Hearts of Champions and Cajones of Warriors

Hearts of Champions and Cajones of Warriors

Byline: Jon Whited

Monday night marked Game 5 of the NBA Finals, but it felt like the first game of the Finals, with the return of Kevin Durant. His return would transform this series, requiring completely different schemes for both teams not to mention there was just a different energy and intensity in the building. The series, which felt lacking throughout the first four games, finally felt complete for the first time (Drake included, Mark Stevens excluded). This is not a coincidence. This is the impact a superstar like KD has on the game, and somehow, we needed his absence to feel his true impact.

Durant made his presence felt early and often in the first quarter, connecting on his first three three-point attempts and converting his two free throw attempts, ending the quarter with 11 points. Not only was Durant hot to start, so were the Warriors. The Splash Bros (KD included) combined to hit the team’s first five three point attempts over the first four and a half minutes of the game. Golden State ended the first quarter with seven three balls and couldn’t have asked for a better start from the floor or a return for KD. Nonetheless, the Raptors were hanging around; down just 34-28 after the barrage of threes from the Warriors in the first.

As well as the first quarter started for Durant and the defending champions, is as excruciatingly painful the start of the second was, when with 9:49 left in the quarter, Durant appeared to tear his right Achilles on a drive to the basket. All the energy that he brought with him had been sucked out of the building just like that and even brought some negative energy with it as Toronto fans originally cheered the apparent injury. The ignorant cheers turned into “KD” chants as he limped off the court under the arms of Andre Iguodala with Steph Curry following behind closely to check on his buddy.  It was obvious Durant’s return to this game and series was out of the question. It was also obvious no one should ever dare question his commitment to this team, will to win, or love for the game. The courage he showed Monday night was incredible and it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Durant’s injury was a shock to the Golden State system. You’ve waited an entire month and grinded to this point to have your superstar return only to lose him 14 minutes into the game. That is beyond deflating, but you couldn’t tell by the way the Warriors responded. Behind seven straight points from the clearly limited Boogie Cousins, the Warriors expanded their lead from four to thirteen within four minutes of his injury. The Raptors would cut into the lead before the half with a score of 62-56 at intermission. The Warriors would take the lead into half but was there any hope left. By this time, the team realized they would have to stave off elimination in the second half, in this hostile environment, without one of the all-time greats.

Behind four more three pointers in the third quarter, the Warriors were able to maintain their lead (84-78 at the end of the 3rd) while Kevin Durant headed to the hospital. With 12 minutes left to fight off elimination and return home for Game 6, the original Big 3 of Curry, Thompson, and Green would have to dig deep and make the clutch plays we have seen from them time and time again over the last five years. Over the first five minutes of the fourth, the Raptors would cut the lead from six to one. Draymond would then provide the first of those aforementioned clutch plays, knocking down a huge three on the next possession, momentarily silencing a delirious Raptors’ crowd ready to completely erupt.

Every time Toronto was ready to make a run or take the lead, Golden State would hit them with a dagger three. But this time, Kawhi Leonard had a response of his own that none of the all-world Warrior defenders had an answer for. Over the course of a 1 min 45 second stretch, beginning with 5:13 left in the game, Kawhi would go on a rampage and a personal 10-2 run, hitting two cold-blooded threes and two off the bounce mid-range jumpers during that stretch. The North is now up 103-97, taking its largest lead of the game and you could see the “Kawhi: The Savior” headlines starting to write themselves as the game (and maybe the Warriors dynasty) was surely over. After a missed Steph three and another Raptors’ stop, with all the momentum and the crowd absolutely roaring, Nick Nurse, who has coached a great series and postseason, inexplicably called back-to-back timeouts with 3:05 left effectively killing the momentum and the atmosphere in the building. The Raptors would only score one bucket for the rest of the game.

No matter, the outcome of this series, the two minute and eight second stretch that followed the ill-timed timeout might be the most defining moment of this five-year dynastic run. Over this stretch, with their backs firmly against the proverbial wall, Golden State would come out throwing haymakers, going on a 9-0 run as Klay and Steph took turns knocking down one absolute backbreaking three after another. The Warriors would take the lead 106-103 and never look back. Let’s take a closer look at each of these three Warrior dagger threes.

This three set up by a brilliant play call by Steve Kerr (he’s secretly underrated). The Raptors and everyone else know the bread and butter of these Warriors is the Steph/Draymond pick-n-roll. So they showed this look only with a new wrinkle. They had Green slip the pick’n’roll with Steph to set a pick for Klay off ball. Steph drew attention with the fake ball screen and found Klay coming off the Draymond pick only to have Klay reverse right back into a ball screen with Green leading to the wide open look that Thompson would drain effortlessly.

After Klay knocked down the first of three consecutive threes, it was Curry’s turn this time. They were able to get this look with a little simpler action than the last one. What we see here is a staple of the last five years: Klay and Steph off-ball screens creating chaos. You will notice that, when Thompson sets the pick for Curry to start the motion to the wing, Danny Green doesn’t leave his side to hedge Steph at all and that is just the extra space he needs here to beat the pesky VanVleet to his spot just beyond the three-point stripe. It’s a game of inches and that’s all he needed after coming off the Cousins pick that followed. Splash. Tied game.

Next up. Thompson’s turn again. Again this one started with Curry drawing attention from the defense off the bounce. After forcing help from Lowry off Iguodala, Steph made the right play hitting the open Iggy, who made a brilliant touch pass to an open and reluctant Draymond. Luckily for the Warriors, Draymond instinctively made a perfect swing pass to an open Klay Thompson, who pump faked Kawhi out of his shoes, before taking a rhythm dribble and stroking the go-ahead three-pointer. You’ll notice Leonard was out of position there because he had to help the helper when Steph hit Iggy to start the crisp ball movement we are so accustomed to seeing during this run. You won’t see better execution in when it matters most.

After a Kyle Lowry layup with 30 seconds left, the Raptors had a chance at the buzzer with a Lowry three that Draymond came out of nowhere to get a piece of and send off track, clanking off the side of the backboard as time expired. You’ll notice in the clip above, that once Iguodala leaves Gasol to double team Kawhi and force him to get rid of the ball, Draymond takes on the responsibility of covering both Gasol in the paint as well as Lowry at the three point line. Green fights off a Gasol pick and splits the difference between the two before ultimately scrambling to a seemingly open Lowry and getting the slightest finger on the ball. And that was enough to change the course of NBA history.

Each member of the Big 3 made at least a couple huge plays down the stretch, including each knocking down at least one clutch three. The three ball has been the identity of this dynasty from its origin and tonight was no exception. These 4 plays made all the difference down the stretch and each of them had the hands of the Big 3 all over them. These plays couldn’t be more emblematic of these three players: smart, skilled, unselfish, and maybe most importantly fearless.  

Behind the strength of those clutch plays and 20 three-pointers (a Warriors Finals record, 12 from the Splash Bros, 15 if you include KD), the Warriors pulled it out 106-105, overcoming a horrific loss in Durant, an emotional rollercoaster, and a raucous environment. Just another day at the office for these guys. There is nothing they haven’t seen; nothing they haven’t experienced (including a 3-1 Finals comeback). After pulling this win out when seemingly down for the count and with the series headed back to Oracle Arena one last time for Game 6 Thursday, know that this group of Warriors is headed back there with supreme confidence and that should scare this Raptors team and all of America, outside of the Bay Area, that is rooting against this team.

These Warriors (pun absolutely intended) may be headed back to Oakland wounded but just know their will to win has not been diminished and cannot be denied. Despite their titanic efforts in Game 5, a comeback from down 3-1 and a 4th title in 5 years without KD still seems improbable, but I, for one, won’t be surprised if they pull it off. Moments after Kawhi’s heroic fourth quarter run, I doubted the champs, and I learned my lesson: NEVER underestimate the heart of a champion, especially when it’s the hearts of these Warriors.

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