Warriors' injuries create opening with Finals in balance
NBA.com Global on Jun 06, 2019 06:43 PM
Golden State Warriors' Alfonzo McKinnie, from left, sits on the bench with Jonas Jerebko, Klay Thompson and Damian Jones during the second half of Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
OAKLAND, Calif. — From now until further notice, each game of the 2019 NBA Finals will be largely influenced not by a go-ahead basket or a big stop or a rally-induced comeback, but a hot-off-the-press medical update prior to tipoff.
Is Klay Thompson's tweaky hamstring a go?
Will this be the day Kevin Durant finally shakes that lingering calf strain and suits up?
The hints and subtle signs seem to point toward the positive for Golden State. Thompson was a late scratch Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time) because the Warriors -- with a mixture of confidence and arrogance and concern -- felt the guard missing Game 3 was perhaps best for his recovery without proving deadly in the long run. And as for Durant, he’s still “ramping up” his workouts, in the description of coach Steve Kerr, and so his status has been upgraded to "stay tuned." It has become must-watch after a 123-109 loss.
Yet if the answer is negative to all of the above, the next entry on the medical report might be the grim health of the dynasty built by these two-time defending champions. Their still-under-construction monument now teeters, prone to a nudge from Toronto.
The Warriors find themselves down 2-1 to the Raptors, lacking any guarantee they’ll see two of their three leading scorers back in the lineup Friday (Saturday, PHL time) for Game 4 ... or for however long this series lasts.
Thompson joined Durant on the sideline, and the Raptors (as could be anticipated) pounced on the gift to seize control of the series. It was a game the Raptors had to win, and they did. The production came from multiple players, with Kyle Lowry finally making an imprint on this series and Danny Green rediscovering his long-lost three-point touch.
Meanwhile, the Warriors consisted of Steph Curry and not much else. The two-time Kia MVP dazzled and fought through traps and triple-teams all night to drop a career-high 47 points, some of it on shot-making wizardry. But the short-handed Warriors were doomed when Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins in particular were underwhelming on a night they needed to be stellar for Golden State to have a chance.
As a result, the atmosphere inside Oracle Arena was flatter than most of the shots taken by Curry's teammates, and this was partly due to the introduction of the starting lineups, when Thompson’s name wasn’t announced. The fans knew then, officially, that their eyes and the home team were in for a long night. While the Warriors fought, scrappy doesn’t win games at this point in the postseason, not when the other team is good and opportunistic.
Playing in a hostile building for the first time in the Finals, the Raptors made a collective decision to greet fire with fire. Or, as they wrote on the blackboard inside the visitor’s locker room: Let It Rip.
“I think we all kind of followed that advice,” said Danny Green. “We hadn’t really had a good team shooting night and I knew we were due.”
For Toronto, it wasn’t just that they won, but that they did so with their most impressive outing in the series. And now, the question for the Raptors is this: Will their inconsistent players use this outing to turn the corner and push the Warriors, even if Thompson and/or Durant return?
This is aimed, first and foremost, at Lowry. He took the “let it rip” plea personally. Entering this game, he had six baskets total in this series and at times suffered defensively. Challenged by a pregame talk from coach Nick Nurse, Lowry embraced his inner pit bull and was relentless all night. The All-Star point guard took 16 shots, making eight, for 23 points and nine assists while making his presence felt for the first time this Finals.
“For me, it was just not being so passive and trying to get everyone else involved and get myself going and let everyone else feed off that,” Lowry said.
He and Green re-introduced the three-pointer to the Raptors’ offense. The two shot 11-for-19 and repeatedly stole whatever momentum Golden State could generate by responding with long-distance daggers that forced fans to slump back into their seats.
This from the same player who had five total three's in his previous five playoff games, ruining more than a handful of runs with momentum-deflating misses. There’s no other way to describe the last three weeks of Green’s postseason shooting but dreadful. He has only one job: Stand in the corner and shoot open 3s. He’s made a career of that.
So what do the Raptors make of Green shooting 6-of-10 from deep Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time)? In the short term, it helped win Game 3. In the big picture, will this confidence carry over from one night to another, or does it depend on whether Green hits his first few?
Nurse said: “Danny’s buckets boosted our whole team’s confidence because we were used to relying on those most of the year.”
With better production from players who had been mostly missing, the Raptors had the balance needed to deliver their highest-scoring and most efficient (52 percent shooting) contest of the series. Green and Lowry joined Kawhi Leonard (30 points) and Pascal Siakam (18) and Marc Gasol (17) to take turns pummeling the Warriors from all different directions and manners.
One reason for this was Thompson’s absence. Not only is he a proven outside shooter, but his defense is top-notch as well. You could even argue that Thompson’s missing defense was just as costly as his jumper.
Yet the 109 points Golden State did manage were mainly because of Curry providing nearly half the offense. Given the circumstances of being without Thompson and Durant, and the constant pressing by Toronto whenever he had the ball, this was Curry’s finest post-season effort. His shooting was superb all across the floor, making three's (six) and free throws (13-14) and in general (14-31).
“It’s the Finals,” Curry said. “You give everything you’ve got, sacrifice your body when you have the opportunity. Just competitiveness and trying to play until the buzzer.”
“He does things that honestly I don’t think anyone has done before," Kerr added. "The way he plays the game, the way he shoots and the combination of his ball-handling, it’s incredible to watch.”
If only he had someone riding shotgun. Cousins was sloppy on both ends, with three turnovers and one basket, and a step slow on defense against Gasol. This came one game after he seemingly regained his legs and confidence to gave Golden State a much-needed lift.
Green’s continued recklessness was mystifying; he often made questionable decisions as a playmaker, suffered four turnovers and once again struggled to contain Siakam. The Warriors needed Green’s best, given their missing parts, and received something less.
“We’ve got to be more solid with the ball and it starts with me,” he said. “I’ve had a bunch of turnovers in every game of this series. I think if I played better with the night (Curry) had, we would have won.”
And so the Warriors, while talking bravely about their next-man-up mentality and embracing their “Strength in Numbers” slogan, must realize, deep down, that preventing the Raptors from winning two more games with a handicapped team might be difficult, if not impossible. Keep in mind that Golden State hasn’t sparkled for four quarters since the first game of the Western Conference finals. The last three games of that series, and the first three of the NBA Finals, the Warriors trailed by double digits.
Thompson has an off day and Friday's (Saturday, PHL time) pregame period for therapy on his hamstring, although such strains are unpredictable and tricky. Will he be able to cut and fight through screens and be bouncy for 35-plus minutes through the intensity of an NBA Finals game, or will the injury restrict him and cause Kerr to seek a healthier, yet less productive replacement?
“The whole point was to not risk a bigger injury that would keep him out the rest of the series,” said Kerr, explaining a decision made in consultation with the team doctors. “I feel very comfortable with it. I never would have forgiven myself if I played him and he had gotten hurt. So you live with the decision you made. The good thing is Klay has done well the last two days; hopefully he’ll be out there Friday.”
Then there’s Durant, who last played May 8 (May 9, PHL time). After doing nothing but individual drills the last few days, he’ll go through a more normal practice session that will be simulated with the help of some assistant coaches and bench players. They'll see how Durant holds up. But that won’t match the stress level of a real game. And even if Durant gets clearance for Game 4, he hasn’t played in roughly a month. What about his timing? His wind? His touch? His ability to bring the same energy on defense?
All legit questions and concerns for the Warriors -- until they’re not, whenever that is.
“No one cares if guys are hurt,” Green said. “Everyone wants to see us lose anyway. So I’m sure people are happy they’re hurt.”
Chances are that basketball fans, even if they’re against the Warriors, want to see stars on the floor this time of year. That’s what the NBA Finals is always about: Premium players doing premium things, or failing to do so, and letting the championship odds rise or fall on their performances. This year’s Finals have been denied one star for every game, and an additional star for one game.
The battle with star attrition finally cost the Warriors a postseason loss, and at the worst possible time. The flow of the remainder of the NBA Finals, then, could rest with aching tendons and muscles and the recovery powers of those who own them.
“We’re missing 50 points with KD and Klay, but we’ll adjust,” said a confident Curry. “It’s a long series, you know. It’s going to be fun for us.”
The next Warriors medical update will arrive Thursday afternoon (Friday, PHL time). And another one Friday (Saturday, PHL time) just prior to tipoff.
All along, the Warriors have led everyone to believe that it’s only a matter of time before they’re fully healthy. But will it be in time? And even then, will it be enough against a Toronto team suddenly thinking big?
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