TORONTO — The Golden State Warriors don’t really get to be resilient. They are, but because they’re also historically marvelous, their success forces them to forfeit those kinds of plucky, human descriptions. No matter the variety of ways they can impress, most people would rather fixate on their talent and limit the appreciation to a simple five-letter word: great.
It is hardly an insult, but there are so many more ingredients within their greatness. Thing is, they often win so convincingly they don’t have to show their full repertoire. In terms of perception, such dominance can work against them. The Warriors have collected ample praise over the past five seasons, but if they want to reach a higher level of reverence, it would help to see them strain more.
This NBA Finals is providing that kind of challenge. In capturing back-to-back championships, the Warriors lost just one game during the 2017 and 2018 Finals. They have a 12-3 record during their three title runs. The one time they had it hard, LeBron James and Cleveland beat them in seven games in 2016.
But now the degree of difficulty is appropriately high. Through two games, the Toronto Raptors have shown they’re a real threat. Golden State, already laboring from the physical toll of playing in five straight Finals, is now an injured mess. Kevin Durant is still out because of a calf injury. Klay Thompson suffered a slight hamstring pull and left early during the Warriors’ 109-104 Game 2 victory. Kevon Looney, who is shooting 73 percent in the playoffs, exited after bruising his chest Sunday night. DeMarcus Cousins is playing through a quad injury, and the team has been careful with Andre Iguodala’s sore calf. Steph Curry dislocated his left middle finger early in the playoffs, and he exited Sunday’s game briefly because he was sick.
No one is going to feel sorry for Golden State because, over the years, it has benefitted several times from its opponents’ injuries. And while the Warriors are not a deep team anymore, they still have five perennial all-stars on the roster and a former Finals MVP in Iguodala. As long as Curry is healthy enough to play and force defenses to panic and extend to try to contain him, the Warriors can cobble together hobbled lineups that remain dangerous.
Still, the combination of misfortune and a worthy opponent has turned these Finals into a grind. Golden State was lucky to leave Toronto with the series tied at one game apiece. If not for an incredible 18-0 run to start the second half of Game 2, the Warriors would be in an 0-2 hole. And even after they took control Sunday, they struggled to finish, enduring a 5½-minute scoring drought before Iguodala made a 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds remaining to stave off a late Raptors comeback.
It wasn’t a pretty game, even though the Warriors’ exquisite passing and clever offensive sets of movement and misdirection led to 34 assists on 38 field goals. But at their core, Golden State and Toronto are defensive teams. This was meant to be a tough, grimy and close series.
“You guys didn’t think this was going to be a sweep,” Toronto guard Fred VanVleet said. “I don’t know, like, what you guys thought this series was going to look like, but we went into it expecting a dogfight. And, yes, we won Game 1, and I think everybody else outside of our locker room was a lot more excited than we were. We understand what this team brings and what type of effort it’s going to take to beat these guys.”
Many forget the Warriors became an exceptional defensive team under Mark Jackson before Steve Kerr arrived and elevated the offense to the same level. Their offensive ingenuity belies the fact that they’re physical and ornery. They’re talented, and they’re tough, too. Their skill doesn’t cancel out their grit.
Those are characteristics that rub off on new teammates. It was remarkable that Cousins, after missing almost all of the postseason, has returned and made a difference. After a rough eight-minute effort in Game 1, Cousins found his rhythm and purpose Sunday. He was able to give the Warriors 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in nearly 28 minutes. At times, when he lumbers down the court or tries to do too much, Cousins looks like a terrible fit on this team. Then you see his skill level, his court vision and his unselfishness. The system can accommodate his talent.
“He was fantastic, and we needed everything he gave out there: his rebounding, his toughness, his physical presence, getting the ball in the paint and just playing big like he does,” Kerr said. “We needed all of that.”
Last summer, after Cousins couldn’t secure a long-term deal because he was recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, he signed a one-year deal in Golden State. He needed to rehab his body and repair his free-agent stock. The playoff quad injury wasn’t part of his vision, but just when you thought Cousins would be a non-factor in this series, he made an impact.
Asked about his reaction when Kerr told him he would be starting Game 2, Cousins grinned and said, “I was just like, ‘Cool!’”
The Warriors don’t just win by hoarding all-stars. At full strength, they can be unfair. Even right now, with so many injury concerns, you’re inclined to think they are still too rich in talent to be lauded for their resiliency. That would be a mistake. You can be both. Greatness isn’t all about talent. Greatness requires a marriage of special traits and essential intangibles.
“When you get to this stage, our DNA shows up,” Curry said.
The Warriors now have won at least one road game in 23 straight playoff series. That’s how tough-minded they are. To even this series, the anti-”Strength In Numbers” Warriors scrounged up 25 points off the bench, with Quinn Cook making three 3-pointers as a stand-in for Thompson, and Andrew Bogut catching lobs and rewinding time by about four years.
And after Game 2, they had a good time. With a few reporters watching him, Iguodala made sure to exaggerate his limp as he walked from the locker room to the team bus. Durant and Klay Thompson barked back at Drake, the NBA’s new super troll, outside of their locker room.
“We’ll see you in the Bay, Aubrey,” Thompson told the rapper, whose real name is Aubrey Graham. “You weren’t talking tonight, were ya?”
Durant yelled to Drake, “It’s all right. It’s OK. Keep your head up.”
If Durant makes his anticipated return in Game 3 or 4, if the durable Thompson can shake off another Finals injury, then the complexion of the entire series could change. But considering how things have gone this postseason, it won’t be that simple for the Warriors.
The Finals have mirrored their entire, rhythm-less season. They haven’t been dominant. They have been spotty and hurt and disinterested and annoyed, sometimes with each other. But the Warriors are still the champions, and they know all of what that entails. Beneath all that talent and dominance, there’s quite a bit of resourcefulness in their greatness, too.