TORONTO — Rather than inspire overreaction, Game 1 of the NBA Finals should have quelled the instinct to exaggerate. The Golden State Warriors cannot beat any team, anywhere, in their sleep or out of sync, with a hand tied behind their back or without Kevin Durant. And the Toronto Raptors are not some happy-to-be-here also-ran just waiting to become sports dynasty trivia fodder.
We know this much after four quarters, and let’s keep it simple: The Warriors are as vulnerable as Coach Steve Kerr warned before the series, and the Raptors’ championship aspiration is legit, as is the reality that they’re built defensively to give Golden State fits. This will be a real series and possibly a fantastic series, not a coronation. For Kerr’s team to three-peat, it will need to reach deep into its greatness and pull out something special.
Such as, well, Durant.
Almost two weeks ago, some were declaring mindlessly that the Warriors are better without the NBA’s greatest and most efficient offensive weapon. That was a ridiculous and embarrassing assessment based on five games. Just the same, it would be misleading after Toronto’s 118-109 triumph in Game 1 to suggest that the back-to-back champions are helplessly flawed all of a sudden. Thursday night was about the Raptors, and they earned validation. They don’t exist merely as a novel joy for a city and nation giddy about this fresh Finals feeling. They belong. And now the intrigue can begin.
It’s not that the Warriors, even without Durant, are incapable of figuring out a way to destroy Toronto. Considering their dominance over the past five years, they cannot be underestimated. But the task isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. The Raptors have athleticism, length, depth and youth. They use it all to play ferocious defense, and while no team can match the top of Golden State’s roster, the Raptors actually have the larger and more dangerous collection of role players.
“They’re very long and athletic,” Kerr said. “They’re tough. They get after you, and they play well together. They got a lot of versatility. I think they’re actually a lot like our team. They can switch and guard different positions and that sort of thing.”
In truth, the Raptors are a lot like the Warriors used to be. They’re most similar to Kerr’s first team, the 2014-15 champions. That squad lived off Stephen Curry’s brilliance the same way the Raptors live off Kawhi Leonard, but it also thrived under Kerr’s “Strength In Numbers” mantra. Those Warriors had a superstar and emerging all-stars in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but they were surrounded by the ideal set of complementary pieces. They had it all during that first title run, and then they won a record 73 regular season games the next season. For certain, the Raptors don’t have the ceiling or the explosiveness of those Warriors, but if you tilt your head and squint long enough, you can see a resemblance.
Of course, Golden State didn’t win the title after that 73-win season. The Warriors responded by executing a plan they spent years formulating. They nabbed Durant in free agency. Three years later, some people skip over all the details and declare that Golden State got lucky and capitalized on a salary cap spike. That’s a half-truth. The Warriors had to cut into their depth to bring in Durant, but those sacrifices were disregarded because it was so clearly the right move. And though it didn’t have a 10-player rotation to envy anymore, it still had an impressive six-pack of Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
But with each passing year, their core gets a little older, and their bench gets a little thinner because all the high salaries dictate that the rest of the roster must be filled out with bargains. Some of those are novice young players attempting to keep up with veterans trying to do something legendary. With four all-star regulars and DeMarcus Cousins on loan, Golden State is historically star-studded. But look at the rest of the team, and the Warriors appear strange in numbers.
It doesn’t matter when Durant and the other stars are healthy. But take a big piece away, and there’s greater potential for vulnerability. You might not see it when Curry is closing out Houston and picking apart Portland in a four-game sweep. But it was inevitable that Durant’s absence would be felt. It speaks to how great the Warriors are that it took so long to become a problem. It also speaks to Toronto’s talent and versatility that it can expose some of those imperfections.
In Game 1, the Raptors held Golden State to 43.6 percent shooting, and they forced 17 turnovers that contributed to their 24 fast-break points. With the Warriors loading up on Leonard and limiting him to a 5-for-14 night from the field, Toronto’s role players won the game. Pascal Siakam scored 32 points and missed just three of 17 field goal attempts. Marc Gasol had 20 points and seven rebounds. Fred VanVleet finished with 15 points, including a one-legged dagger. Danny Green came out of his slump just enough to make three three-pointers on his way to 11 points. As the team with home-court advantage, Toronto had to win this game. From Golden State’s perspective, nothing was lost Thursday. The Warriors’ invincibility took a hit, but it will take much more than one loss to rattle them.
“I’m sure we have the right sense of urgency, and we respect their team,” Iguodala said. “ ‘Appropriate fear’ is one of our mottos. We respect that team, and they deserve the right to be here. I think we come out of this looking at things we can do differently to put us in a better position to win the games.”
Other Warriors were more direct.
“I know we’ll respond like the champions we are,” Thompson said.
But without Durant, it’s not as easy as speaking it into existence. For such an offensive juggernaut, the Warriors always have been loose with the basketball, especially Curry. You can’t be so careless around a bunch of Leonard-led ballhawks. And, again, the Raptors have more options on both ends of the court. They just won a game without Leonard having to dominate. What happens when he figures out how he’s being defended and returns to form?
Normally, the Warriors have an irrefutable counter: two all-time greats, two other all-stars and Cousins on occasion. With Durant recovering from a calf injury that Kerr confirmed Friday will keep him out of Sunday night’s Game 2, it’s harder to swing that hammer.
So, yeah, let’s end the foolishness that the Warriors are better without Durant. They’re not running a basketball clinic against Portland anymore; they’re in a tough basketball series against Toronto now. It’s not a foregone conclusion that they will rally from double-digit deficits against this opponent. As they were reminded Thursday, sometimes they fall behind and stay there.
For the first time since 2015, Golden State must rally from an early Finals deficit.
“I think that the biggest thing coming in is we really didn’t feel like we knew this team very well,” Kerr said of the Raptors.
The magnitude of the challenge is obvious now. Defensively, the Raptors are far superior to the Cleveland teams that Golden State faced in the past four Finals. The Warriors have to be at their best to win. And the return of the league’s best scorer wouldn’t hurt, either.