In the 2015 Finals, the Cavs’ second-best player was… Timofey Mozgov? In practice, it was a rotating cast of randos trying to fill the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love-sized hole in the lineup each night: Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson. Iman Shumpert played 36 minutes per game and shot 25 percent from the field. They had no business hanging with the proto-dynastic Warriors except for the fact that LeBron James chose to turn the series into a footrace through thigh-deep mud. He caught the ball in the high post and stood there for a while. Then he’d take a few dribbles, bleed the shot clock down to nothing, and make his move: some blobfish-ugly fading jumper, or a spin toward the basket, or a feint and a kickout. He did this on almost every possession, for six games. He won two, narrowly lost one, and got blown off the court in three others. It remains one of the greatest accomplishments of his career.
There are no perfect analogues. This Raptors team isn’t quite as terrifying as the 2015 Warriors, and Draymond Green is a lot better than Timofey Mozgov, but Steph Curry doing literally all he could while not getting the necessary help from his teammates was about as heroically futile as what LeBron did in 2015. Steph dominates the game differently. He conducts the offense plenty, but he also searches inexhaustibly for space when he doesn’t have the ball, carrying in his wake, as he snakes across the court, the attentions of two or even three opponents at a time. In the same way stats don’t really explain how masterfully LeBron controlled the 2015 Finals, you can’t describe in numbers how stressful it is for defenses to account for Steph’s movement, especially on a night when everyone in the building knows he’s looking to launch 30-plus shots.
In the end, 47 points wasn’t enough. It turns out 60 wouldn’t have been enough. Great players have limits too, and down Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Kevon Looney, with Andre Iguodala not totally healthy either, Steph found his. It’s hard to see Curry winning three out of the next four games flanked only by Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie.
The difference between the 2015 Cavs and these Warriors is that Steph probably isn’t going to have to pull that off. Kevin Love’s arm got yanked out its socket; Kyrie Irving shattered his kneecap. Klay is dealing with a bum hamstring and Durant has a strained calf. They’re not going to be at full strength until they get a chance to rest up over the summer, but they’re likely to feature again in this series. You can bet that unless the medical staff forbids them from playing, they’re suiting up.
The record books say that one team beats another in the NBA Finals every year, but that’s not exactly what happens. The picture you have in your head of, say, the 2011 Mavericks isn’t what they actually were in the championship series. By this time of year, everyone is banged up and exhausted, and most teams that make it this far are missing a rotation option or two. Even the relatively healthy Raptors have a slightly gimpy Kawhi Leonard and a newly appendix-free O.G. Anunoby convalescing at the end of the bench. Players have games where they’re not themselves. They get sick or they don’t sleep. They roll an ankle and it screws them up for a quarter. These teams are never fixed entities.
The Warriors are currently far from what you imagine when you hear their name or see their colors. That applies to their individual players as well. Klay Thompson isn’t coming back in this series. More precisely, Whatever’s Left Of Klay Thompson is coming back. The same goes for Durant. That’s a positive thing for Golden State because, perhaps even in their diminished forms, those guys could be effective, but more importantly they’re at a point where they just need bodies. If Klay can give them 25 minutes of above-average spot-up shooting and passable defense, Steve Kerr will gladly accept that contribution. It means relying less on Jonas Jerebko.
LeBron was never going to beat the 2015 Warriors. The grueling method he employed kept the talent gap between the teams somewhat manageable, for a while, and then Golden State simply started speeding away at a pace he couldn’t keep up with. The same is almost definitely true of Steph, Draymond, and the blue and gold also-rans against these Raptors. Toronto’s too deep and too skilled. Forty seven points in a double-digit L is what imminent doom looks like.
It does feel like Golden State held something back in this contest. That at least Klay could have played—Durant’s situation is foggier—and they wanted to see if they could steal Game 3 without him. That didn’t work. We know the Raptors are really good, and having taken back home court advantage, they’re eminently capable of taking this thing. Going forward, we have little idea what the Warriors are going to be, or what they’re capable of. Wednesday night’s team couldn’t get the job done, but Friday night’s squad might just have the juice to pull out a win. Heading into the biggest games of their season, the Warriors are in perilous flux. Only the stakes remain stable.