swayed by the moment, and not changing your technique and not getting down when you miss a couple, or changing anything, or doing anything drastic.

“You just trust the work, and the work is the only thing that it going to stay constant and remain steady the whole time. And the same form that you shoot with when you practise is the same that you have to go shoot with when there’s a championship on the line.”

Gasol says he visualizes , and that if you are in rhythm those pressure shots are easier: You just need to trick yourself into staying in rhythm. Green said that being prepared to take big shots by the coaching staff in San Antonio taught him how to approach them, to be comfortable in that moment. Kawhi said he doesn’t feel pressure, because he knows that life is a lot more serious, and can hurt a lot more, than just missing a shot.

Golden State’s Andre Iguodala hit the giant three to clinch Game 2; the 35-year-old is fighting through a pile of injuries and has not shot well in the series. But he has made those big shots before, and will step into them again. The way he looks at it sounds like the Zen of the NBA player. Think of that, when the pressure in Game 6 hits.

“For me, it’s just clearing out the noise,” said Iguodala, wearing a hoodie with the hood up. “Even understanding it … You understand that (the noise) isn’t really about the actual game. It’s about other things. And when you understand that, you can place everything in its proper places. It actually clears it out for you to embrace those moments. You know the work you put in, you know what you’re playing for — you’re playing for yourself, you’re playing for your teammates — and you’re thinking about that. And you’re not thinking about, you know, I’m making a shot because it’s going to boost my ego, or it’s going to boost my following, or boost my brand.

How Steve Kerr and the Bulls won the title in 1997, with his big last shot in Game 6. Plus his thoughts at the Bulls championship parade in Chicago. Can t miss it...

“Just being comfortable in your own skin. And it’s harder and harder for athletes to be comfortable in their own skin. I think (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver talked about it. I mean, I got a hood on right now, and you’re going to see a lot more players with hoods on, you know. They shelter themselves. You know, you’ve got that shield up because of what’s involved in the games now that’s not actually the games — everything that’s around it, and big money behind it. You’ve got to be able to reflect and find time to be comfortable in your own skin. I just try to do that, and when you’re comfortable in your own skin, the mind’s clear and you’re able to perform at a high level.”

It’s a profound statement, that idea of being comfortable enough with yourself in the noise, in the pressure, in the chaos, in the moment, after doing the work with a purity of intent and application, to the point where we started at. Knowing that the chance of a lifetime is riding on every shot, but stepping into that moment. The Raptors will have another shot at a title Thursday night. They can’t be afraid to miss.
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