OAKLAND – Facing something the Warriors hadn’t been forced to endure during their historic run these past five seasons, coach Steve Kerr – as he often does – brought levity. With Klay Thompson injured and potentially having to miss his first playoff game after appearing in each of the last 120, Kerr said, “Klay could be half dead and he would say he would be fine.”
Thompson pushed to play in Game 3 at Oracle Arena with the series tied 1-1. He made a “very strong case,” as Kerr called it before the game. Ultimately the decision was made to keep him out and not risk injuring the hamstring further and potentially cost Golden State much more than the one game they did indeed drop.
With the Warriors trailing 2-1 and the health of two of their stars still in question, Kerr’s phrasing after Game 2 about Klay still stuck out. For these Warriors, the second their dynasty was born it was also “half dead.” Every second it fights like hell to remain, it succeeds. That’s led to three titles and five straight Finals appearances. That’s led to the ability to win 73 regular season games and a 3-1 lead to blow in the first place. That’s led to the appropriately named “Death Lineup” being spawned to destroy basketball as we know it. That’s led to signing Kevin Durant, him winning two Finals MVPs, and the joy and friction that have been dragged kicking and screaming into a potentially franchise-defining free agency in 2019.
No dynasty can live forever. The sheer fact that dynasties have an expiration date is what makes them noble and worth celebrating. Someone, somewhere, will always try to take down those at the top. A new scramble for power will emerge. Stories will be rewritten, potential new dynasties built, and the cycle will continue. While inside a dynasty, especially one as strong as the Warriors, it may seem as though every attempt to topple it is futile, but it’s in human nature to try, to rail against the inevitable and see what happens.
“No one cares if guys are hurt,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said after Game 3. “Everybody wants to see us lose.”
Everybody saw the Warriors lose Game 3, and the Raptors take a 2-1 series lead into Friday’s critical Game 4. Teams that win Game 3 after being tied 1-1 are 31-7 (good for just under 82 percent) in winning the series. Ordinarily, this would be a monster stat, but this isn’t an ordinary Warriors team – and it won’t be an ordinary Game 4.
The Warriors expect to have Thompson back as a stabilizing force and are still waiting on word about Durant’s potential return. Without the pair, we got a glimpse of what the Golden State franchise could have been without the combination of luck, skill, and opportunity that led to the creation of said dynasty in the first place. Stephen Curry, the team’s signature player, did all he could to withstand attack after attack by the Raptors, but his boat against the current proved equal parts Quixote and Leonidas.
The Warriors never had to play without Klay in the playoffs. In the past, they’ve had to adapt to Curry being hurt, or Draymond getting into foul trouble, and made it work due to the fact that Thompson was always there, always reliable. Without him, the adjustment was a bit more stark. He affects so much on both ends of the floor in playoff games that the Warriors world gets tipped off its axis a bit. The terrain is the same, but it was always going to take some time to get used to it.
Curry made five of his first nine shots and had 17 points after the first quarter, and one could sense it was going to be one of those games. It took almost eight minutes before a non-Curry player on the Warriors hit a shot, and that came from Andrew Bogut of all people. Warriors not named Steph started 1-of-8, the offense lacked its typical Swiss precision, and the Raptors outright dared Curry to unleash every arrow in the quiver.
At halftime, the Raptors were out-rebounded by three, endured a 4:45 scoring drought in the second quarter, and Kawhi shot 2-of-7. Normally that’d be a disaster on the road against the Warriors. Instead, Toronto carried an eight-point lead into the break.
“We can’t control anything else what the Warriors do,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said after the game. “We just got to go out there and do what we can do.”
As is the case often with teams playing against Golden State, it should’ve been more. And the inevitability that is a big Warriors run was always looming like the specter of death. It can be crushing, and suffocating, and depressing. It can also be a source of beauty and creative energy. Each moment one is able to stay out of its reach is a miracle — and those miracles sustain us. Those miracles make us human. Those miracles give us art, and love, and faith, and our very civilization.
Death itself becomes light, and the closer we get to it, the more we’re able to appreciate everything around us, including the nothingness that awaits us all. It’s easy to take a nihilist approach to this Warriors dynasty, but that discounts the struggle, the very essence of life. LeBron’s most beautiful basketball and most heroic efforts came against these very Warriors, most of them in losses. The sea always wins, the sea is unfeeling, the sea will eventually rise and erode everything in its path. But it will never stop us from sailing.
For so long death – the destroyer of worlds – was the Warriors. The snake eventually eats its own tail, and the clock ticks for them. Game 3 flashed a glimpse of what can (or will) be after the fall.
The Raptors started the third quarter with some stability, opening the second half with six straight points. The Warriors quickly responded with a run of their own, with Curry getting a couple of easy looks inside. The energy with which Steph was playing was inspiring, as he tried to will everything he could in. But the energy expounded in trying to keep pace showed defensively, earning the Raptors open shots and Golden State unable to contain Toronto while constantly scrambling.
Kawhi Leonard, who was brought in for this task and this task alone, took control in the third, with 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including a devastating three-pointer to put the Raptors up 12 with 3:23 remaining as the Warriors looked to be sparking a comeback. With the Warriors down 96-81 with 16 seconds left in the third, the crowd was as loudest as it’d get all night, starting a “LET’S GO WARRIORS” chant. One last gasp pleading for one more charge.
Curry had 40 points through three quarters on 26 shots (in 33 minutes). He finished with 47, eight rebounds, and seven assists. He left everything he had out there — inviting comparisons to LeBron’s Nietschean runs in 2015 and 2018 — and the Warriors could sense every bit of his 43 minutes on the floor. It felt like a sort of cautionary tale, A Christmas Carol where the ghosts showed a past, present, and future without the harmonious factors that brought the Warriors together in the first place. Curry was never destined for a future toiling away in thankless obscurity; it was a chance to gain appreciation for the destructive powers of what Golden State would become — even in a losing effort.
There is still time for the Warriors to reclaim control of the series and the basketball world, to wipe the drop of blood away and snap the Raptors back out of existence.
“We just got to continue to battle and win the next game,” Green said from the podium, “go back to Toronto, win Game 5, come back to Oracle, win Game 6 and then celebrate. Fun times ahead.”
It’s a simple plan attached to a complex and variable-filled path to execution. For much of the past five seasons, it was the New World Order, the expectation, the assumption. Now, for at least a brief flash, it seems its own tall task as the Raptors have looked to be the better team through three games. The Warriors have a Manhattan Project in Durant they can still unleash to change everything and restore their screaming across the sky. If he doesn’t arrive, or if Toronto manages to counter it, the dynasty could crumble.
After the game Leonard wore a sweatshirt with the words “man” and “myth” on it, stressing the role Kawhi is playing as he seeks to write his own narrative and take down the Warriors regime. A myth evolves from stories, examples of humanity’s creativity, fallibility, and fascination with creation and death. Myths take on new meaning the more they are told, being passed down from community to community, generation to generation. It was a tradition that was passed down through oration; now it’s through short clips and stats, tweeted and retweeted in an endless mirrorball meant to capture and disperse strands of light.
It can all be lost in an instant if technology fails us, if our own era is wiped clean. All we will be left with are the stories, such as the one Curry wrote with his 47 points in Game 3. Whether his efforts prove to be a will to win or the beginnings of the end isn’t the point; until it’s over there’s still a chance to say more.