OAKLAND – It has been apparent from the start of these NBA Finals that the Toronto Raptors are the deepest team the Warriors have faced during the last five seasons. It’s now abundantly clear they are the best team the Warriors have seen.
Better than the Warriors? Probably not if Kevin Durant is available.
Better than these Warriors? Yes.
After losing back-to-back home games to fall into a three-games-to-one series hole, the Warriors on Friday spoke about their resilience, their history and their ability to overcome obstacles. They spoke as champions should. As long as they’re on the court, they’re too proud to surrender.
“You don’t succeed the way we have over the course of these years without that mentality,” Stephen Curry said.
“I know we’re capable,” coach Steve Kerr said.
Here are four takeaways from the first four games, along with ideas on what the Warriors must do to give themselves a chance to mount a historic comeback:
The KD quandary
With the knowledge that Game 4 might have been the last at Oracle Arena, folks in the building were trying to fight off any semblance of finality. They also kept asking and wondering and, in some cases, questioning Durant’s absence due to a strained right calf.
“Kobe would’ve played,” said a former NBA player. “KD gotta at least give it try. I mean, this is The Finals.”
Another former player felt otherwise, saying there has to be “trust between the team and the player, so you can’t throw a guy out there just because you want him out there. (Durant) is not the first guy to miss a Finals with an injury.”
There is, though, a layer of complexity to this situation. Reports of Durant’s recovery have been inconsistent. One day, he’s progressing. Another day, he’s not close. Though the Warriors initially indicated he could be out several weeks, not once have they issued a firm timeline.
Some of the chatter is emotional, observers seeing the Warriors in trouble and reaching, believing Durant can be the difference between winning and losing. They’re probably right.
It feels so futile. If Durant can’t run, he shouldn’t play. If he can’t run, he can’t help.
Recognize the obvious
Minutes after Game 4, I was talking with a former NBA player who questioned the judgment of the Warriors players and coaches.
“Klay Thompson had it going,” he said. “When somebody has it going, you’ve got to milk that.”
No argument here. I actually tweeted during the game that the “Warriors eventually will realize Klay is the guy tonight.” They never did, and a potential 40-point game was lost.
Playing through an achy hamstring, Thompson scored a team-high 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including going 6-of-10 from deep. The rest of the starting lineup combined to shoot 16-of-40.
Thompson got eight shots after halftime. Curry, the point guard who played 43 minutes in Game 3, launched 12. Those numbers should have been reversed. Curry usually is aware of a teammate in rhythm and tries to feed him. Instead, he tried to carry the scoring load. Mistake.
“I’ll look at the film, figure out how I can make the right decisions with the ball in my hands and be aggressive and assertive and make those adjustments for Game 5,” said Curry, who surely will realize his mistake in taking shots from a guy stroking it at a higher clip than anyone else.
Raptors are different animal
The Warriors are facing a team that is better than any of the Cleveland Cavaliers teams of the previous four Finals. Better than the last two Rockets teams. Better than the 2016 Oklahoma City team that had them down 3-1 in the Western Conference finals.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri has assembled a roster about as perfect as possible in today’s NBA. Toronto has size, athleticism, speed, a multi-faceted offense and a savage defense.
All of that, with cyborg Kawhi Leonard the unshakeable centerpiece.
The offense, though, is wearing out the Warriors. The Raptors always have five live shooters. Everybody is a threat from beyond the arc and must be guarded. And the ball always moves.
“Their ball movement has been great,” Draymond Green said. “I think our rotations (in Game 4) were better. But you know, still got to get better.”
The Warriors are switching and scrambling and swarming – as seen in a terrific first quarter in Game 4 – but no team can expend that level of energy for 48 minutes. A shorthanded team has no chance. That explains why 54.3 percent of Toronto’s 3-point shots so far are classified as “open” or “wide open” by NBA.com statistics.
The Warriors have spent two weeks searching for an answer without any sign of finding one.
DeMarcus Cousins has waited his entire career for a chance to play on the postseason stage. He has had one very good game.
Part of the reason for that is obvious. Cousins played Game 1 of the first round against the Clippers, making little impact before sustaining a torn quadriceps muscle in Game 2. He missed the next 14 games, four more against L.A., six against Houston and four against Portland.
Beating the recovery odds, Cousins returned for Game 1 in Toronto and didn’t play well. He started Game 2 and delivered a highly encouraging performance, 28 very good minutes. He looked capable of filling some of the void created by Durant’s absence.
Games 3 and 4 have been, well, wretched. He lasted 19 minutes in Game 3, only 15 in Game 4, which he opened by committing three turnovers in the first two minutes.
Boogie looks like a player who isn’t close to 100 percent trying to trick himself into thinking he is. It shows. Given his performance in Games 3 and 4, Game 2 was fool’s gold.
Kerr now has to decide what to do with someone so talented but also, at this time, not capable of helping. Start him? Play him off the bench? Leave him on the bench?
Before rendering judgment on Durant, consider that he might be watching Cousins struggle and saying, “If I go out there like this, that could be me.”