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TORONTO — If Kevin Durant's biggest want is being needed, the bat signal was sent out resoundingly and long through the night, the cheers of an emotionally drunk fan base accompanying the Toronto Raptors’ handling of the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
For several days and a bit longer, Durant has had to endure the nonsense surrounding his team's postseason record without him and louder-by-the-minute chatter about Golden State's ability to win a championship without him.
But talk doesn't make truth and eyes don't lie: Durant is now needed as much by his team as he needed them to become a champion by signing there three summers ago. His jersey hung in the locker room and he strolled out shortly following the 118-109 series-opening loss looking nonplussed by the throng of media waiting outside it, offering no hints to his recovery and immediate future.
The Warriors need Durant in that jersey to win these Finals, even if the Raptors were in desperate need to start off the series with a strong showing, even if some of the fortuitous bounces that danced to the Raptors’ tune continued the trend Thursday night.
Strength in numbers is the mantra, but the Raptors pose challenges only remedied by the best nuclear weapon in the NBA. Their length put the Warriors on their heels all night and they have a clear game plan of making the two-time champions work as hard as possible for as long as possible on the defensive end.
The Portland Trail Blazers, they are not. The teetering Houston Rockets, a team willing to implode at the first opportunity, they aren't either. The Raptors have faced a difficult road to June, starting with a hard-playing Orlando squad to the scary Philadelphia 76ers to the rhythmic Milwaukee Bucks. Once the Raptors honed in on the Bucks' weaknesses and played with requisite urgency, the four wins didn't look like much of a surprise.
And now after releasing themselves from the immediate pressure of letting down a country with a deflating loss, they could be developing into a monster the Warriors can't half-ass their way through.
The Raptors' confidence is brimming, buoyed by keeping the Warriors at arm's length all night and realizing Kawhi Leonard's best game is yet to come. It was hard to tell if the Warriors were playing possum by staying six to eight points back for the better part of three quarters, or if they were barely keeping themselves afloat from disaster through their experience.
With Durant expected to return mid-series, he'll face a challenge against an equal at the peak of his powers who many feel has temporarily snatched the torch from LeBron James as the game's most elite player. Even without having Durant address this directly, he has to be salivating at the thought of shutting all that talk down.
It was ridiculous to suggest the Warriors were better with Durant nursing an injury. A team as good and proud as the champions can mobilize and play off emotion for stretches, but in the Finals the air is thinner and the margin for error is slim. With him, the Warriors have won the past two titles. Without him, they're vulnerable and possibly ripe.
In today's NBA, dynamic wings have dominated this decade: James, Durant and Leonard have each stamped their place in history through the Finals while Andre Iguodala, the 2015 Finals MVP, limped to the bench in the waning minutes, looking every bit of his 35 years.
Beating a team whose best two players are 6-foot-2 and under was almost too perfect of a setup for the Warriors and their ability to lock in on defense at a moment's notice — chief reason why falling behind by nearly 20 in the West finals was the only thing to wake them up. Here, the best two wings are on the other side and it shouldn't have taken a Pascal Siakam explosion to drive that point home.
"I let him get in a rhythm in the first half, first quarter really," Draymond Green said. "So I got to do a better job of taking his rhythm away, and I will, but he had a great game. But that's on me."
It's less about Siakam having the rare 14-for-17 night, or Marc Gasol hitting the open shots the Warriors were wont to give. It was more the manner in which the Raptors sustained the runs other teams have wilted under, playing with a confidence that only a player like Durant can extinguish with some crowd-quieting, give-me-the-ball-and-watch-me-work moments.
It didn't seem to bother Stephen Curry much, as his 34 points showed, but life wasn't easy for his teammates. The length and athleticism of the Raptors provides a challenge these Warriors haven't faced during their run, as not even the Rockets have this level of depth from the wings and bigs. One can say the Raptors' defense — their willingness to be felt and bother the Warriors — will grow only stronger as the series evolves.
Curry is no one's sidekick, which was the beauty in watching he and Durant work. They both looked like No. 1 guys without conflict. With Durant sidelined, it puts too much pressure on Klay Thompson and Green to be perfect. Curry easily created shots for himself, but being counted on for that responsibility for entire games could wear him out as the series progresses.
Afterward, Curry seemed to be champing in the locker room, not stewing or lamenting the prospect of being three losses away from the worst kind of summer vacation. Just as he demonstratively clapped his hands on the floor as the final seconds ticked away, he did the same before finally taking off his jersey to head for the showers.
"I like the vibe. I say it a lot, but I like the vibe that we have in the locker room in terms of everybody focusing on what they need to do differently," Curry said. "They did what they were supposed to do on their home floor and close out the game."
The Warriors were confident afterward, gracious with credit and careful not to come across as too confident in dropping the first series opener in the Steve Kerr era.
However, in a moment of candor, Curry let down his shield to Yahoo Sports before heading to his postgame news conference: "You can just say I'm very confident, 'VERY' in all capital letters."
An All-NBA teammate going from street clothes to uniform would make that statement all the more believable.
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