OAKLAND, Calif. — The 2018-19 NBA season ended the way many thought it would — with a championship celebration on the floor of Oracle Arena. Unfortunately for the Golden State Warriors, however, it was the Toronto Raptors storming the court, popping champagne in the locker rooms and wearing permanent grins for the hours that followed their .
The Warriors congratulated the Raptors, then walked through that familiar tunnel to their own locker room to say goodbye in the final NBA game ever played in their Oakland home for the past 47 seasons. When they got there, though, the locker room looked more like an urgent care unit than a gathering of the finest athletes in the world. These playoffs were devastating for the Warriors.
Kevin Durant injured his calf, only to return and rupture his Achilles tendon. Klay Thompson injured his hamstring, only to return and tear his ACL. DeMarcus Cousins tore his quad in his second career playoff game, only to become one of the Warriors’ key players in the Finals. Andre Iguodala suffered a calf injury in the Western Conference finals, only to become one of the main defenders of Kawhi Leonard in the Finals. Kevon Looney was ruled out for the playoffs after getting bulldozed by Kawhi Leonard, only to average nearly 22 minutes in the following three games.
All the while Stephen Curry and Draymond Green racked up monumental minutes, faced double- and triple-teams and damn near took this thing to a Game 7. When Thompson went down in Game 6, the crowd didn’t know whether to gasp or laugh in disbelief. It’s hard to remember a team dealing with so many severe injuries to key players in one postseason.
But through the utter decimation, the Warriors gained the respect of anyone who ever questioned the team’s toughness, perseverance, or will to win.
“What I’ve witnessed as their coach over the last five years is just an incredible combination of talent and character and commitment to each other,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before taking questions following the Game 6 loss. “This just doesn’t happen. A group of guys like this doesn’t come around together and do what they did over the last five years. And I’ve been lucky enough to be their coach. That’s what I told them in the locker room.
“I can’t tell you my gratitude in terms of just being put in this position to be with this group and to coach them and to help them. But I could not be any luckier as a coach to be with these guys every day and to watch them compete and, boy, do they compete. I think they showed that throughout this series and throughout the playoffs.”
Interestingly enough, the Warriors may have shown their championship pedigree more in the loss than in any of their title wins — at least it was more apparent. Casual fans can point to their talent, particularly after the acquisition of Durant before the 2016-17 season, and say that they rigged the system. They can point to the 3-point-happy, free and loose way that they play and say they never would have gotten away with it in previous eras. They can point to, and use it as fodder to diminish his excellence.
But you can’t question this team’s heart. Not anymore. Never again.
“Obviously you feel good about it, but it’s no shocker to us,” Green said of the team’s perseverance through injuries. “We know what this team has been made of all along. I said it over and over again, the pretty offense will always be the storyline, but this team, a ton of heart. Everybody that steps on that floor displayed a ton of heart. So it’s no shocker to us that we continue to fight, but we came up a little short and that’s just it.”
It’s no shocker to the Warriors, but it was a shocker to those fans who only saw the “pretty offense” and the championship banners. When Golden State ran into adversity, and had every opportunity to roll over and cede the title to a superior team, they scratched, fought and clawed beyond their physical limits. And it cost them dearly.
Durant will likely miss most, if not all of next season. Thompson has a lengthy rehab ahead, despite his uncanny ability to play through injuries (not only did he miraculously come back from the tunnel to sink those two free throws, but he also wanted to stay in the game).
Dynasties like the Warriors’ don’t often last. It’s usually due to chemistry issues, or someone being dissatisfied with their role. The Warriors appeared to be headed down that path early this season when Green reportedly questioned Durant’s commitment to the team, earning a one-game suspension. Instead it was injuries that ultimately prevented them from giving the Raptors a true test. They may have lost anyway — we’ll never know. But had they won with a healthy squad, we would not have been smacked in the face with the extent of this organization’s character.
With that in mind, it’s hard to count this team out for next year, even with all the free agency and injury questions.
“Next season will be next season, and we’ll come back with the right mentality,” Curry said. “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.”