OAKLAND, Calif. — If they were paying attention, they would have seen the expiration date coming. It was hiding in plain sight all season for the Golden State Warriors, from the growing disinterest in the regular season to the cloud of free agency hanging over a tension-filled locker room to the bodies that began to break down once all of them were finally necessary.
And now it’s here: Toronto 105, Golden State 92 in a Game 4 that puts the Raptors one win from their first NBA title when they return home Monday (9 p.m. ET, ABC).
After four years of dominance with a superstar core that once looked like it could roll into the next decade, these Warriors are out of gas and almost out of time.
There’s a story here to be told about the Raptors, of course, and they’ll deserve to be fêted as the team that out-toughed and out-worked the Warriors, that relentlessly hounded them into an unimaginable frustration. There have been 16 quarters of basketball played in this series, and Toronto has been the better team in all but two of them.
But for now, this is about how an NBA dynasty ends, about the desperation that was simmering under the surface in a must-win Game 4 and how it all blew up on the Warriors in what probably was their last game at Oracle Arena before moving to their shiny new digs across the Bay.
Both figuratively and literally, it’s never going to be the same.
The Warriors tried everything to give themselves hope that they could push this inevitability off into the future, even if that was only one week from now. They tried getting a second opinion that cleared big man Kevon Looney to play despite what sounded like a broken chest. They cajoled the bum hamstring of Klay Thompson and constantly worked the old legs of Andre Igoudala. They even put a hope and a prayer on poor DeMarcus Cousins, whose body wouldn’t let him play at more than three-quarter speed.
In the end, none of it mattered.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry loses the ball against Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during the third quarter in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. (Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)
You can pin this, if you want, on the strained calf that hasn’t allowed Kevin Durant to play basketball in more than a month or the physical problems up and down the lineup that left the Warriors hopelessly thin at times.
But isn’t that kind of the point?
There was no “Strength in Numbers” this year because the numbers they needed to come up sevens were Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie and Andrew Bogut and Jordan Bell and the shell of Shaun Livingston.
What we found out in this series is that Golden State, the team that was supposed to have endless margin of error, was all error and no margin. Durant, it turns out, wasn’t a luxury item for a team that won one title before him — rather, he was a necessity.
Without him, over the course of a series against a team as ferocious as the Raptors, the load for Steph Curry was too much to bear. It seemed at times in Game 4 as if the 47-point performance 48 hours earlier took some of the starch out of him, to the point where he was flinging air balls in the fourth quarter.
That was the point of Durant, by the way. It’s not that the Warriors couldn’t win games, even big games, without him. It’s that, over the course of a season or a series, Durant ensured that Curry and Thompson weren’t asked to do so much that they eventually wore down.
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And now, if Durant leaves in free agency as so many people around the NBA expect, this is all going to look very different. The Warriors are going to have to pay Thompson, and they’re going to have to pay Looney, and they’re going to have to figure out how much more juice they can squeeze out of Igoudala and they’re going to have to figure out whether Draymond Green is going to be worth the mega-contract he’ll want in 2020.
But that’s how it works in the life cycle of a basketball team. That’s the NBA.
Game 4 wasn’t close. This series hasn’t been close. But the end of these Warriors, it’s now coming at us at full speed.
Nothing lasts forever.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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