- In a potential NBA Finals preview, Warriors-Raptors lived up to the hype and served as a reminder that the NBA has never been better than it is right now.
Raptors-Warriors was many things. It was the biggest game of Kawhi Leonard's early days in Toronto. It was another test for a Golden State team struggling to remain dominant without Steph Curry and Draymond Green. It was a Raptors blowout in the first quarter. Then it was suspiciously close. An 18-point lead was cut to single digits by halftime. Midway the third quarter, it looked like Toronto had things under control again. And that's when Kevin Durant went nuts.
Durant scored the final 13 points of the third quarter for Golden State. He finished that run when he pulled up and buried a jumper from the center court logo. It was merely prelude. With the Raptors up six in the final minute of the fourth, Durant stood a full four feet behind the three-point line and drained another three from the middle of the floor. Roughly 30 seconds later, after forcing Leonard into a missed jumper on the other end, Durant dribbled into the corner and, with Leonard in his jersey, falling out of bounds, he hit a three to force overtime.
"It's bad coaching," Nick Nurse joked to reporters afterward. "We didn't plan to give him 51. He gave us 51. He's unbelievable."
Thursday night in Toronto was the version of Kevin Durant that everyone can agree on. There are thousands of basketball articles that come with embedded highlight videos, but actually watch this one. In the moment, this shot was a spiritual experience:
KD was so good throughout—51 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 18-31 shooting—that he overshadowed an incredible performance from Leonard (37 points, 8 rebounds, 14-24 shooting). Kawhi's night included several clutch jumpers, one botched final possession in the fourth, and then an overtime play to force a KD turnover. It was a small moment, but it was also a play that DeMar DeRozan could not have made if you gave him nine years and more than $100 million to do it. Elsewhere: there was a huge fourth quarter three from Kyle Lowry, an overtime three from Danny Green, and a night from Pascal Siakam (26 points, 8-10 shooting) that might make you literally grimace when thinking about San Antonio's failure to get him included in the Kawhi deal.
The Raptors entered this season hoping that new blood could help exorcise old demons. Thursday night obviously won't answer any playoff questions in Toronto, but it was a start. Curry's absence meant that anything the Raptors did in that game would come with an asterisk, and in that case, going to the brink and thriving in overtime was probably more encouraging than a blowout would've been.
More than anything, Warriors-Raptors was a reminder that the NBA has never been better than it is right now. There has never been this much talent all over the league, the style is wide-open, highlights are readily available all over the world, and every few days there's a new performance that will baffle anyone who's paying attention. To wit: Steph Curry was going for 51 of his own a few weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, Jamal Murray was taking over the fourth quarter and dropping 48 to beat the Celtics. Then Kyrie Irving and that Boston team went to overtime to beat the Raptors on national TV. Jimmy Butler showed up in Philly to hit game-winners. Joel Embiid is playing the entire season like Shaq. Kemba Walker has been out of his mind for roughly seven weeks now. Damian Lillard hit 10 threes on Wednesday night. Durant has averaged 48 points over his last three games. Somewhere in the middle of it all, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP and the Raptors are on pace to win 68 games.
The league isn't perfect. It's not even December 1st and another Warriors title is already a foregone conclusion. Every team is shooting an obscene number of threes, and every few months there's a new superstar demanding a trade. The Wizards exist. The Sonics still don't. And yes, the thrill of watching Durant carry his own offense also works as a good argument against all the forgettable Golden State games of the past few seasons. On the other side, this Raptors season is great, but imagine how much more interesting it would be if anyone believed they had a chance against a healthy Warriors team. Maybe next year we'll get to live that hypothetical.
For now, the best thing about the NBA is that the actual basketball is too much fun to ever waste time being frustrated with its flaws. The state of the league is a credit to the players, the style of play, and the league's points of emphasis along the way. All of this is working better than it ever has before. The healthy Warriors may be untouchable in June, but that's been true of dynasties past. What's important is that the rest of the NBA is a hundred times more entertaining than it was during the Shaq and Kobe years in Los Angeles.
Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard underscored all those points Thursday, but if you missed the game, it's not a problem. This is the golden age of the NBA, and we're never more than 72 hours from another reminder.