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The Greatest Team of Its Generation Was Briefly the Scrappy Underdog

Injured and fighting to keep their dynasty alive, the Warriors looked more like the We Believe squad than the juggernaut that’s dominated for a half-decade

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There was a moment in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday that was a happy ending short of becoming NBA lore. In the third quarter, Klay Thompson awkwardly tumbled to the ground, clutching his knee after Danny Green fouled him on a breakaway dunk attempt. It seemed pretty clear upon watching replays of Thompson’s knee buckling that his season was over, just as it had seemed like Kevin Durant’s season was over when something snapped in his leg in Game 5. Thompson was carried off the court and headed back to the locker room.

And then he turned around.

NBA rules state that a player can’t return to a game if he gets fouled and leaves without shooting his free throws. Thompson knew that his body might keep him out of the rest of the game, but he wasn’t going to let a weird technicality do it. He limped back onto the court with 20,000 fans and about as many decibels supporting him. He drilled his free throws and prepared to play defense before the Warriors stopped play to yoink him out of the game and send him back to the locker room.

It carried echoes of Willis Reed emerging from the locker room in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, playing a few minutes despite a brutal thigh injury. The difference, of course, is that Reed’s Knicks won. Without Durant and Thompson, the Warriors couldn’t hold off Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors, who won 114-110 to bring Toronto its first championship. While the Warriors didn’t force Game 7 and keep hopes of a three-peat alive, they did do something they hadn’t done in any of their four previous trips to the NBA Finals. For a few minutes, you had to root for the underdog Warriors.

The sheer bad luck that befell the Warriors in these Finals is baffling. Durant ruptured his Achilles tendon. Thompson tore his ACL. In two games, at the most critical point of the season, the Warriors’ best player and third-best player suffered devastating injuries that not only ended their participation in the series, but will keep them out through most or all of next season as well.

With Durant, there remains some question as to whether he rushed back too quickly from a previous calf injury in the same leg, or whether coach Steve Kerr left him in for too long in the first game back. With Thompson, there are no fingers to point. His knee just gave out.

In the past, the Warriors had overcome injuries to stars. Before the Finals, they had a 31-1 record in games where Durant sat while Steph Curry played, including a 4-0 sweep of the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals. They’d also won without Curry, going 9-3 without him in playoff games over the years, including a 4-1 romp over the Spurs in last year’s playoffs. That’s how inevitable the Warriors’ victories have felt. Get rid of one superstar, two more emerged to drill 3s. To many, the Warriors’ overabundance of talent made them villains. But villains tend to lose in movies. The Warriors didn’t lose, winning three championships in four years and breaking Michael Jordan’s record for wins in a season the one year they didn’t bring home a title. (The one year they lost. It did kinda feel like a movie.) They were indestructible.

And then they got destroyed. With Durant and Thompson down, the Warriors turned to a bench that wasn’t particularly deep. This time, no superstars stepped up to fill their shoes. In the fourth quarter of Game 6, as the Warriors fought for their lives, they trotted out an ancient Shaun Livingston, Jonas Jerebko, and fresh-out-of-the-hospital Kevon Looney, who was trying to play through fractured rib cartilage. (Fractured. Rib. Cartilage.) I wanted to criticize Kerr’s lineup choices, but to say they were choices implies he could’ve chosen something else.

It would be poetic to point out that on the night of the last game in Oracle Arena, the Warriors team on the floor seemed a bit like the folk-hero We Believe squad that took down the top-seeded Mavericks in 2007. But we shouldn’t defame the memory of Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson by pretending that was a squad of scrubs. If 2007 Andris Biedrins had walked out of the tunnel during the second half of Game 6, Steve Kerr would’ve put him in the game, and he probably would’ve been an improvement at center.

It was stunning to see the Warriors reduced to a Curry-and-who squad reminiscent of his Davidson days. After Thompson’s injury Thursday night, the Raptors returned to a box-and-one defense meant to stop Curry and let anybody else do as they pleased, as if Curry were an alarmingly mature fifth-grader whose teammates hadn’t hit puberty yet. It worked.

And yet, through it all, the Warriors fought. Between Durant, Thompson, and Looney, it became clear that physical pain would not keep this team’s players off the court. It feels strange to say about the Warriors, but it’s remarkable that they made this a series. Toronto won more regular-season games and had an almost entirely healthy roster. Meanwhile, the Warriors got 12 minutes the entire series from their best player. Thompson and Looney both missed Game 3, and Looney was unavailable at the end of Game 5 and Thompson unavailable at the end of Game 6. It’s honestly impressive they won two games and made the finale close.

I’m not saying this to take away from Toronto. They don’t etch asterisks onto trophies. (If we relitigated every championship based on which opposing players were healthy, some of Golden State’s wins would look a tad dicey, too.) I’m saying it to celebrate a surprisingly scrappy Warriors squad that kept battling even when fate tilted the floor against them. After five years on top of the basketball world, they could’ve cowered when they suddenly looked across the court at a team with a massive talent advantage. Instead, they were a pain in Toronto’s ass until the very end, each player on the roster refusing to let the dream of the three-peat die. The Raptors couldn’t stop little-used bench players putting in crunch-time buckets. Even when Toronto essentially needed to just get the ball across half court to win a championship in the game’s closing moments, Golden State’s do-or-die press forced a turnover.

I spent most of the series rooting for the Raptors, and it wasn’t a hard choice. Toronto was fighting to get Canada its first NBA championship after a string of seemingly cursed playoff flops; Golden State was going for its fourth title in five years. But watching Warrior after Warrior fall, some with career-altering injuries, I felt pathos for the juggernaut. I wanted them to force Game 7. And as much as I wanted the Raptors to get theirs, I think I might have been more intrigued by the premise of Curry, some former All-Stars without jump shots, and some resilient backups winning the grandest title the sport has to offer.

Perhaps we should get used to seeing the Warriors as underdogs. Durant and Thompson will each be sidelined for large swaths of next season at minimum. As dominant as the Warriors have been for a half-decade, I have to wonder whether the team we saw on the court at the end of Game 6 is even a lock for the postseason in the crowded Western Conference. (LeBron missed the playoffs this year. He’s pretty good.) And even if Durant and Thompson were perfectly healthy, both could be free agents this offseason. While Thompson, whose contract is up, is widely expected to stay with the only franchise he’s ever played for, Durant has been expected to opt out of his deal and leave for some time now. We’re almost certainly past the apex of the Warriors dynasty. That probably seems welcome for most NBA fans, who have spent most of the past half-decade complaining about the omnipotent Warriors.

But I know this: Tearing down the Warriors felt like an urgent necessity as we watched them, but time tends to soften distaste toward dynasties. The people who said Golden State’s dominance made the game unwatchable will brag about having watched these Warriors. The Twitter trolls who barked at Durant for joining the team will tell tales of the Warriors’ trio of legitimate superstars. The detractors who said their style ruined the game will one day scoff at the next basketball revolution. These Warriors are a tell-your-grandkids-you-saw-them team. Their shooting skill, their revolutionary style, their sheer firepower are unmatched in the history of the sport.

During this series, we learned how fondly we feel for the Warriors’ superstars as we saw them sidelined. And as this dynasty seems headed to the locker room with the potential departure of Durant, it won’t be long until we learn how fondly we feel about this era as well.