OAKLAND, Calif. — The Warriors dynasty is over, ending with Klay Thompson in crutches in the locker room, Kevin Durant recovering from Achilles’ surgery in New York, DeMarcus Cousins missing critical free throws, and Stephen Curry failing in his attempt to capture one more magic moment.
The Toronto Raptors are the new NBA champions, the city’s first major pro sports title in 26 years, the first time the Larry O’Brien Trophy has crossed the border north, ending a remarkable playoff run after trailing, 2-0, to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
“We The North” chant rained down on Oracle Arena after their 114-110 win, as the Raptors, known as playoff failures before this season, were able to end the Warriors’ stellar run in a thrilling, emotional and captivating game filled with several dramatic turns.
Fred VanVleet was brilliant in the fourth quarter, helping the Raptors take the lead after trailing most of the evening. Golden State kept rallying, despite losing Thompson to a knee injury late in the third quarter. It was essentially Curry and a bunch of aging veterans or not-ready-for-prime-time youngsters trying to send it to Game 7.
In the end, Curry had one more shot, a contested 3-pointer with his team trailing by 1. The ball hit back rim and the Raptors were able to secure Toronto’s first title since the ’93 Blue Jays beat Philadelphia on that memorable Joe Carter home run.
Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri hit the proverbial jackpot by acquiring superstar Kawhi Leonard in the offseason. It was a risky move, perhaps similar to Brooklyn’s Billy King going all in by trading for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce six years ago. (We know how that turned out.)
In the final year of his contract, Leonard made no promises to commit long term to Toronto. Instead, he put his head down and played remarkably throughout the season, earning his second NBA Finals MVP award, presented by Celtics legend Bill Russell.
Leonard admitted Toronto wasn’t on his list of preferred destinations when he demanded a trade from San Antonio last summer. But he adjusted nicely to his environment, becoming the cornerstone and leader.
“We all know where my destinations were. But obviously like I said, when I was there on my opening day meeting that I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here and that’s all I did,” he said. “I just came in with the right mind-set, let’s go out and win ball games. I texted Kyle [Lowry] probably a day later — or the day that I got traded and told him I said let’s go out and do something special. I know your best friend [DeMar DeRozan] left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out. And we are here today.”
Unlike the Celtics, who stood pat at the trade deadline, Ujiri also acquired Marc Gasol and he turned into a steady defensive presence and locker room leader. The Raptors galvanized toward the end of the season, knocking off the Philadelphia 76ers on a buzzer-beating shot by Leonard in Game 7 and then running off four straight wins over what appeared to be the invincible Bucks.
Golden State didn’t have anything left. Decimated by injuries, and its roster likely to change because of free agency, the Warriors finished this series on emotional and physical fumes. The final blow was that injury to Thompson, as the team confirmed he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and could miss all of next season.
“It’s amazement that we’re sitting in this position with, during the game we have a chance to win the game and force a Game 7 and go back to Toronto, and you just think, how?” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “How has this group of guys put themselves in position to do it? And then as I said, when Klay goes down and is out for the game, it’s just sort of a, you got to be kidding me, like this has to stop. But it’s just the way it’s gone. I don’t know if it’s related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred plus games and just all the wear and tear, but it’s devastating.”
The Warriors refused to see their dynasty end without a valiant fight, evidenced by the heroics of Thompson, who was in the midst of a brilliant night when he streaked for a two-handed dunk against two Raptors with 2:22 left in the third.
After he was fouled by Danny Green in midair, he landed awkwardly on his left leg and it buckled, sending him to the floor writhing in pain. Thompson was helped to the locker room and appeared done for the night. He was on crutches a short time late.
But moments later, he lumbered back onto the floor under his own power to attempt his free throws. If a teammate had attempted those free throws, Thompson would have been ineligible to return. Thompson sank both free throws and then was immediately subbed out.
The Warriors could enter next season with Durant and Thompson both signed to maximum contracts and both unable to play with injuries. After years of dominance and three championships, Golden State now falls back to the pack of teams just trying to remain respectable. Dynasties usually don’t end pretty.
“There’s a lot of obviously decisions that will go into the summer and we’ll deal with those accordingly. But, yeah, I think true champions like we are, we should be able to adapt and keep this same kind of DNA no matter what our roster looks like next year,” Curry said.
“And have high hopes about being back on this stage, whether it looks the same or not or obviously we’re changing buildings and all that type of stuff, there is going to be some change. But we’ll enjoy this summer, like you said, it’s been a long journey.
“We’ve played a lot of basketball, get away from the game a little bit, refresh the minds, guys go through some rehabs and get back stronger. Next season will be next season, and we’ll come back with the right mentality. So it’s kind of hard to talk about because it’s a tough way to go out and it’s tough to lose in The Finals, but the story’s not over yet.”