About two minutes into Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard took a handoff from Pascal Siakam, briefly lost control of his dribble after a Marc Gasol pick, then collected himself. Jordan Bell was right on him. Leonard pulled up from 3. Swish.
A few minutes later, Golden State’s Steph Curry missed a spinning fadeaway near the foul line. Kyle Lowry drifted in to pursue the rebound, but Andre Iguodala corralled it and found Curry wide open behind the arc. Swish.
The Raptors seek their first title and the first for any team outside the United States. If the Warriors win, they’ll be the first three-peat since 2002 and first franchise to win four out of five titles in 50 years. Two exceptional teams, each chasing history. Styles make the fight, and as the series moves to Oakland after the teams split in Toronto the contrast in style pits Kawhi’s Promethean task against Golden State’s quest for basketball immortality. Which exception will rule: the individual or the pantheon?
Leonard’s career arc hasn’t been a straight line to “savior.” In 2014, at 22, he was named Finals MVP; only Magic Johnson won the award while younger. Kawhi’s ascension seemed fast-tracked. But it’d be another couple seasons before he made an All-Star team or even cracked 20 points a game. He’s missed 20+ games more than he’s played 70+, and he’s never reached 80. His acrimonious divorce from the Spurs over a mysterious injury dispute raised eyebrows around the league. Under Gregg Popovich, San Antonio is reputed to be basketball paradise. God had to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. Kawhi demanded a trade.
Leonard doesn’t share the deadeye effortlessness or dazzling dribbling of Curry. But he spent much of Toronto’s Game 1 win forcing double-teams and dishing for assists or hockey assists, the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the basket. He doesn’t flare his nostrils like Kobe Bryant or burlesque every moment like LeBron James. But after going without a field goal for almost the entire first half of Game 1 after his early 3, with a little under two minutes before the break Leonard bulled his way into the paint and hit an and-1 over Curry, pushing the Raptors’ lead from four to seven and eventually 10 at the half, a separation they’d ride to victory.
Even in a losing effort in Game 2, Kawhi was exceptional, leading the team in scoring and rebounds while drawing and hitting 16 free throws. That night Leonard scored 34, Toronto’s other four starters just 38, and the bench 31. There isn’t much more one man can do. To mix the Prometheus metaphor, you can lead a man to fire, but you can’t make him drink.
Then there’s Golden State, likely the closest thing post-Dream Team that many NBA fans have seen to basketball perfection. If Kawhi shows us what one man pushing himself to his mortal limits can look like, the Warriors’ only relation to humanity is showcasing how far beyond our usual concerns and flaws they are, even in their fifth straight unabridged postseason.
Golden State dominates in ways that don’t seem possible at this level of competition. After the first quarter of Game 1, they trailed 25-21. No big deal. Thing is…it was.
That’s a 21-game span. That’d be remarkable over 21 regular season games. To do so in the playoffs beggars belief.
With their Game 2 win, Golden State has won at least one road game in 23 straight playoff series. The prior record? 13. They’ve averaged 6.2 road wins per playoffs since 2015. Of the 75 non-Warrior teams to reach the playoffs in that time, just one — the 2016 Cavs — won 6+ road games in a single postseason. What’s most astonishing about these tales of astonishment is they’re occurring in an era where collective bargaining agreements, outside pressure and even today’s en vogue style of play should discourage what the Warriors are doing.
Supermax contracts were created to entice stars to stay with their first employer rather than sow their wild free agent oats; presumably, this would help diversify the talent base league-wide. And yet since winning it all in 2015 and going 73-9 in 2016, the Warriors managed to sign Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins from Western conference foes. NBA Twitter, hot-take TV and sports talk radio are often a festering pit of toxic masculinity. But the culture of “prove your manhood by putting your needs above everyone else’s” hasn’t infected Golden State. Despite a roster filled with hoops heroes, they play more like the Avengers than a bunch of standalone spin-offs. In the second half of Game 2, the Warriors had 22 assists on 22 made baskets.
But Olympus is a helluva drug. Like the Dream Team in 1992, Golden State’s success comes at the cost of teaching their opponents what greatness looks like. The Warriors were one of the first teams to embrace the 3-point blitzkrieg as the main thrust of their attack and not a secondary action. Now most teams have caught on, in approach if not execution. Over the first two games, the Warriors took 65 3s, one every minute and a half. The Raptors took 71 and made just one fewer. Turns out there’s a bit of Prometheus to Golden State, too.
There’s also some Antaeus in them. The son of Earth, Antaeus was famous for his battle with Hercules: every time Hercules threw him to the ground, Anateus grew stronger. Every time a Warrior falls, they just keep coming. Curry was ill in Game 2. Klay Thompson left late with left hamstring tightness and is questionable for Game 3. Kevon Looney is out the rest of the Finals with a non-displaced first costal cartilage fracture on his right side. Cousins, in just his second game of these playoffs after a torn quad, played his most minutes in nearly two months in a heroic Game 2 effort. Iguodala has a host of nicks and knocks. Nobody knows if or when Durant will return. They just keep coming.
It’s down to a best-of-5 between the winningest player in league history and the winningest team of the post-expansion era. Of course, it’s not literally Kawhi Leonard against all five Warriors. But it’s a better storyline. The man who stopped the greatest player of this century from a three-peat five years ago now stands in the way of the greatest team of the century from doing the same. We’re either about to see a mortal make a miracle or the crowning of what could be the last dynasty we ever see. Prometheus or pantheon: who ya got?