OAKLAND – Never in the history of the NBA has a team given itself better reason to hold its collective head high at the end than the Warriors of the past two months.
They entered this postseason seeking their third consecutive championship, embracing that challenge with immeasurable gusto, knowing the league was better than at any time during their five-year run and that they would have to confront the best of it.
What these Warriors got instead was closest thing the NBA can offer to the ravages of war.
“It's just brutal what these guys have had to deal with, and what they're dealing with right now,” coach Steve Kerr said.
They finally fell, once and for all, Thursday night in their own home. The Toronto Raptors weathered the torrential noise storm inside Oracle Arena to post a pulsating 114-110 Game 6 victory and win the NBA Finals for the first time in the history of the 24-year-old franchise.
Understand, the Raptors deserved it. They earned it. They’re too good, too deep and too fearless to have their first moment of ultimate brilliance tarnished with an asterisk.
But from a Warriors perspective, crutches, bandages and scalpels seem appropriate.
“Obviously, credit Toronto on a great series. They went out and won it,” Steph Curry said. “They played amazing tonight all across the board, they had contributions. And, yeah, it's a tough feeling being on this side of losing in The Finals.
“But a lot has been proven about who we are as a team and the fight that we have and all the adversity that we dealt with in this entire playoff run. It's a one-possession game to keep our season alive tonight.”
The Warriors took this game into the final seconds without Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson. With Curry fighting through a thigh bruise sustained in the first half. With DeMarcus Cousins, who missed six of the last eight weeks with a torn quadriceps muscle, diving on the floor after loose balls. With Draymond Green ignoring his achy right knee to post another triple-double: 11 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists. With Andre Iguodala shrugging off his sore calves to score a postseason-high 22 points. With Kevon Looney grimacing through a fracture in his rib cage to engage in paint brutality for 27 minutes.
And that’s not the worst of it. Late in the third quarter, Thompson sustained a torn ACL in his left knee, becoming the last of a parade of Warriors struck down or out with injury. His last walk out of Oracle Arena was with the aid of crutches.
Kevin Durant’s last walk of the postseason, and perhaps his Warriors career, came three nights earlier, in Game 5 in Toronto. It also required the assistance of crutches, as he had ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon.
All this against a healthy Raptors squad, and it wasn’t until a Curry 3-ball bounced off with eight seconds remaining that the Warriors were subdued.
“It's amazing that we're sitting in this position with . . . 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?” Kerr said. “How has this group of guys put themselves in position to do it?”
The Warriors never blinked, even when their own blood was dripping into their eyes. They didn’t retreat in the face of their diminishing ranks. They didn’t consider, not once, the prospect of surrender.
“This was one of our very best runs,” veteran assistant coach Ron Adams said. “There were great challenges. Houston was a terrific team, and Kevin goes down in the fifth game. We win the series. We get a fantastic win (Game 5) at Toronto.
“Everyone says we’re not in the ‘moral victory’ game. But I believe in a lot of different victories. And this team, in these playoffs, was a victorious team. No question in my mind. They were amazing. I’m as proud as any team I’ve been around.”
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This is the way champion is supposed to go out. With nothing left to give. The carnage of this postseason was so severe that it could take a year or more for the Warriors to recover and have a chance to feel whole again.
“We're not done yet,” Green said. “We lost this year. Clearly just wasn't our year, but that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes. Yeah, I hear a lot of that noise, ‘it's the end of a run’ and all that jazz. I don't see it happening though. We'll be back.”
After they exhibited such toughness and character this postseason, it’s a fool’s bet to think they won’t.