When, late in the third quarter of Game Six of the N.B.A. Finals, the Golden State Warriors’ guard Klay Thompson paused in the tunnel on his way to the locker room, turned around, and limped back onto the court, the symbolism of the moment seemed almost absurdly heavy-handed. How many blows does it take to kill a Warrior? Thompson had led his team to a slim lead over the Toronto Raptors, and then, going for a dunk on a fast break, he landed awkwardly. His left knee buckled; he grabbed it, then rolled over onto his stomach and writhed. Just a few days before, Golden State’s best player, Kevin Durant, one of the league’s all-time greats, had ruptured his Achilles tendon while trying to play after weeks away with an injury. What’s more, Thursday night’s game was Golden State’s last in Oakland before the team moves into a money-printing stadium in San Francisco. The Warriors dynasty of the last several years seemed to be ending in unmitigated disaster. Then Thompson reappeared, and the stadium exploded with cheering.
The rules dictate that if a player does not shoot his free throws he cannot return to the game. Thompson came back to take them because he wanted to keep playing. Much of the sports-watching public had spent the previous two days debating Durant’s injury and decrying a culture that pushes athletes to play through pain. But never mind that. The sight of Thompson limping to the free-throw line was instantly iconic. Shortly before the injury, Thompson had swished a running three from twenty-eight feet—one of four threes he made in the game, on eight-for-twelve shooting over all; he finished with thirty points. Then he was on the ground, his face contorted in pain—and then he was back again, nailing his free throws. Everything seemed to go wrong for the Warriors, and yet there they were, still fighting. After the free throws, Thompson’s teammate DeMarcus Cousins deliberately committed a foul so that Golden State could get Thompson off the court and send him to the locker room for evaluation. They determined that he couldn’t play any further; after the game, it was reported that he had torn his A.C.L., which means that, like Durant, he will almost certainly miss all of next season. Nonetheless, on Thursday night, Golden State was down just one point with less than a second remaining, before Toronto finally sealed their series victory.
Or at least that’s one way to tell the story, by focussing on the injuries. History may remember the series that way, too—as a story about Durant’s Achilles, Thompson’s knee, Kevon Looney’s broken chest, Cousins’s iffy quad. The core of this Golden State team has been together for a half decade; Durant’s arrival, three seasons ago, certainly assured the team’s trajectory—they had won championships in each of his first two seasons with the Warriors—but he didn’t fundamentally alter its character or its style. The Warriors had become a nearly perfect and practically unbeatable basketball team. They couldn’t lose unless they were destroyed by injury.
Or you could tell a different story—not the story of how Golden State lost the N.B.A. championship but of how Toronto won it. The core players on the Raptors have not been together for several years. They were led by a reticent one-year import from Southern California, Kawhi Leonard, who is now a free agent and could go elsewhere next season. They depended on Pascal Siakam, a lanky kid from Cameroon who, when he was drafted, only a few years ago, could barely shoot. They were sparked, in big moments, by Fred VanVleet, who hadn’t been drafted at all, and who, like Siakam, was in just his third N.B.A. season. More experienced players—Serge Ibaka, from the Congo, who joined the team two years ago, and Marc Gasol, from Spain, who’s only been with the Raptors for a few months—played like their younger selves. A conspicuously international cohort became Canada’s team; “We the North” was their slogan. It’s possible that they’ll largely split apart this summer.
So it felt fitting, or satisfying, at least, that the player who did the most to win Game Six was Kyle Lowry, the one player who has been with the Raptors for years—since 2012—and who has given the team its identity. In previous seasons—and, at times, during this one—Lowry was maligned for his inability to shine in big games or hit shots at big moments; in Game Five, he missed an open three that would have given the Raptors a chance to take the title, and then he had a potentially championship-winning three tipped at the buzzer. But he scored the first eight points of Game Six. Leonard, who has been perhaps the best player in the world during these playoffs, struggled in the first half. Lowry scored twenty-one points and had six rebounds and six assists.
After the game, Lowry and Leonard sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, and Nichols later posted a video of the pair bantering before the formal conversation began. Leonard handed the Finals trophy to Lowry, who cradled it and told his teammate that he deserved it, too. The two men had only been playing together for a season, and Leonard is hardly known for sentimentality. But it came off as entirely sincere and unforced. Building a dynasty takes time, as the Warriors know better than anyone. But, in sports, as the Raptors showed, tight bonds can form quickly, whether or not they are destined to last.
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