Barber: Uncertainty follows Warriors to Toronto for Game 5

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The Warriors were playing in Portland three weeks ago and I was killing time in the media workroom when a writer who covers the NBA nationally threw out a question.

How will it end?

He meant the Warriors dynasty. How will it end? I have been thinking about that question a lot over the past year. The writer wasn’t talking about the precise mechanism that will knock the Warriors off their pedestal, like which players will leave and which will stay, or who the eventual vanquisher will be.

The question was more general. How will this improbable run end? In acrimony and infighting, a fate that has befallen so many other sports dynasties? Via a couple of major defections and/or career-changing injuries? Gradually, as the Warriors remain competitive but fall back into the pack?

There is a related question, of course: When will it end?

That one has been thrown into dramatic relief by recent events, specifically the Toronto Raptors’ victories at Oracle Arena in Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals. The “when” question is apropos because, as you know, the answer might be Monday.

Consider the issues looming over the Warriors right now as a series of concentric ripples. The first ripple is what will happen at Toronto in Game 5.

Your heart is probably telling you that Steve Kerr’s Warriors will emerge with a victory Monday night, because they have done so almost every time they’ve stared down a similar challenge in the past. Kerr’s players have championship-level talent. More important than that, they have championship-level character and experience.

Remember Oklahoma City in 2016? Remember Houston in 2018? Write off the Warriors at your own peril.

But your head should be rebutting those sentiments. This Raptors team is as worthy an opponent as the Warriors have faced during the five-year reign. And this particular Golden State team is flawed. It sacrificed its depth to obtain and retain Kevin Durant, and has been without Durant’s services. I guess Durant may play in Game 5. But even if he does, considering he has missed a month of action, it may be an imperfect version of KD that we see.

The Raptors are the Warriors’ equals right now, at the very least, and Scotiabank Arena will be a madhouse for Monday’s game — even more thunderous, pardon the pun, than OKC in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. This is a true crucible.

And if the Warriors win, it will only lead to another ripple: What will happen over the rest of the series?

Because make no mistake, a victory in Game 5, no matter how heroic, does not guarantee a championship for the Warriors. Toronto, following the lead of the incredible Kawhi Leonard, is one of the most imperturbable basketball teams I can remember. Outside of that 18-0 third-quarter run that won Game 2 for the Warriors, the Raptors have calmly answered every Golden State mini-run with a timely 3-pointer or defensive stop.

No, don’t expect the Raptors to fold. If their lead is trimmed to 3-2, they will still have a great chance to win one more. And that is regardless of how much Durant plays.

If the Warriors should lose this series, the perspective will widen to a much larger ripple: What will happen after the final game of 2019?

Golden State’s loss to Cleveland in the 2016 NBA Finals was stunning and soul-wrenching. But almost immediately after it happened, the Warriors were installed as Vegas favorites in 2016-17. They had to be. They had just won 73 regular-season games, and their core was returning intact. Despite falling to LeBron and company after building a 3-1 lead, the Warriors had every reason to believe they’d be even better the following year. And the feeling increased exponentially when they signed Durant that summer.

If the Warriors lose to Toronto in these Finals, will they be favorites to reclaim the crown? Not right away, they won’t. There are far too many variables here. The Warriors have been burdened by Durant’s looming free-agency decision all season, and it remains a huge source of uncertainty. If he chooses to stay, the team to beat will still play in the Bay Area. If Durant leaves, as most analysts expect, you will look around the changing landscape of the NBA — at rising teams like Philadelphia and Milwaukee — and wonder where the Warriors fit.

And it isn’t just Durant, of course.

Klay Thompson is also a free agent this summer. So are DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney. Andre Iguodala is 35 years old, and he talks about retirement all the time. Shaun Livingston is 33, and he has become a minor and inconsistent role player. The young players drafted to replenish the roster over the past few years, like Jordan Bell and Jacob Evans and Damian Jones, have yet to seize their roles. The team is moving to a new arena this fall, and there is no guarantee the home-court advantage will be as obvious.

In other words, the Warriors are a team in deep flux. The minute this season is over, win or lose, they will enter the misty void of the unknown, for the first time in years.

And that leads to the final ripple: When will this dynasty end?

I don’t mean to look past Monday’s epic, because it will be epic. But the wide view is just as intriguing as the short one. If the Warriors fail to overcome the Raptors, is that it? Will they be title contenders again in 2020? Will they drop a rung, but remain close enough to the top to stay in the hunt over the next few years? Or will age and mental fatigue and lack of depth catch up to them, shoving them into the middle of the crowded West, where they’ll fight for playoff seeding with, I don’t know, the Clippers and Nuggets?

All of this drama followed the Warriors to Toronto on Saturday, an ominous hum that blended with the sound of the airplane engines. The players may not be speaking openly of these questions. They don’t have to. Everyone knows what is at stake in Game 5, and beyond. It is hard to overstate.

Soon enough, the waves will come crashing against the Warriors’ ship. It starts with a ripple Monday night.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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