In a decisive Game 6 last week, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took down the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, potentially ending a dynasty, but not a legacy.
Over the past five years, no team has captivated the eye of the basketball world than the Warriors. Led by the dynamic duo known as the “Splash Brothers”, the pair of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have dominated the NBA postseason at will, losing just one of the last four championships going into 2019, with their sole defeat at the hands of LeBron James’ in one of the greatest comebacks in history.
Because of that comeback however, the Warriors desired to get even better, adding a top-5 player in the league by anyone’s standard in Kevin Durant. With their three-headed attack, the Warriors dominated the league in 2017 and 2018, with few teams even attempting to stand in their way.
That all changed in 2019.
Durant suffered a catastrophic calf injury midway through the second round of the playoffs, while the rest of the Warriors lineups battled ailments both big and small, ranging from dislocated fingers to fractured chest cartilage. Despite this, the Warriors rolled the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals to make their fifth straight finals, this time against the Toronto Raptors.
Against the Raptors however, it all came unraveled. Durant returned during Game 5, and to the horror of fans and players across the league, went down with a torn achilles just minutes into his return. Even without Durant, the Warriors held on, taking the series back to Oakland for a “do or die” Game 6. In Game 6 however, the Warriors bad luck took another turn for the worst.
Thompson, off to a strong start in Game 6, went down hard after making a dunk in the third quarter. After initially leaving the court, Thompson hobbled back on, made a pair of free throws, and then left the Oracle Arena court for the last time. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with a torn ACL, which ranks among the most harmful injuries for a professional athlete, alongside achilles tears.
In the span of two games, the Golden State Warriors had gone from a team lined with legitimate superstars to losing two of their best players for the rest of this season, if not the next as well. A dynasty, toppled in the span of a week.
Needless to say, the injuries took the NBA World by storm. Countless athletes, coaches and fans outpoured their support for the two injured Warriors. While many had wanted to see the Warriors crumble for the last few seasons, nobody wanted them to go out like this.
For years the Warriors impact had been substantial across the league. When Steph Curry became the elite 3-point shooter that he is, teams took note, as more and more teams across the league abandoned the ISO-dominant point style of players like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, instead seeking a point guard that could sink the three from anywhere like Curry, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving.
In just a few short years, the Warriors completely changed the DNA of the NBA. The 3-point era had been around for several decades, but it finally entered it’s prime with the emergence of the Warriors. If a player couldn’t at least take open-threes, many teams passed over prospects and free agents without some ability from deep.
Now, even in their defeat, the Warriors continue to influence the league. Within 24 hours of the Warriors defeat and the news breaking that Thompson would miss most of next season and Durant all of it, the Los Angeles Lakers traded for superstar center Anthony Davis. The dust hadn’t even settled on the Raptors brand new title, and LeBron James was leading a charge to build the next “Big 3”.
With a new powerhouse rising in the West, now all eyes will remain on the free agency destinations of Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant. If Leonard and Durant opt to remain with their respective teams, the Raptors and Warriors will likely be contenders for years to come. If either leave however, their teams could return to the middle of the pack, fighting and clawing to make the finals again.
Without two of their three stars, next season will be a rough one for the Golden State Warriors. If they can keep their stars however, they could be back in action in the 2020-2021 season, contending against the born-again Lakers for a finals berth. But even if the Warriors never get back to their dynasty form, their influence on the league will never be forgotten.