You thought Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals when the Golden State Warriors were trying to put the cherry on top of their record-breaking 73-win season was big? Well, that’s nothing compared to what is about to go down in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals on Thursday night.
For the first time what now been a five-year dynasty, the Warriors are underdogs, as they are entering Game 6 down 3-2 to a determined Toronto Raptors team led by an absolute monster in Kawhi Leonard, who nearly put Golden State to bed in Game 5 before Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson said “no.”
Yes, the Warriors may have won Game 5 in thrilling fashion on Monday evening, but they had to expend every ounce of their energy to do so, and they saw their ace in the hole, superstar Kevin Durant, go down with an Achilles injury minutes into what was supposed to be his triumphant return in the process.
By and large, the Raptors have looked like the better team in this series. Aside from an 18-0 run by the Dubs in Game 2 and a flurry of three-pointers by Curry and Thompson late in Game 5, Toronto has been in control, riding Leonard, a big frontcourt and key production from role players to a series lead.
But the Warriors have something the Raptors don’t: the heart of a champion.
Sure, Toronto has Leonard and Danny Green, both of whom won a title as teammates with the San Antonio Spurs back in 2014, but that’s it. Kyle Lowry has historically been roasted for his lack of playoff grit, Serge Ibaka is seven years removed from his one and only finals appearance and Marc Gasol had made it to just one conference final before this year.
Golden State’s unbreakable heart was on full display on Monday evening, as the Dubs fought off an emotional roller-coaster on their way to a resounding victory that may have been the gutsiest win over the course of their magnificent five-year run.
Now, the Warriors are entering Game 6 of the finals with more at stake than ever before.
They aren’t just facing elimination. They are playing their last game at Oracle Arena. Their dynasty is in limbo. Durant’s free agency is looming. Steph’s legacy is on the line.
There is so much on the table going into Thursday night, possibly more than we have ever seen an in NBA Finals (and that’s not even including everything the Raptors have to deal with, as well).
It has gotten to a point where people are wondering whether this burden is even too much for the Warriors, a team has seen virtually everything, to handle.
And you can see where they are coming from.
Bob Myers broke down on the podium discussing Durant’s injury following Game 5. An emotional Curry fought back tears as he hugged Myers afterward. Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green, all of whom wear their hearts on their sleeves, all seemed somber. Steve Kerr looked bewildered.
We have never seen the Warriors this vulnerable, and I’m not talking about their performance on the court. I am speaking of their emotions. The normally cheerful, confident and, let’s face it, arrogant Warriors genuinely look burnt out, almost to the point where winning has actually become secondary to them.
It’s almost as if the Dubs can’t wait to get this series over with so they can exhale and go into the summer with a few months of rest.
Let’s remember that it’s not like all of this just hit the Warriors all at once.
All season long, Golden State has dealt with constant media, fan and player speculation about Durant’s impending free agency, and even Thompson’s, to an extent. People saw the Warriors’ struggles during the regular season and wondered if age, pressure and boredom was finally catching up to them and if this was finally the year they could be had.
A surprisingly tough first round against the Los Angeles Clippers did nothing to assuage those doubters, and when Durant injured his calf in Game 5 of the Warriors’ second-round series against the Houston Rockets, many began writing Golden State’s obituary.
But the Dubs still powered through without Durant, dispatching the Rockets in six games and then emphatically sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.
The finals, however, have been a different animal, as Leonard alone is a different beast, and it became more and more apparent through the first four games that the Warriors needed Durant.
And just when it looked like Durant was back and ready to save the day, he suffers a potentially career-altering Achilles injury, further adding to the angst and the mounting pressure that the Warriors were facing.
Now, the Warriors will have one last chance to put on a show at Oracle, the arena that has delivered so many priceless memories to Oakland over the last five years and beyond. Curry will have the opportunity to stamp his name in the pantheon of NBA Finals legends, something his Finals MVP-less self has yet to do. And as a team, the Dubs have the chance to do something that only three other franchises in NBA history have done by winning three straight championships.
But all of that can come to a screeching halt if the Warriors are not able to summon the strength for at least one more great performance in a five-year span full of them.
This might not just be the last dance at Oracle Arena. It could be the last dance for this Warriors dynasty as we know it.
And the Warriors will be ready for the challenge.