TORONTO — So this is how it ends?
The Golden State Warriors were the great dynasty of this generation — and still are — but their championship window could be closing a lot faster than expected.
With the team just one loss away from dropping a title opportunity, you don’t exactly have to squint to see the writing on the wall.
Given everything at stake for the Warriors — not just when the ball tips off on Monday night in Toronto with the team in the wrong side of a do-or-die game but also in the critical off-season that lies ahead — we could be nearing the end of an era.
Blame injuries, blame an imbalanced roster and salary cap limitations that left the team a little too top-heavy, blame it on the (struggling) Boogie, blame it on the rain — whatever. All of it ignores the fact the Warriors are in this position, with their back against the wall and looking less fearsome than ever, because the Toronto Raptors put them here.
The Warriors are living with the simple truth that, for the first time in this historic run of five consecutive Finals, they’re not the better team.
"After Game 4 it was a tough vibe in the locker room," Stephen Curry said on Sunday afternoon, reflecting on the Raptors’ convincing 105-92 win on Friday night to take a 3-1 series lead, "just because you lose two in a row at home. Nobody likes that feeling at all, especially in The Finals, and it’s kind of a little self-reflection of what do we need to do, what do we need to correct for us to stay alive."
All of a sudden, the team that the rest of the NBA has spent the last half-decade obsessively aspiring to defeat; the team entire franchises stretched out the definition of ‘long-term development’ because waiting for them to disappear was easier than actually trying to beat them, is on life support thanks to what has been an overpowering Raptors team.
With the exception of the Steph Curry-orchestrated third-quarter run in Game 3, the Warriors have basically been outplayed by Toronto in every other period throughout this season. Golden State hasn’t had an answer to the several problems the Raptors pose, and their homegrown superstars, Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, aren’t enough to beat Toronto. All signs point to an embarrassing end to an era.
Here’s the caveat:
"We still got plenty to play for," Steve Kerr said on Sunday afternoon in Toronto as his team prepared for Monday’s Game 5. "We have an amazing opportunity and challenge. We’re going to do everything we can to meet that challenge. We’re excited about it."
It would certainly be an amazing feat if the Warriors could pull it off. In the 34 times a team has fallen 1-3 in the Finals, only one has ever completed the comeback to win the series — and it happened against this Warriors team when a LeBron James-led Cavaliers made history in 2016.
To put it mildly, it’s a long-shot, but the collective talent of Golden State’s stars is the only thing the Warriors have left.
"I wouldn’t say we’re down at all," Curry said of his team’s mindset given the monumental task ahead. "It’s mostly just we’re anxious for tomorrow to just get out there and play a great basketball game. I think we’re confident in the fact that we can do that. The best bet for us is just to block out as much noise as possible."
Curry has tried, but fallen short of single-handedly lifting his team. Thompson looked good playing after suffering a hamstring injury, but we exist now in a reality in which the Splash Brothers alone aren’t enough to top this Raptors team.
One potential saviour could be coming in the form of Kevin Durant, who happens to likely be the most talented basketball player on the planet and, fittingly, named the MVP of the last two Finals. Durant, the leading scorer of the 2019 playoffs at 34.2 points per game, hasn’t appeared in the series but could be nearing a return, instantly making him one of the most accomplished ‘X-Factors’ of all-time.
"I don’t think it will change much at all," Curry said of how a potential Durant return would impact his team’s preparation. "It’s just having another powerful weapon out there that can do some very dynamic things on the floor. We’ll be able to adjust in transition pretty smoothly."
‘Powerful weapon’ hardly begins to describe Durant’s basketball prowess, but should he suit up — he participated with the team in practice, something Kerr has always said will be necessary before he puts his star forward in a game — it’s doubtful we’ll see him anywhere near his best. It should be noted that the Raptors beat Golden State two times in two tries during the regular season, both games with Durant in the lineup.
Durant or not, on Monday the Warriors will have to dig deep — the Raptors’ level of play demands it — but Curry & Co. are confident that their unparalleled experience playing in big moments this time of year will play to their advantage.
"It does help having been on the back end of this five-year journey, where we have seen so much and been in a lot of different atmospheres and different pressures and expectations," Curry said, "that we can lock in on just strictly 48 minutes. The context of it all really doesn’t matter. It’s win one basketball game and take it from there."
It hasn’t been an easy task to this point, but as their reign of terror over the NBA could be drawing to a close, their coach is working to keep a healthy outlook on their place in the universe:
"When you talk about pressure and daunting tasks and all that, just look around the world. We’re doing alright and we’re lucky and we know how lucky we are.
So, yeah, keep everything in perspective."
But so long as we’re focused on the NBA and its championship series – and in Canada the focus has certainly never been nearly this intense — it isn’t hard to keep things in perspective: the Golden State Warriors are on the brink.