Barber: Warriors prove their mettle in NBA Finals loss to Raptors

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OAKLAND — It turned out Oracle Arena saved the best for last. Imagine that.

The barn that had hosted World B. Free and Run TMC, Baron Davis’ dunk and Sleepy Floyd’s 51-point game, the completion of the Warriors’ historic collapse in the 2016 NBA Finals and their joyous revenge against LeBron and the Cavaliers a year later bore witness to one last, spectacular, heart-wrenching game. The lead changed hands 18 times Thursday night. Neither team led by more than six points after the 5:13 mark of the first quarter.

Yes, Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals was an epic, and most of the sports-loving world got what it wanted. The Warriors were toppled from their thrones. The visiting Toronto Raptors won 114-110 and became the third team in four years to celebrate the NBA title at Oracle — only one of those teams being the Warriors.

I understand why the Warriors fell out of favor the past few seasons. It gets repetitive to see the same team win year after year, and when these guys were healthy, they enjoyed a clear talent margin over whichever team came next.

But even the most ardent Warriors hater has to acknowledge the character this team showed in 2018-19, and especially during the playoffs. The Game 6 loss, while among the lowest moments of the Steve Kerr era in Oakland, proved the Warriors’ inner strength more than any victory could have.

Because the team that finished the 2019 postseason was a shadow of the squad that started it.

Kevin Durant, arguably the most unstoppable scorer in the history of basketball, was back in New York for Game 6, taking the first baby steps in what promises to be a yearlong rehabilitation from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Klay Thompson, who scored 30 points in 31 minutes Thursday night, had left the arena on crutches after landing badly the third quarter; ESPN later reported that he had torn his left ACL. Center Kevon Looney played almost 27 minutes but wore a massive shoulder wrap when he sat on the bench, the result of a Game 2 tumble that fractured cartilage in his sternum.

The Warriors who were left standing ramped up their efforts, and their minutes, and were visibly spent by the time the Raptors celebrated at midcourt.

That included Stephen Curry, the guiding force of this team. With Durant and Thompson out of action, the Raptors were able to throw the weight of their efforts at Curry. They bumped him and trapped him and rarely let him get a free look from the 3-point line.

Curry had to work hard for his 21 points, and it caught up to him. He hit 1 of 6 shots, and none of his four 3-point attempts, in the fourth quarter.

Years from now, we’ll look back on the final five years of Oracle, and it will probably seem like a joyride. The clips of Warriors fast breaks and 30-foot Curry swishes will become a shorthand for the entire era of basketball.

But it hasn’t been easy, not at all. The fact is, maintaining a dynasty is difficult work, and it has become incrementally harder since the breakthrough of 2015. In 2016, the Warriors wore themselves out in trying (and succeeding) to break the NBA record for wins in a season. After Durant arrived, the scoring became easier but the chemistry trickier. The players got complacent. The basketball started to feel like work. Money issues loomed. It happens to every empire sooner or later.

This year was toughest of all. The drama of Durant’s impending free agency (if he chooses to opt out of his contract) loomed over the Warriors all year. The team stunk up their beloved arena several times with baffling, one-sided losses.

“You look at some of the stuff that’s gone on and it’s like, ‘Oh, that was two years ago, no that was like five months ago, it was seven months ago, two months ago,’” Draymond Green reflected. “Like everything this team has been through, I’m extremely proud of the guys, the way we fought.”

And then came the playoff injuries. DeMarcus Cousins was the first to fall, badly straining his quad muscle in the second game in Round 1. Andre Iguodala missed a game with a calf injury. Thompson missed one with a hamstring tweak. Looney cracked his torso. They played on.

Nothing symbolizes the Warriors’ refusal to surrender more than Thompson limping into the tunnel, supported by Jordan Bell and Jonas Jerebko, then reversing field and heading back to the court to shoot (and make) two free throws. The roar that greeted him when he re-emerged might have been the highest decibel level achieved at Oracle since the We Believe team in 2007.

“He might be the toughest guy I’ve ever seen in my life,” Looney said of Thompson. “He was in a lot of pain when he went down, I’ve never heard him scream like that or show emotion like that. So I knew he was hurt.”

Looney went on to say, “When you got superstars like Klay and KD as examples, they’re gonna put their bodies on the line. A guy like me, when you see that, you’re like, I gotta follow suit.”

The Warriors weren’t deep enough to provide adequate replacements, though. Really, there’s no way they should have been able to keep pace with the balanced and energetic Raptors.

But they did. The Warriors ran with Toronto step for step, drawing on some wellspring of resolve that went beyond their ability to shoot a basketball.

“It’s amazement that we’re sitting in this position,” Kerr said. “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? How has this group of guys put themselves in position to do it?”

After the game, Curry wandered into the locker room, still in uniform, and sat at his locker. His brother-in-law, Damion Lee, occupied the locker next to his, and both of them looked raw, with red eyes and blank faces. Curry alternately whispered to Lee and sat rubbing his face. A couple times he lightly rapped the shelf in his locker or the metal bar holding up his clothes, as if he’d love to hit it for real.

The Warriors had just spent everything they owned on the court. They answered every challenge, and very nearly extended the series. But Curry had missed a 3-point attempt with 9 seconds left that could have given Golden State the lead. The effort wasn’t enough to placate him. He wanted those final three points. He wanted one more win. He wanted to keep going.

The Warriors have nothing left to prove by now, but that isn’t the point. Whatever fuel has been powering them for five years, it’s still burning. That’s why you can’t count them out in 2020, despite the cracks that have formed in the foundation. The body weakens over time, but the spirit lives on.

“Next season will be next season, and we’ll come back with the right mentality,” Curry said at the podium a little later. “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.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-529-5218 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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