In the end, the “ultimate luxury” became an unobtainable necessity—and players who achieved superhuman feats over the past half-decade showed their humanity. On Thursday night, basketball fans witnessed a changing of the guard, as a Golden State Warriors team weakened by physical injuries lost the NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors, who overcame the emotional baggage of past playoff stumbles to capture their first NBA title—and win the hearts of an entire country in the process.
As Canada celebrates a championship—a nation long obsessed with hockey embracing a newfound hoops heritage—basketball fans can look back on one of the most compelling (and emotionally powerful) NBA Finals in recent memory. The six games of this year’s Finals not only provided must-watch drama for the past two weeks, but may also have a profound impact on professional basketball for years to come.
For the Warriors, medical ailments explained why the team could not win its fourth championship in five seasons, and lost three straight games at home, including Thursday’s 114-110. The team lost not one, but two likely Hall of Famers to major injuries in successive games—a scenario virtually unheard-of in professional sports, and a burden that few teams could overcome.
In the third quarter of Thursday’s Game 6, shooting guard Klay Thompson landed awkwardly on his left knee and left the game with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, depriving the Warriors of the game’s leading scorer down the stretch—and likely much of next season. Thompson’s departure came one game after Kevin Durant, a lanky scoring machine whom Warriors coach Steve Kerr once called the “ultimate luxury,” ruptured his Achilles tendon in the first half of Monday night’s Game 5.
To the Warriors, the Durant injury seemed a cruel twist of fate—a man who heroically tried to save his team, and altered the course of his career in the process. Having missed more than a month with a right calf injury, Durant returned to the lineup on Monday night with the Warriors facing elimination. But after scoring 11 points in just 12 minutes of play, Durant’s leg gave way, resulting in an injury that will likely sideline him for all of next season.
On Monday night, the Warriors rallied after Durant’s injury to keep their championship hopes alive—but after the game, seemed stunned by losing one of the game’s best players in such heart-rending fashion. General Manager Bob Myers spoke tearfully of his regret that Durant’s return resulted in an even bigger injury, saying that “If you have to blame someone, blame me.” In his own postgame interviews Monday night, two-time league MVP Stephen Curry almost seemed willing to give back the team’s win—and thus a shot at another title—in exchange for a healthy Durant.
The injuries to Durant and Thompson provided a coup de grace to a team with so many collective injuries it seemed like an assembly of the walking wounded:
- Center DeMarcus Cousins, recovering from his own ruptured Achilles last year, missed most of this year’s playoffs with a quadriceps injury, and at times proved ineffective as he tried to play himself back into shape through The Finals;
- Big man Kavon Looney played through excruciating pain, having suffered a cracked rib in Game 2 that the Warriors initially said would sideline him for the remainder of the series;
- Curry himself struggled through a case of the flu in Game 2, and while bouncing back with 47 points in Game 3, expended so much energy in the process that his shooting suffered in Game 4;
- 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala left Game 1 with a leg injury; and
- Prior to his Game 6 knee injury, Thompson missed Game 3 with a pulled hamstring.
At times throughout the Finals, the Warriors seemed fatigued by their five straight appearances in the championship series, as the impact of playing 100-plus games year after year took its collective toll. Like LeBron James’ improbable feat of leading the Cleveland Cavaliers team to the Finals last year, the team’s achievement lay not in winning yet another championship, but having survived for so long on grit, determination, and heart. That the Warriors lost on Thursday night, in their final home game at Oracle Arena, showed not their weakness but their strength.
Raptors Disappointed No Longer
The new champions had to overcome their own history of heartbreak to win their first title. After a series of embarrassing playoff exits, Raptors President Masai Ujiri took some big gambles to revamp the team. He fired coach Dwayne Casey—last year’s NBA Coach of the Year—replacing him with Nick Nurse, a relative unknown in his first job coaching an NBA team. He followed that move up by trading All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.
Those moves, and others, finally got the Raptors over the playoff hump. Thanks to an epic buzzer-beater by Leonard—whose shot bounced around the rim four times before finally falling in—the Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers in a dramatic seven-game series. Toronto then defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, falling down 2-0 in the series before winning the next four games to earn a trip to its first Finals. The way Toronto shut down Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo—basketball’s “Greek Freak”—who manhandled the team early in the Conference Finals, showed that the Raptors’ tenacious defense would pose a serious challenge to Golden State.
The Raptors also challenged the Warriors through their size and scoring. With Durant sidelined, and Cousins and Looney weakened, by injuries, the Warriors lacked much scoring beyond the “Splash Brothers,” the guard duo of Curry and Thompson. By contrast, Toronto featured Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol—two more of Ujiri’s pickups via trade—who provided scoring and size. Their efforts, plus those of Pascal Siakam, gave the Raptors big men who could both score and rebound—something the Warriors often lacked.
While Leonard, named the Finals’ Most Valuable Player, carried much of the scoring load for Toronto, he did not have to carry it alone. Starting point guard Kyle Lowry provided shooting, as did his backup, Fred VanVleet, whose 12 clutch points in the fourth quarter of Game 6 helped put Toronto over the top. A more balanced scoring attack, tough defense, and intensity in offensive rebounding (which gave the team second-chance scoring opportunities) proved the difference in defeating the Warriors.
Ironically, just as this year’s Finals were defined by two players—the presence of Leonard, and the return, and reinjury, of Durant—so too is the coming off-season. Both Leonard and Durant become free agents at the end of the month, along with Thompson. As some of the top players in the game, their moves will determine the future course of the league and its teams.
Durant’s injury, which will likely sideline him for all of next season, reshuffled the NBA landscape. Teams already making player moves to free up salary cap space to sign the scorer now might end up reassessing their commitments. Likewise, Leonard seemed in no mood to talk on Thursday night about his future, having been traded in the last season of his contract to a team for which he just captured its first title. But the decisions of both men will loom large in the coming days.
After the game, Warriors forward Draymond Green dismissed those who would consider the team’s loss, coupled with the devastating injuries to Durant and Thompson, an end to its championship run. Whether Thursday night’s defeat represents a coda to Golden State’s string of success, or merely a brief interlude, remains to be seen. But regardless, this year’s Finals provided basketball drama of the highest order—and a thrilling championship that Toronto, and all of “We the North,” can celebrate.