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Winners and Losers: Kawhi Leonard Just Put the Champs on the Ropes

Golden State dropped its second straight game at Oracle to fall into a 3-1 hole in the NBA Finals. Now, perhaps only the return of Kevin Durant can save them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The good, the bad, and the 3-1 leads from Game 4 of the NBA Finals.


Winner: Kawhi Leonard

We know that Leonard isn’t emotive, which is why often the best way to understand how he’s affecting a game is not to look at his face, but at the reactions of those around him. On Friday, when Leonard dropped 36 points on the Warriors to give Toronto a 105-92 win and a 3-1 series lead, you could feel the life drain from the stadium after every haymaker he threw. Steph Curry and Draymond Green looked desperate, and the Oracle Arena crowd sounded increasingly defeated as 48 minutes of game time wore on. It was like they slowly realized the best player on the floor wasn’t one wearing their colors, and he wasn’t going to be stopped.

Kawhi’s 30 points in Game 3 were like the check at the end of a long dinner: You don't realize how much you’ve ordered until you see the number on paper. There was never a point when he dominated, in part because he didn’t need to. The rest of the Raptors were hitting shots around him, so all he had to do was keep pace. But in Friday’s game, his 36 points were a product of his catching fire not once but twice, in the first and third quarters.

Kawhi’s 14 points in the first were ear-splitting because the rest of the Raptors were so silent. Of the team’s 17 points, Kawhi scored 14. He took eight shots and made five, while his teammates took 13 shots and made just one. Even though Kawhi didn’t score a single point in the second quarter, he carried Toronto with his playmaking and his defense.

Kawhi then came out of the locker room after halftime with the Raptors down four, and won the game in the third before the Warriors had a chance to catch their breath. He immediately hit back-to-back 3s, pulling up like he was the best shooter in the game’s history. He then willed himself into tough midrange jump shots, forced the issue and got to the line for easy points (he made all of his nine free throws), and ended up with 17 points in the third. The Warriors, as a team, put up only 21.

Golden State had a chance to exert its typical third-quarter terror, but instead it was Kawhi who turned Oracle into a house of horrors. He hit another 3 in the fourth, clinched the game with more free throws, and then gave his usual banal answers in his walk-off interview. Oracle’s doors may have just closed for the final time; if so, it was Kawhi who turned the locks.

Loser: Steph Curry’s Legs

Early in the fourth quarter, Curry did something strange: He had an open shot, but he hesitated to take it. It was just a slight pause, but for a shooter who is usually so smooth and precise, the hitch was more worrisome than the fact the shot didn’t go in.

Curry’s first four 3-point attempts all banged off the front of the rim. The trend was so obvious that Curry overcompensated on his fifth shot from long distance and nearly hit the backboard. In the first half, he made just four shots—all of them in the midrange. He finished with 27 points on 9-for-22 shooting, and 2-for-9 shooting from 3.

It would make sense that Curry would be tired after carrying the Warriors in Game 3, and that his shot would be off. But it is still striking to see him be human. Klay Thompson returned from his hamstring injury, made six 3s, and led the Warriors with 28 points. Had Golden State managed to pull off the win, Klay’s performance would have been praised as heroic, but against this Raptors team, the Warriors still needed more from Curry to have a shot. Without Curry at his absolute best, Golden State probably won’t turn things around even if Thompson can score in bunches. Well, unless …

Winner: Kevin Durant

OK, it’s official: The Warriors need Durant. After losing two games at home, the Warriors face a 3-1 deficit in the Finals for the first time in the past five seasons. The team’s depth is depleted and its best players are either injured or struggling; Durant is the only card left for Golden State to play, but the question is: Can they even play it? Kerr said on Friday that they hoped Durant would be able to play in either Game 5 or Game 6, but Durant didn’t even practice on Thursday. For all we know, he has zero chance to play in the series at all and the Warriors are just keeping Toronto in the dark.

But if Durant can play, it means that we get to see him try to be the hero now that the narrative arc has bent fully toward him. It would be a bizarre kind of fairy-tale ending for the player who has seemed ready to leave Golden State all season, whom Draymond Green shouted at to say they didn’t need him, to come back and be their savior when it matters most.

Loser: DeMarcus Cousins

Here we are again, for the second straight game, saying the same thing: The Warriors can’t give substantial minutes to Cousins. In Game 4, Cousins turned the ball over three times to start the game, scored only six points, and finished a minus-4 in 15 minutes. He was routinely dominated by Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka; he was again outplayed by Kevon Looney, who was playing with a fractured rib, and replaced by Andrew Bogut.

The problem for the Warriors is that they’re not deep enough to keep Cousins on the bench. Even though Golden State got Looney back, they’re still forced to start another center or at least give Cousins minutes since they have to contend with a lengthy and athletic Raptors roster. (At one point in Game 4, Nick Nurse supersized Toronto’s lineup by going with Gasol and Ibaka on the floor at the same time.) The roles have been reversed—the Warriors’ Hamptons Five lineup, which once terrorized the league, feels like a relic, and Kerr simply has no other counters. Meanwhile, Nurse hasn’t even deployed his small lineup with Siakam at center. Try playing Boogie against that unit.

Cousins has been effective on offense throughout his career, but right now, he has no lift near the paint. Before the season, that wouldn’t have been viewed as a problem. But now, Golden State is so starved for a boost that it’s looking to make Cousins into something more than the accentuating piece that he was supposed to be.

Winner: Serge Ibaka

With four minutes left in the third quarter, Ibaka erased a floater attempt from Alfonzo McKinnie. The Raptors had been playing fast all game long, and they kept up the pace, pushing the ball after the block, with Ibaka trailing behind. When no Golden State player checked him, he stopped behind the 3-point line and received a pass from Kyle Lowry (seven assists on the night) with acres of space in front of him. By that point, Ibaka had made enough shots that it was obvious the wide-open 3 would go in. It was that kind of night for him.

After one quarter of Game 4, it looked like Kawhi would have to drop 50 for Toronto to have a chance. But Kawhi had a 6-foot-10 stretch big who was ready to come off the bench and engineer his own Finals moment. Through the first three games of this series, Ibaka had scored a grand total of 18 points. On Friday, he put together arguably his best game of the postseason, with 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting, four rebounds, and two blocks. On a number of possessions, Ibaka was the fail-safe once Leonard was double- and triple-teamed. When the ball would swing around from one end of the court to the other, he was often the one who would calmly take it and swish a 20-footer to keep the Raptors from going cold. With Ibaka suddenly alive, their offense ran smoothly and Kawhi never had to force anything. It was the perfect balance.