OAKLAND, Calif. — A building can’t save them, their championship trophy-filled recent past can’t save them, and the Golden State Warriors can’t even count on Kevin Durant to save them.
The two-time defending champions ran into a buzzsaw Friday night in what could be the last game played at Oracle Arena, getting blitzed in the third quarter to put them one game away from elimination.
One game away from one of the greatest dynasties hitting an unexpected end in the most unexpected fashion as the Toronto Raptors look stronger and more confident with every game as this series progresses — a series that could end Monday night across the border.
Is this what the death of a dynasty looks like?
You look up and all of a sudden, all a team has to live on to keep themselves from throwing in the towel is “we’ve done it before,” a mantra everyone from the top down said after a 105-92 Game 4 loss that gave the Raptors a 3-1 NBA Finals series lead.
When Kobe Bryant’s Lakers went down in flames in 2011, it was to a Dallas Mavericks team — the eventual champion — that had more years of failure than triumph, something that was leaned upon well into the series-clinching whipping in Game 4 in Dallas.
LeBron James’ Miami Heat team looked poised for a third straight title when a determined group in San Antonio, featuring Kawhi Leonard, made quick work of them in 2014, when we all believed they were clicking on all cylinders.
The Bad Boy Pistons and Showtime Lakers all faced similar fates: the right team at the right time deciding to show no mercy.
“In our locker room we're talking about believing, everybody out there believe that we can get this done,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “We got to. We can draw on those experiences that we had back in the day and see what happens.”
They’ve done it against James and his band of role players. They’ve squeezed James Harden’s teams into self-destruction and indecision.
They haven’t done it against this type of team, led by an indestructible Leonard and a group of interchangeable parts looking for the most minute weakness.
When dynasties fall, it usually happens with no fair warning — even if the signs are blaring. With the snap of a finger, the moment has passed and history is made.
Is it the years of playoff series seemingly catching up to them at once, going from “light years ahead” to Leonard possibly sending Oracle to the dark forever? The Warriors have always seemed to escape from the clutches, with a Steph Curry explosion or a stone-faced Klay Thompson performance to rescue a drowning team.
Sometimes they’ve won in spite of themselves, dancing with danger as the margin for error got slimmer and slimmer even after Durant made them unbeatable. There was always a challenger lurking, but the one franchise they likely didn’t expect is doing what the Houston Rockets or any other wannabe couldn’t in driving the Warriors to the brink.
“We’re gonna make them play defense, and they don’t like doing that,” a Raptors staffer said before the series. “They play in spurts but not all the time.”
It was the Raptors who brought suffocating defense, hanging tough through the emotional runs the Warriors used to bury opponents. And it was the Raptors who made the champions look frazzled at the first sign of trouble, when Leonard’s consecutive triples to start the second half Friday night gave his team a lead and burgeoning confidence it wouldn’t relinquish, extinguishing a spirited 24 minutes from Golden State.
The Warriors were on their heels the rest of the night, playing with a champion’s spirit. But it takes more than that when the options are thin due to injury, inexperience or just poor roster fits. They needed Durant in the worst way, because he changes everything in a one-on-one matchup with Leonard.
They needed Durant more when Andre Iguodala showed his age and DeMarcus Cousins looked like a man rehabbing from two injuries — Achilles and quad — and struggling against the savvy Marc Gasol.
“I thought they just took it to us right from the beginning of the quarter,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Kawhi hit two threes immediately and they turned up their defense, and they just got on a run.”
If the Warriors take a long look at the film between now and Game 5, they’ll see something eerily familiar in their opponents that will likely produce a sense of respect regardless of the outcome.
The Raptors took advantage of every mismatch and every erroneous switch on defense, and even Kyle Lowry’s pedestrian stat line produced key plays when the Raptors started to pull away.
“Seems like every game it's somebody else,” Draymond Green said. “You know, Danny Green in Game 3, then we completely take him out of the game tonight, and Serge [Ibaka has 20 points].”
Golden State’s ills usually trace back to lethargy, a lack of intensity that derives from arrogance. With Green diving on the floor for every loose ball and summoning every ounce of energy to start the game, sensing the urgency of the day, the Warriors didn’t lack for want.
In fact, if there were any arrogance, it came from anyone but the players. Sitting Klay Thompson in Game 3, when he performed like a healthy man in Game 4, will be second-guessed all summer if the Warriors are dethroned in Toronto on Monday night.
Thompson desperately wanted to play but was overruled by the staff, as Kerr repeatedly said, “It’s a long series,” to justify keeping a critical player out of a critical game to protect him.
It may be a short series unless something miraculous happens in 72 hours.
While Kerr’s approach is admirable, it’s certainly going to be a topic for scrutiny considering Curry didn’t have the same energy following his 47-point masterpiece in Game 3 — a performance that took 43 minutes and so much out of the two-time MVP.
The Warriors can survive without one MVP. They can’t do it without two.
Curry’s numbers (27 points, six assists) ended up looking serviceable, but his stamp on the game wasn’t there. The Raptors didn’t change their game plan to go after Curry like others have. They simply threw body after body his way, all aggressive, poking and prodding to make his life uncomfortable.
“They have been aggressive all series and trying to take space away from me and Klay,” Curry said. “I missed some shots early that I usually make, especially from the 3-point line, but overall I feel like I got good looks, and obviously I'm sure they were a little bit more focused on us two.”
Curry needed somebody, anybody, to help him two nights ago. On Friday, Thompson needed Curry, and after not getting into an early rhythm, Curry was chasing it all night when he needed to have full command.
“The ball moves, and Steph, as one of the great off-ball cutters in the league, can play on and off the ball,” Kerr said. “And so we're trying to mix up the different things that we do. And it wasn't his best game, but he'll bounce back.”
At the end of a process they’ve delivered so many times, Green summed it up best.
“Oh, this sucks. It sucks really bad,” he said. “You just try and do whatever you can to change it. Get a stop, get a bucket, get some momentum. Every time we did, they answered. So yeah, it sucked, a lot.”
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