OAKLAND, Calif. — Klay Thompson was powerless. And lost. During a late timeout with the game already out of Golden State’s reach, Thompson weaved around the huddle, head down, hands in his pockets. Then he stood back, away from his teammates and coaches, and shuffled from side to side. Finally, agonizingly, he decided to return to the bench and slouch in his chair like a bored teenager.
Thompson — the most durable of all the Warriors, an all-star who had competed in 101 straight postseason games over the past five years — dressed to play despite knowing he wouldn’t. He wore his royal blue and gold warm-ups and writhed in frustration during Toronto’s 123-109 Game 3 dissection of the Warriors on Wednesday night. At times, you wondered whether he would sneak past Coach Steve Kerr and walk onto the floor. But he followed the team’s orders and rested his injured hamstring.
And while he was being patient with his body, he had to watch his team fall deeper into trouble in an NBA Finals that is now as much about doctors, trainers and medicine as it is basketball.
With a two-games-to-one lead in this best-of-seven championship round, Toronto has emerged as the only known in a series of unknowns. For these Warriors, it is an uncomfortable position because they are used to their dominance being the constant in any basketball situation. But for the first time since 2015 — the start of their three-championship (and counting?) run — they trail after three Finals games.
Although it is far from an insurmountable deficit, the depleted Warriors must come from behind without great clarity about which injured stars will return and whether they will even be capable of rescuing the team. Thompson said Thursday that he will play in Friday’s Game 4 and that he’ll “be himself,” but a strained hamstring is not typically a fast-healing injury. And Kevin Durant, the superstar who can change the dynamics of any series, will not play any earlier than Monday’s Game 5 in Toronto.
In this series, against an opponent that is faster and taller, with longer arms and a commitment to emphasizing those advantages, there is a difference between being healthy enough to play and healthy enough to win. In Durant’s case, he must be ready to compete against Kawhi Leonard, the most versatile defensive player on the planet. No matter how great Durant is, that’s quite an obstacle for a rusty player.
The Warriors will get very little sympathy from outsiders, who quickly remind you of all the injuries to opponents that have worked in Golden State’s favor over the years. It’s a list that includes Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Chris Paul. The Warriors have feasted on battered squads, as a great team should. Now, the Raptors smell blood.
“No one cares if guys are hurt,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “Everybody wants to see us lose. So I’m sure people are happy they’re hurt.”
I don’t know about happy. But curious? Definitely . At this moment, it seems daunting to think the Warriors, in their current state, can muster three victories in the next four games against a Raptors team with size, speed, youth and health on their side.
On the other hand, how many times have we seen the Warriors, in individual games, rally from ridiculous deficits? They specialize in escaping from holes. But usually they get into those jams when they’re healthy and trying to pace themselves. On Wednesday, they watched Steph Curry turn the game into one of his mesmerizing Steph Shows — and they still lost. Curry scored 47 points. He was incredible the entire way, starting with 17 points in the first quarter. But the rest of the Warriors made just 22 of 60 field goals and only 6 of 22 three-pointers.
Nevertheless, with Curry scoring from all over the court, Golden State managed enough points to win. But the Warriors were awful on defense. Toronto shot 52.4 percent from the field and made 17 of 38 three-pointers. Golden State didn’t guard well on the perimeter. It didn’t protect the paint. DeMarcus Cousins had no presence, a game after seemingly reestablishing himself. As much as the Warriors miss the nearly 50 points a game that Durant and Thompson provide, they need their defensive versatility just as much.
Thompson is the best Warriors’ on-ball defender, and they were lost without him. Durant has developed into a good secondary rim protector, but with his length, he also is a factor in any matchup.
Golden State is just limited without them, more limited than you’d ever imagine for a team that still started three perennial all-stars. They’re tough and tough-minded, and that allows them to steal a game here or there, which they did in Game 2. But Durant is best-player-in-the-game good, and Thompson is best-two-way-guard-in-the-game good, and there’s no amount of Curry shot-making or all-around play from Green that can compensate for their absences over an extended period.
The series still feels early, and the Raptors have to win two more games to have a parade. The Warriors can be confident because of what they’ve accomplished the last five seasons, but they can’t be certain about who they are right now.
“We’re going to compete no matter what happens,” Curry said. “You can count on that.”
But when healthy, when right, the Warriors’ standard is so much higher than that. It’s strange to see them clinging and hoping instead of knowing.
“The moment is now,” Curry said. “We can play better, obviously better on the defensive end, but I liked the competitiveness that we had, understanding that we’re missing 50 points pretty much between KD and Klay. So we’ll adjust. And it’s a long series, you know. It’s going to be fun for us.”
This series is a lot of things, but it hasn’t been fun for Golden State. Yet the Warriors’ championship optimism reigns, even as they fight against the injury unknown.