- Dealing with injuries to Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson, these playoffs peeled away the Warriors in layers until only a skeleton crew remained, proving that even superteams have their limits.
OAKLAND, Calif. –– On his way off the court, Klay Thompson—just moments removed from a dunk attempt with an awkward, painful landing—made arrangements for his return. Just a two-minute rest, Thompson briefed Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Just a two-minute rest and I’ll be ready.
In the tunnels below the arena, Thompson ran short sprints and did jumping jacks to test his left knee, already under duress from his previously strained hamstring. Injuries seem more tractable for Thompson than most; that hamstring had forced Thompson to miss the first playoff game of his career earlier in these Finals, snapping what was then a 120-game streak of survival through all manner of pains and tweaks. “How many people is going to play with a hamstring injury?” Draymond Green asked. “No one. Like, no one does that.” Klay Thompson does. And while he’s at it, he scores in bunches, guards some of the most dangerous players on the floor, and finds it within himself to finish winning plays will full effort.
Two minutes came and went with no sign of Thompson. The Warriors were already making do without Kevin Durant (who was sidelined first by a calf injury, and then even more brutally by a torn Achilles tendon) while relying heavily on a hobbled DeMarcus Cousins (who had recovered first from a similar Achilles tear only to rupture his quad during the first round of the playoffs) and getting what minutes they could from Kevon Looney (who was rigged up in a harness to stabilize a fracture in his chest). Soon, Golden State would learn that Thompson had been ruled out as well, a blaring indicator of the severity of his injury. Next we saw Thompson, he was leaving Oracle Arena on crutches. Next we heard of his status, it was with the announcement that the fall had torn his ACL, turning a two-minute rest into a months-long rehabilitation.
“During the game, we have a chance to win the game and force a Game 7 and go back to Toronto,” Kerr said. “And you just think: How? How has this group of guys put themselves in position to do it? And then when Klay goes down and is out for the game, it's just sort of: You got to be kidding me. Like, this has to stop. It's just the way it's gone. I don't know if it's related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred-plus games and just all the wear and tear, but it's devastating.”
Even superteams have their limits. These playoffs have peeled away the Warriors in layers until only a skeleton crew remained: Stephen Curry, Green, the 35-year-old Andre Iguodala, a few injured colleagues, and a cast of largely supplemental role players suddenly made essential. The human body actually recreates itself every seven years, replacing each cell with another until it forms what is, technically, an entirely new being. This seven-game series took a similar toll on the Warriors—forcing what was the best team in basketball to reconstitute its rotations and rework its tactics to make something new.
It was, in the end, too great an undertaking. Even great teams are subject to limits, and this one was also subject to the Raptors. Few teams, if any, were better equipped to survive the Warriors’ signature scoring flurries. Kawhi Leonard proved unshakeable. Kyle Lowry reads the game with enough speed and accuracy to knock the defending champions back on their heels. When the Raptors visited Oakland back in December, Durant balked at the premise that Toronto was any kind of upstart. “They're not an up-and-coming team,” he said then. “They’re here.” How right he was. The room for error Golden State enjoyed in the 2018 NBA Finals—a clean sweep of the Cavaliers—was cut down by the matchup alone. Once the Warriors began to literally fall apart, there was only so much to be done.
“In the history of this NBA, you could highlight every team that was supposed to win or had the best team and all the different storylines,” Curry said. “In 82 games and a full playoff run, a lot can happen. It's just a matter of how much you fight and just leave it all out there on the floor.” In this regard, the Warriors played an unimpeachable game. There is a glossy sheen to what the Warriors have built, but beneath it is a rare fire, still searing. Some contenders burn out after two or three seasons. The reason Golden State made it through five, reaching the Finals or better each time, is obvious in the way it seems to rise to every occasion.
It was there in the 30 points Thompson scored in his 32 minutes, each make somehow bolder than the last. It was the force that guided Curry through trap after trap, setting up teammates who would have no business creating for themselves with wide open shots. It was what kept Looney returning to this series, what allowed Green to shut down entire Raptor possessions, and what brought Iguodala to his highest-scoring playoff game since the 2016 Finals. It’s what brought the Warriors within a single point, allowed them to force the one stop they needed, and created the space for the best shooter in the world to launch cleanly at the rim. The want to win alone simply couldn’t guide it through the net.
“We know what this team has been made of all along,” Green told the assembled media postgame. “I said it over and over again: the pretty offense will always be the storyline, but this team, a ton of heart.” There can be pride in defeat, even for the team that was supposed to win it all. All throughout this season, Golden State was the likely champion, even the presumed champion. What it was not, clearly, was inevitable. All of the glory of sports hangs by the grace of so many tendons, not just the two that brought the Warriors’ end.
“It's kind of a helpless feeling, in terms of two freak plays that send these guys back to the locker room,” Curry said in the aftermath. Inevitability is a lie we tell ourselves. It is a means to make neat a universe which will never be—our version of Thompson's hope that, in two minutes, everything will work as it should. A great team won the NBA title on Thursday night. Another broke down, as anything human always will.