After a stunning, thrilling, come-from-behind 105-92 win in what may have been the last-ever game at the famed Oracle Arena,1 the Toronto Raptors are one win away from capturing the first NBA title in franchise history. By definition, their opponents, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, are one loss away from elimination.
Given the intense, yearlong speculation surrounding the free agency future of multiple Warriors stars — and the accompanying speculation that important longtime contributors like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala could retire at the end of the year — this might also mean that the Warriors’ dynasty is one loss away from coming to a close.
Golden State is one of just nine teams since the ABA-NBA merger to win the title in at least two consecutive years. Among that group, the Warriors are one of just five teams to win three titles in four or fewer years.2 With this era of dominance potentially ending as soon as Monday, it feels like a good time to check in on how the previous NBA dynasties and mini-dynasties ended.
All but one of those teams saw its run come to an end with a loss against an opponent that either played in or won the NBA Finals that year.
The mid-to-late 1980s Lakers were swept by the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons in the 1989 finals. Two years later, the Pistons were swept out of the playoffs by the eventual three-peat champion Chicago Bulls, who saw their own title run end with a second-round loss to the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks in 1994 after Michael Jordan retired to go play baseball. The Houston Rockets won both titles during Jordan’s absence, then lost to the eventual Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics in 1996. Those Sonics were the first victim of the Bulls’ second three-peat, which ended when Jordan retired again after the 1998 season. The early 2000s Lakers were dethroned by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in 2003. The late 2000s Lakers were knocked off by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
But the best parallel to this current series came in 2014 when the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh-led Miami Heat were blown off the floor by the San Antonio Spurs. The 2014 finals marked the Heat’s fourth consecutive trip to the championship round — this is Golden State’s fifth consecutive trip — and the series played out in a manner that should sound eerily similar: San Antonio took Game 1 handily, then lost a close Game 2 at home. The Spurs then waxed the Heat in consecutive games on the road to take a 3-1 lead, before ultimately closing the series out at home.
That’s exactly how the current finals series has played out, which is fitting because the 2014 finals MVP was Kawhi Leonard, who now leads this Toronto team. It was Leonard who led the Raptors on Friday to the monster third quarter that ultimately gave them control of Game 4 for good. Leonard scored 17 points in the quarter, shooting 5 of 8 from the field, 2 of 2 from three and 5 of 5 from the line.3 And after he had to single-handedly keep Toronto in the game while his teammates were busy shooting a combined 0 of 12 from beyond the arc before halftime, Leonard finally got a little help from his friends as the other Raptors hit 3 of 5 triples — and clamped down defensively — during the third period.
Toronto’s 37 third-quarter points came on only 23 possessions, making it the most efficient quarter either team has had all series. The outburst also highlighted the issue that has defined this finals: Golden State’s defense has simply not been good enough. The Raptors’ first-half offensive rating was a scant 85.7 — but that was largely due to players missing the same kind of open looks they had been making earlier in the series. The shots started falling again after the break, and the Raptors lit up the Warriors to the tune of 140.0 points per 100 possessions.
It’s not all that difficult to find reasons for the Raptors’ scoring success: The Warriors are incredibly banged up. (And this year’s defense was not quite as good as it was in previous years to begin with.) Kevin Durant has not played a second in the series. Klay Thompson was clearly hobbled by his balky hamstring throughout this game. Kevon Looney — somehow playing through a fractured collarbone — looked like he could barely move. DeMarcus Cousins is still not 100 percent after tearing his quadricep earlier in the postseason. Livingston is slowing down. Quinn Cook is a subpar defender. Alfonzo McKinnie can only occasionally be trusted. Jonas Jerebko and Jordan Bell seemingly cannot be trusted at all. And Stephen Curry is not the world’s best defender when he’s carrying his usual offensive burden. His shot-creation workload has necessarily limited him even more than usual on defense, and he has compounded those limits by taking silly and often unnecessary risks away from the ball.
Toronto’s offensive rating for the series now stands at 115.1, per NBA.com, better than any mark the Cavaliers posted against the Warriors during their four consecutive finals clashes. This is also not the only series this postseason in which Golden State’s defense has struggled.4 Their defensive rating for the postseason overall is no longer even in the top 10 among the 16 teams that made the tournament. That is a major departure from their previous four trips to this round, when they ranked first, seventh, second and first among playoff teams in defensive rating.
This Warriors team has overcome a whole lot during its time together. They have even overcome a 3-1 lead against an elite team. But no team in Golden State’s current position — down 3-1 and having lost both games at home — has ever come back to win a playoff series played under the current 2-2-1-1-1 format. That’s a lot of bad history to be working against.
It would be one thing if the Warriors were playing things close and just coming up short, but that’s not really been the case. The Raptors have won the scoring battle in 13 of the 16 quarters played in this series. What the Warriors appear to need right now is a miracle comeback. With doubts about Durant’s ability to return to the floor — and with the Warriors having already lost a game during this series where Steph went supernova — it’s difficult to fathom that miracle materializing.
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