The Warriors as currently constituted are “merely” a great NBA team. In just about any other context, it’s peak roster construction. A couple of all-world shooters, a couple of bangers down low with shots of their own, a scattering of role players each with their own specific skills, and an overall commitment to defense. Add in a seven-foot Swiss army knife like Kevin Durant and they’re nigh unbeatable, but without Durant, they’re susceptible to the same things as every other great team. Sometimes the shots don’t fall, or opponents contest them into not falling, and the bangers get out-banged, and if these things happen, there’s no emergency button to hit. There’s not one single player so well-rounded that he can take over a game when his first and even second preferences for scoring are being taken away. Especially gloomily for the Warriors, the Raptors do have a player like that.
Kawhi Leonard scored 17 of his 36 points in the third quarter, a quarter in which Toronto outscored Golden State by 16, erasing a four-point halftime gap then leaving it in their dust. When that dust cleared, the Raptors had won 105-92, and are now just one game away from their first title.
Leonard, who added 12 rebounds, opened the second half with a pair of threes sandwiched around a steal, and the Raptors were off to the races.
“Kawhi’s two big 3s to start the half really, I thought, changed the whole feel of everybody,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “I just thought everybody was like, ‘OK, man, we know we are here. Let’s go.’”
Fred VanVleet called them “F-you shots,” and if everyone on both teams wants to rave about Leonard’s third quarter, well, he deserves it and more. Steph Curry said Leonard hit every “momentum shot” in the frame, while Draymond Green observed that “once a team like that finds a rhythm, it’s hard to take them out of it.”
If all of this rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s because this—the third-quarter run that decides the game—is historically the Warriors’ thing. They’re the ones who usually make the halftime adjustments, or find the extra gear, and come out of the locker room with a barrage of threes and dunks and cuts to pull away, and who answer every opponent’s mini-run with a backbreaker of their own. The Warriors have even proved in this series, in their lone win, that they’re still capable of it without Durant. But it’s looking increasingly like that game was the fluke, and that the Finals will go to the team with the best player—and maybe, after another strong night from the likes of Ibaka, VanVleet, and Lowry, the best supporting cast too.
So, about Durant, who still looms over this series despite the fact that what’s actually happened already might be decisive enough. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he’s “hoping” Durant can return for Game 5 in Toronto or, if necessary, Game 6 back in Oakland, but also he’s so sick of being asked about Durant that he’s not going to give any more updates on him until there’s something to report. With a healthy Durant, (and a healthy Klay Thompson and a healthy DeMarcus Cousins and a healthy Kevon Looney), this series might be going very differently, and it might even still be salvageable. But hypotheticals don’t help anything, except perhaps Warriors’ fans pride. This is the series we’ve got, and the extant Warriors—a great team who have a won a title with this exact lineup core—are losing because they don’t have anyone quite like Kawhi Leonard.