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The Warriors Ride the Lightning to an NBA Finals Split

Everything looks easy when Golden State is rolling. But the champs had to grind their way through multiple injuries—including one that puts Klay Thompson’s status in doubt—to earn a series-tying win in Game 2.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

At some point in the second quarter of the Warriors’ 109-104 Game 2 victory over the Raptors on Sunday, as Golden State climbed back from its 12-point deficit, I realized that Kevin Durant has been part of the Warriors’ championship dynasty for longer than he’s been a challenger of it. That glosses over years of foundational development from Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Steve Kerr, but it’s true—this is Year 3 for Durant, amid a five-year stint at the top of the basketball world. Since KD injured his calf in Game 5 of the Warriors’ second-round series against the Rockets, it’s been easy to hearken back to the joyful days of the Warriors revolution, but after nearly a game and a half of this year’s NBA Finals, I started thinking about the last time the Warriors actually faced hardship at this level of the sport.

It certainly predates Durant. After all, KD was meant to be the salve for all that. Curry’s mechanical issues stemming from injury in 2016 sapped him of his superpowers for just long enough that the Warriors relinquished what looked like certain victory. And for the past three seasons, the Warriors have turned excellence into routine drudgery. So as the Warriors struggled to find themselves for all of Game 1 and a sizable portion of Game 2, I felt a certain pull. These Warriors are finally showing the world what they’re made of.

But establishing that proving ground comes at a cost. The Warriors felt the toll of Sunday night physically. Curry’s struggles in the first half were chalked up to a nebulous report of unwellness. Andre Iguodala still looked to be laboring from the left leg tweak he suffered in Game 1. Kevon Looney managed less than 10 and a half minutes in the game before exiting for good with a chest (or collarbone or shoulder) injury minutes after taking one of the strangest falls of the postseason—jumping laterally to contest a Kawhi Leonard drive, only to seemingly slip on a banana in midair. Thompson, who had lit up the Raptors for 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting in just over 32 minutes of play, exited the game in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter after landing awkwardly on a 3-point attempt, straining his hamstring. After the game, Thompson seemed optimistic that he’d be ready for Game 3; Looney’s prospects are less clear. Both will receive medical tests Monday.

These are injuries that, in the crucible of Finals basketball, can alter game plans drastically. Given the Raptors’ length and defensive recovery speed (and the lack of other trustworthy long-distance shooters on Golden State’s roster), the Warriors rely on both Curry and Thompson to optimize spacing for many suboptimal lineups. With Thompson out of the picture, the Raptors were given artistic license to get funky. The ABC broadcasting crew was gobsmacked when Toronto coach Nick Nurse called for what appeared to be a box-and-1 on Steph, with Curry’s primary defender locked on him as the other Raptors defenders created a four-sided perimeter around the mano-a-mano dance. The scheme did what it set out to do: Curry was scoreless and didn’t attempt a single shot in the fourth quarter. The Raptors went to unique looks to combat Golden State’s compromised lineups and aggressively ignored the Warriors’ supporting cast. It led to a handful of Andrew Bogut lob plays. Quinn Cook drained two 3s in the span of less than 30 seconds in the fourth quarter; Andre Iguodala’s game-clinching left-wing 3 was the most wide-open shot on either side all series. Those three shots made the difference; they’re shots the Raptors would still concede given a second chance.

The Finals have been as competitive as anyone could have hoped in the first two games, and with both teams laboring in one way or another, so begins the joy of tedium. Matchup adjustments, pain management, minutes restrictions both enforced and relinquished. The Warriors, despite the impressive win given all their physical ailments, have to be at least a little concerned about Game 2 becoming a Pyrrhic victory. Thompson has played 96 percent of 640 available regular-season games in his eight-year career and has yet to miss a playoff game. He will certainly try to play Game 3, but what will a compromised Klay look like given his overwhelming responsibilities on both ends of the floor? DeMarcus Cousins stepped up in big minutes on Sunday, serving as a kind of avatar for these wounded Warriors, a lapsed superstar who has uncharacteristically embodied the “Strength in Numbers” team mantra. But these Finals games are the only he’s played in a month and a half. What happens if he can’t maintain consistency in bigger minutes, should Looney miss extended time? And if Kevin Durant returns on Wednesday, does any of this matter?

Golden State rode the lightning to take Game 2, and while they flashed some of the hallmarks of their dynasty—a Thompson explosion, Curry-Green pick-and-rolls, an 18-0 third-quarter run, Iguodala heroics when you least expect them—it wasn’t a classic win given the bar they’ve created for themselves, but it was the kind of win the team needed. They took care of business even as potential excuses mounted. When was the last time we were able to earnestly label the team “resilient”?

The Warriors are in the Finals for the fifth straight season. They’ve been at the top long enough to go from being the 3-point-shooting team that finally broke stereotypes en route to a championship to gatekeepers of the dying art form of the midrange jumper. They’ve survived injury scares, fatigue, malaise, and sensationalized headlines. They’ve played an average of 102 games per season over these past five seasons. What if this is the year that the extra wear finally does the entire team in?

It’s an interesting thought. The Warriors, somehow, after five straight seasons at the summit, have become the high-variance team of the Finals. We’ve lamented their presence at the top as something preordained. But for the first time in a long time, at this level of basketball, the sense of uncertainty weighs heavier than their inevitability.