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The Warriors Are Trying Vulnerability on for Size

To get to its fourth NBA championship in five years, Golden State might have to do without three of its most important players in Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Kevon Looney. Does the team still have what it takes?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Golden State Warriors have played 511 games (and counting) over the past five seasons, facing innumerable challenges and earning countless accolades along the way. Now, tied at 1 in a 2019 NBA Finals series that holds in the balance a fourth championship in five years and a shot at basketball immortality, the Warriors are seeing something new: a bitter cocktail of injury, vulnerability, and uncertainty.

“We have been through a lot, had a lot of different experiences,” said superstar point guard Stephen Curry during the Warriors’ media session Tuesday ahead of Game 3. “This is just adding to that book.”

It’s a chapter the Warriors would prefer to skip. They’d much rather have fully healthy versions of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Kevon Looney when they tip off against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night—a full complement of star power and rotation ballast to bring to bear against the visitors as they attempt to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series after snaring home-court advantage in Toronto on Sunday.

Instead, as Golden State coach Steve Kerr told reporters Tuesday, Durant will miss his eighth straight game as he continues to work his way back from a right calf strain. Kerr said Durant has been “ramping up” his workouts, suggesting that a return for Friday’s Game 4 might still be in the cards.

“Any time you’ve got arguably the best player in the world out, it’s gonna be gaps. It’s gonna be holes,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “So those need to be filled.”

And the non-displaced first costal cartilage fracture that Looney suffered in Game 2—a relatively uncommon injury in the NBA, as Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes explained—will put the big man on the shelf indefinitely. That knocks the Warriors’ most frequently used center this postseason out for the remainder of the playoffs and ensures that Golden State will continue to need major contributions from DeMarcus Cousins, who was the star of Game 2 but has played just 36 minutes since returning from a torn quadriceps; twice during his Tuesday media session, he described his current state as “maneuvering through the shit.” Ditto for Andrew Bogut, who has played more than 10 minutes in a game just once in the past five weeks.

While Durant and Looney are definitely out Wednesday, Thompson’s status remains up in the air. Two days after straining his left hamstring late in Game 2, Thompson termed himself “a game-time decision” for Game 3. He also said that, “For me, personally, it would be hard to see me not playing.” But then he said, “If there’s any pain, it will be a no-go,” because neither he nor the Warriors want to risk him reaggravating the injury and potentially sitting out for the rest of the Finals. But then he said, “I do not feel it with every move I make, only on certain ones. So you can kind of play through that.” Which is to say: Klay said a lot. Whether any of it will mean anything come Wednesday night very much remains to be seen.

“Klay is always going to say he’s ready to go,” Kerr said. “What we’ll have to determine is, is that a risk? If he plays, are we risking anything? If the training staff feels good about his ability to go out there and play without making things worse, then he’ll play. But if there’s a risk, we would rather give him the next couple of days to continue to heal and hopefully have him out there for Game 4.”

It’s possible, then, that the Warriors could enter Game 3 of a tied Finals without three of their top six minutes-getters from the regular season, without two of their three best shooters, and without one of their most important frontcourt defenders. Not an ideal circumstance, especially against a Raptors team that—save for the 18-0 second-half-opening run that led coach Nick Nurse to refer to Sunday’s third quarter as “the quarter from hell”—largely controlled the run of play in Toronto. They have the talent and tenacity to do the same at Oracle Arena.

With Durant and possibly Thompson unavailable, the Warriors’ rotation is dreadfully light on bankable 3-point shooters beyond Curry. That will allow the Raptors to direct even more attention toward him, in unconventional ways—like the stunning box-and-one coverage Nurse threw Steph’s way in the fourth quarter of Game 2—without much fear of reprisal from Steph’s teammates. Kerr could turn to reserve Quinn Cook—who’s shooting 40 percent from deep this postseason and who has made 28 starts for Golden State over the past two seasons—alongside Curry to give the defense another real shooter to worry about. But Cook has played all of seven possessions with the other four starters this season, according to Cleaning the Glass; it’s tough to manufacture on-court chemistry on the fly in the highest-leverage moments of the season.

Although, to hear Curry tell it, maybe not as hard for Golden State as you’d think.

“The way that we play, everybody feels involved on both ends of the floor and has an opportunity to impact the game,” Curry said. “Not necessarily scoring every possession, but just playing within the flow and sharing the ball, moving, playing unselfishly. Just a style where everybody is going to get touches, and you just have to be confident and aggressive.”

On Sunday, Golden State’s reserves were both. Cook made three big 3s and battled on defense. Bogut came in cold and instantly became a lob threat, finishing three passes right at the front of the rim. Shaun Livingston scored six points, dished three assists, and made one of the most important plays of the game, getting to a pass that Curry floated out of a hard Toronto trap a split second before Kawhi Leonard could, and then firing the ball to Andre Iguodala in the corner for a game-sealing dagger 3.

“That’s why you’ve got a roster of 15 guys,” Draymond Green said. “One guy go down, another guy got to step up. ... It’s not going to be one guy that step up and do what Klay does for his team. It’s not going to be one that step up and do what Kevin provides for this team. But collectively, you’ve got to do what you can. And it may look different. You know? Like, it may not look the same as when those guys are out there. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the end result.”

No matter how the Warriors’ approach winds up looking, the Raptors insisted that they’re not going to fall into the trap of taking their foot off the gas should Golden State limp into Game 3 down a couple of more men. As Toronto center Marc Gasol said Tuesday, they’re preparing “as if everyone is available, and playing at the highest level.”

“I think we come into a sense of urgency, period,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. “No matter the situation. We want to be the first to four, and every game is an urgent game. You’re in the NBA Finals, so it doesn’t matter. They still have professional basketball players down there, and they’re really talented basketball players.”

“We kind of let you guys worry about that type of stuff,” added Lowry’s backup, Fred VanVleet, who’s been arguably Toronto’s second-best player behind Leonard through two Finals games. “As players, we respect their entire roster. Quinn Cook’s pretty damn good. Obviously Looney went out. That’s unfortunate. Shaun Livingston is pretty good. Iguodala is pretty good. So we’re not worrying about who is playing and who is not playing. Whoever team that they put out on the floor is going to be a pretty good team, and it’s going to take a full effort from us to go out there and take care of business.”

Facing similar questions about the challenges and opportunities of facing Golden State’s M.A.S.H. unit, jack of all trades Pascal Siakam—who regressed hard Sunday, going from 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting in Game 1 to 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting in Game 2—emphasized a downright Warriorsesque sentiment. “I think for us, it’s more about us—just making sure that we do all [the] things that we’re supposed to do, in terms of game plan and making sure that we bring the intensity and energy that we have,” he said.

Sustaining that intensity and energy against an excellent opponent isn’t easy, but the Raptors need it to open things up. If Siakam, Gasol, and others attack early, and ideally make some shots, they’ll force the Golden State to score in bunches to keep pace, and that might be too tall an order for a short-handed Warriors team that is hurting on many fronts.

“Playing through pain makes it all worth it in the end,” Thompson said Tuesday. “Especially this time of the year.” But maybe this time of year has come one time too many. The physical toll of a tough series and what Draymond Green called the emotional grind of five consecutive title-round appearances could combine to be a big enough problem to overwhelm the Oracle advantage, allowing the Raptors to blitz the Warriors in Game 3 and get back on top.

“It sucks that they have so many guys out and injured,” Raptors guard Danny Green said. “Obviously, we want to play against a 100 percent healthy team. But it’s the name of the game. Obviously, the team that usually makes it or wins it is the best team playing the best basketball, but also the healthiest team. And they have been that team for the last four, five years now. It seems as if it might be catching up with them.”