Conventional wisdom built on a half-decade of NBA Finals took a sharp exit out of Toronto on Thursday night in the third quarter of a Game 1 when it became obvious that anything is possible now.
The patented Golden State Warriors knockout punch, the one that has come so frequently over the years that it almost seems predetermined, never happened. The answers that seem so readily available when the Warriors have all four of their superstars on the floor were insubstantial and infrequent.
And as the first game of these Finals ended with the Toronto Raptors strolling to a 118-109 win, this much came into focus: If Kevin Durant isn’t a factor in this series, the Warriors are truly in trouble.
It turns out the narrative of the last two weeks that the Warriors were better without him was fool’s gold. This time, Golden State isn’t facing the over-extended Portland Trail Blazers or the equally top-heavy Houston Rockets. Toronto may have been been dragged to the Finals on the back of Kawhi Leonard, but the Raptors have more levers they can pull than any team the Warriors have faced — and, without Durant, more than the Warriors themselves.
Steph Curry knows Kevin Durant is “an all-time great player,” but says the Warriors still had a chance to win Game 1 without him #NBAFinalspic.twitter.com/ndxNCdjHgQ
Throughout the playoffs, and particularly after Durant went down with a strained calf late in the series against the Rockets, the Warriors have spent a lot of time trumpeting their depth, which looked like a weakness for much of the regular season. Perhaps they protested too much.
Legitimate depth is not running Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie out there for eight minutes. It’s not dusting the moth balls off Jonas Jerebko or needing to have a winded DeMarcus Cousins out there in the fourth quarter to take up space coming off a multi-week injury because he can’t really defend anyone in his current state.
Kevin Durant sat out Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the sixth consecutive playoff game he has missed with a calf injury. (Photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)
Clearly, Golden State could overcome all that against a lot of teams because we’ve seen the Warriors do it before. But the odds of them doing it this time without Durant don’t seem very good, frankly, because the Raptors have better secondary players and more of them.
We know that because we just watched Toronto win an NBA Finals game fairly comfortably in which Leonard had a pretty quiet 23 points and Kyle Lowry made just two shots while disappearing on the bench for a huge stretch of the fourth quarter with five fouls.
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Maybe Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol and Danny Green and Fred VanVleet won’t play like that every time in this series, but it’s clear Golden State can no longer count on winning just by shutting down Leonard.
Which means Durant needs to come back if he can. Though he traveled to Toronto, there haven’t been a lot of good vibes about him returning in Game 2. He’s still got six more days to recover before Game 3 in Oakland, but it’s all really just a guess at this point.
In the end, this is all about Golden State’s margin for error. With Durant, they have it. Without him, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson need to be magical, which is going to be really hard to do four times in the next six games against a team that is as smart defensively as Toronto.
All that said, Thursday is just one game. If there's anything we've learned about Golden State, it’s that they’re really good at adjusting in the middle of a series and that they don’t get particularly rattled if they fall behind.
But this feels a little different. If Toronto wins Game 2 to take a 2-0 lead to Oakland, the situation suddenly becomes pretty dire, and your best hope at that point is Durant coming back after practically a full month off and suddenly becoming the best player in the series against an all-time defender like Leonard. Good luck.
Based on what we saw in Game 1, it would be the greatest achievement of this Golden State run to win a title without Durant’s help. But it’s obvious now that getting him back is by far their best chance.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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