SportsPulse: Much will be made about the demise of the Warriors dynasty and the absence of Kevin Durant, but it is time to give props to the Toronto Raptors. They look and are playing like champions. USA TODAY
OAKLAND, Calif. — If they were paying attention, they would have seen the expiration date coming. It was hiding in plain sight all along for the Golden State Warriors, from the growing disinterest in the regular season to the cloud of free agency hanging over their locker room to the bodies that began to break down once all of them were finally necessary.
And now it’s here: Toronto 105, Golden State 92 in an NBA Finals Game 4 that puts the Raptors one win from their first title when they return home Monday (9 p.m. ET, ABC).
After four years of dominance with a superstar core that once looked like it could roll into the next decade, these Warriors are wheezing to their last breath, out of gas and almost out of time.
“Until the final buzzer sounds and somebody gets the four wins, we still have life and have an opportunity to win,” Stephen Curry said. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us at all. It’s just a matter of can we get it done or not.”
He’s right, of course, but everything about the Warriors on Friday made that seem more like a formality than a belief.
There’s a story here to be told about the Raptors, of course, and once it’s over they’ll deserve to be fêted as the team that out-toughed and out-worked the Warriors, that relentlessly hounded them into an unimaginable frustration. There have been 16 quarters of basketball played in this series, and Toronto has been the better team in all but two of them.
But for now, this is about how an NBA dynasty ends, about the desperation that was simmering under the surface in a must-win Game 4 and how it all blew up on the Warriors in what probably was their last game at Oracle Arena before moving to their shiny new digs across the Bay.
Both figuratively and literally, it’s never going to be the same.
The Warriors tried everything to give themselves hope that they could push this inevitability off into the future, even if that was only one week from now. They got a second opinion that cleared big man Kevon Looney to play despite an injury that amounted to a broken chest. They cajoled the bum hamstring of Klay Thompson and constantly worked the old legs of Andre Igoudala. They even put a hope and a prayer on poor DeMarcus Cousins, whose body wouldn’t let him play at more than three-quarter speed.
In the end, none of it mattered.
You can pin this, if you want, on the strained calf that hasn’t allowed Kevin Durant to play basketball in more than a month or the physical problems up and down the lineup that left the Warriors hopelessly thin.
But isn’t that kind of the point?
There was no “Strength in Numbers” this year because the numbers they needed to come up aces were Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie and Andrew Bogut and Jordan Bell and the shell of Shaun Livingston.
What we found out in this series is that Golden State, the team that was built to have endless margin of error, was all error and no margin. Durant, it turns out, wasn’t a luxury item for a team that won a title before he arrived but rather a necessity to keep it chugging.
“You got to win three games in a row. We have won three games in a row before,” forward Draymond Green said. “However you got to get that done, you just got to get it done.”
But as much as they talked about the belief and the championship pedigree and coming back from 3-1 down to Oklahoma City in 2016 and subsequently blowing a 3-1 lead to Cleveland in the Finals, there was no sadness or defiance in any of it Friday night. Emotionally, the Warriors met a matter-of-fact beatdown with the resignation of an inferior team that is smart enough to read the scoreboard. They know.
“We just have to be better going forward,” Livingston said. “We have guys who’ve been through pretty much everything.”
But realistically, the only way Golden State can really get better at this point is to add Durant back to the mix. And even if he was cleared to come back for Game 5, what guarantee is there that after a month without playing real basketball he’s even going to be capable of impacting this series, what with a defensive monster like Kawhi Leonard standing in his way.
What appeared true at the beginning of this series, however, has now been borne out in the lopsidedness of this matchup: Without Durant, the load for Curry against a team as ferocious and crafty as the Raptors is too much to bear over the course of a best-of-seven-game series.
Curry scored 47 in Game 3 to give the Warriors a chance but had to work too hard for everything he got, dragging his teammates like they were the Davidson Wildcats. A mere 48 hours later, as Curry was flinging airballs against a tricked up box-and-one in the fourth quarter, it seemed pretty clear that some of the starch had been taken out of him.
That was the point of Durant, by the way. It’s not that the Warriors couldn’t win games, even big games, without him. It’s that, over the course of a season or a series, Durant ensured Curry and Thompson weren’t asked to do so much that they eventually wore down.
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And now, if Durant leaves in free agency as so many people around the NBA expect, this is all going to look very different. The Warriors are going to have to pay Thompson, and they’re going to have to pay Looney, and they’re going to have to figure out how much more juice they can squeeze out of Igoudala and they’re going to have to figure out whether Green is going to be worth the mega-contract he’ll want in 2020.
But that’s how it works in the life cycle of a basketball team. That’s the NBA, where once you’ve been in the Finals for five straight years a collective fatigue with the whole grind that it takes to get here inevitably sets in.
“It’s important to have that pride, to have the faith in what we’re capable of,” Green said. “We just got to take it one game at a time. We got to win one game. We win one, then we’ll build on that. I’ve been on the wrong side of 3-1 before, so why not make our own history?”
Maybe they can, but Game 4 wasn’t close. This series hasn’t been close. Every indicator says the end of these Warriors is coming at full speed.
Golden State’s dynasty still officially has 48 more minutes left. But in this league, it’s always just a matter of time.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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