OAKLAND, Calif. — With so much mayhem stuffed into five strange games, this already feels like the NBA Finals that won’t end. Yet the drama might just be beginning. If so, we’re all going to need treatment for anxiety.
Usually, a long series is considered an exciting one. In this one, you almost fret what’s going to happen next. It’s bound to be weird, chaotic or depressing. Perhaps it will be all three combined with something else. To put it in modern slang, these Finals have been extra. They have been doing way too much: injuries; Drake being annoyingly Drake; Golden State part owner Mark Stevens getting banished for shoving and cursing at Kyle Lowry; Beyonce’s “Beyhive” threatening Nicole Curran; the unexpectedly choppy nature of games between teams known for playing with good flow; and most disheartening of all, Kevin Durant’s lower right leg exploding in Game 5 for the world to see. And his potentially career-changing, league-altering misfortune initially drew cheers from several thousand misguided Toronto Raptors fans. This series, man.
The Finals haven’t just been unsatisfying so far. They have been a disaster. And it’s not like the teams are playing lousy, or the matchup is boring. From a competitive standpoint, this championship series is far superior to the previous two Finals, in which Golden State walloped Cleveland and left the NBA fearing its invincibility. Toronto has been a welcome and potent addition. The Raptors have controlled most of the action, and despite the Warriors’ injuries, they have done plenty to prove their championship worthiness.
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If the Raptors can finish the weary Warriors, history might judge their first championship as one of the great upsets in Finals history. But it’s not that surprising when you look at the details: the absence of Durant for all but 12 minutes, the greatness of Kawhi Leonard combined with public underestimation of a deep Toronto roster and the fact the Raptors had home-court advantage. Nonetheless, a Toronto triumph would be, unfortunately, a secondary story in the Extra Finals, especially because of what it could mean for the Warriors’ dynasty.
If Golden State, in its battered state, pulls off an improbable rally from a three-games-to-one deficit, it would be difficult to resist breathless tributes to the Warriors’ persistence and championship DNA. It would be quite the story and ending to what has been an unremarkable Finals. But that scenario requires some sort of Raptors’ collapse, maybe more of a collapse than most epic comebacks, which would only add to the bizarre vibe.
On Thursday night, the Extra Finals will add a few more layers of complication. For one, it will be the Warriors’ official final game at Oracle Arena, the end of a 47-year era. Last Friday, after the Raptors won Game 4, Golden State fans trudged out of the arena and listened to jubilant Toronto fans cheer and chant in what could have been Oracle’s finale. With new life, with the opportunity to close their Oakland tenure the right way, with an understanding of how bad a possible joyless goodbye felt, the fans will create an insane atmosphere in Game 6.
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The Raptors still have depth and better health on their side, but will pressure become an issue? That could add another layer of complication. There’s budding reason to believe that tension, not extraordinary basketball, could decide this series. From now on, the tension increases every minute that Toronto allows the Warriors to stay alive. Of the players consistently in the Raptors’ rotation, Leonard and Danny Green are the only ones who have experienced closing out a championship series. It’s an immense task, particularly against the core of an all-time team that is now playing to honor both Durant and their Oakland heritage.
The road team has won the past four games in these Finals, the first time that has happened since 1993. It’s unprecedented for that to happen five times in a Finals series. If the Raptors can’t do it, then they’ll be forced to play a Game 7 at home with an entire nation trying to balance great anticipation with a paralyzing level of fear.
Then again, the Warriors play like they’re on their last leg, and that leg has a balky knee, a sprained ankle and two hurt toes. This has been such a Finals of unknowns and uncertainty, and as it progresses, somehow there is less clarity.
“Mentally, it’s just adding up,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “Emotionally, it has been a roller coaster. More than anything, I think guys have been locked in on winning, what it takes to win, putting our head down. But for sure, when it’s all said and done, I think we will kind of peek our heads up and all be happy. It takes a toll on you . . . It can be overwhelming, at times.”
These Raptors don’t seem like a team that would choke, not with Leonard as their even-keeled and fearless anchor. They showed their composure during a tough second-round series against Philadelphia and after falling behind two games to none to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals. They have continued to show that poise in playing through Golden State’s spurts of hot shooting and defensive prowess. But as a team prone to disappearing offensively in stretches, the threat of Golden State will be an issue until the Raptors are standing on that championship stage. For evidence, you can reference the Warriors’ comeback in the final three minutes of Game 5.
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On Wednesday, Toronto Coach Nick Nurse was left to try to dispel the notion that the loss could linger.
“Did it hit me any harder?” he asked, repeating a question. “Not really. They all hit you hard. Listen, I’m like anybody that was there that understands the outcome of that one changes things a little bit. But I’ll say this: I’m absolutely thrilled to be coaching in another Finals game. This is awesome, right?”
Well, the certainty and finality of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Monday night would have been awesome-er.
Two days later, Nurse still had to answer questions about his late timeout that seemingly ruined Toronto’s momentum and gave the Warriors the energy to rally from a 103-97 deficit. The first-year coach has been brilliant otherwise with his adjustments and use of personnel, but one decision is starting to haunt him. This series, man.
“Momentum is definitely real in everything in life, from the moment you get up to a basketball game moment,” Nurse said, turning philosophical. “No doubt about it. Sometimes timeouts stop them; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes not taking one stops it, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s kind of the world we live in on the basketball court. You take them. Sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you do.”
He closed by adding, “Deep thoughts.”
The interview room erupted in laughter.
Nurse seems loose right now, at least. But if this series continues on its rickety path, he won’t stay that way for long.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer
Jerry Brewer Jerry Brewer is a sports columnist at The Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2015 after more than eight years as a columnist with the Seattle Times. Follow
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