* Tonight on ABC: Game 5, Warriors vs. Raptors (9 ET)
TORONTO -- Let us dismiss the tasty-yet-faulty comparison folks will try to make regarding Game 5 and Kevin Durant and the fate of the Golden State Warriors in these NBA Finals:
In 1970, New York Knicks center Willis Reed famously limped out of the tunnel at Madison Square Garden for Game 7 of The Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. He only hit two jumpers and was done, too gimpy to go any further. The Warriors, starved for points against a toothy Toronto Raptors defense, will require plenty more than that from Durant before he’s done.
Back then, it was winner-take-all, New York vs. L.A. Durant and the Warriors are trailing 3-1 and face elimination at Scotiabank Arena. They’re staring down a far deeper and darker tunnel.
This is the stark reality for a would-be savior and his recuperating calf and the desperate two-time defending champions. Durant will at last play for the Warriors after sitting out since Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. Whether he stays long enough to break a sweat or plays well enough to make the Raptors perspire is the real issue.
Perhaps never before has an injury to a superstar of this magnitude been this mysterious -- and perhaps costly -- in the history of The Finals. Remember, with Reed, the Knicks won the series. Maybe there's more in common with Magic Johnson pulling a hamstring in 1989 during Game 1. In that instance, Magic was finished for the series and so were the Lakers (as they were swept by the Detroit Pistons).
Durant's return is looking to both squelch the innuendo swirling about his recovery and also trigger a historic comeback. Can he pull this off after not playing since May 8, and practicing for the first time only Sunday?
... He’s propelled us to two championships in two years. So it would be pretty storybook if he could come back and help us do the same."
It was a practice, but only in the tamest sense. Durant joined his teammates and took part after the media was hustled off the court, leaving no outside witnesses or sneaky TMZ footage. The Warriors, this time of year, only conduct light drills. And it was over within an hour.
To recap: Durant is supposed to step into an intense basketball game after missing a month, and battle a Toronto defense led by Kawhi Leonard, and thwart a championship bid by a team and city bracing for a maddening celebration around midnight, and … rescue the Warriors? OK, then.
“I think it’s pretty easy to realize we obviously miss him out there and he’s propelled us to two championships in two years,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson. “So it would be pretty storybook if he could come back and help us do the same.”
If it sounds like the Warriors are so stretched for answers and solutions that they’re banking on Durant being close to normal after a lengthy layoff, well … maybe they are. When you’re facing elimination, there’s really no other choice. And the Warriors haven’t been able to solve the Raptors without him.
Yet Durant has set himself a high bar. Before his injury, which occurred in the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, he was on a nearly galactic level. He averaged 34 points, five rebounds and five assists in 11 games and was a finalist for everyone’s “best player in the playoffs" honors with the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo. Since then Leonard, the postseason leader in points, and rebounds, and minutes, has yanked that praise for himself. The Raptors, as a result, are heavy favorites to lift the trophy.
Durant may not be fully healthy, leaving what he can possibly do an open question: Will he be more of a decoy than a legitimate offensive threat? And on defense, how can the Warriors cover for him, since the Raptors will surely try to exploit the situation by running Durant through screens?
Without Durant, the scoring burden had to be carried by Thompson and Stephen Curry. While both have handled that fairly well, the Warriors have had little margin for error. Whenever Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala or DeMarcus Cousins failed to lend support for Thompson and Curry, the results have been disastrous.
Coach Steve Kerr feels Durant’s presence will be enough to cause a ripple effect that influences what both teams do when he’s on the floor.
“The game plan changes if Kevin is out there, or if he’s not,” Kerr said. “So you adapt accordingly. It changes matchups, it changes rotations, all that stuff.”
It’ll be a surprise if Durant’s return causes issues within the Warriors and the system that was tweaked in his absence. Although they’ve been without him for nine games, he did play three seasons with them, which means there shouldn’t be any adjustment problems. Quite the contrary, says Curry.
“We’ll be able to adjust in transition pretty smoothly,” he said. “He’s been in plenty of Finals and has played well. No matter what the percentage he’s at, I’m sure he’ll be impactful and effective.”
It’s always tricky to play doctor and determine how much time Durant should’ve missed, although that never deters anyone from doing so. Taking it a step further, while none of his teammates or coaches publicly questioned the depths of Durant’s injury, dealing with the daily dose of “is he or isn’t he?” became tiring to some.
They all suspect that if Durant could’ve played, he would. What possible motive would encourage him to stay out longer than necessary? To show everyone how much the Warriors need him? That seems a stretch for someone who craves a championship. Possibly not his pending free agency either; if anything Durant would get bonus points for playing through pain and would have all summer to recover in the event of re-injuring the calf, which is not considered career-threatening.
Injured players have no obligation to speak to the media, and Durant hasn’t, with his silence only feeding speculation.
“I feel for Kevin,” Thompson said. “I know what type of competitor he is and we obviously miss him dearly. But whether it’s tomorrow or Game 6, we just have to do everything in our power to help him get back. He will be very welcome, I’ll say that much. Kevin’s (injury) is serious and I know how badly he wants to be out there. He’s one of the best competitors I’ve been around.”
The stretchy shooting range, the high release of a shot that’s nearly impossible to block or discourage, the energy and determination and ability to make plays in tense moments -- those are the elements Durant brings and the Warriors have missed in The Finals. They’ll take whatever he can give, whatever that might be.
“I would like to think he would make a difference,” Warriors reserve Shaun Livingston said. “Again, it’s just any time a player of that caliber comes back or goes out of the lineup, it’s going to be felt certain ways. We’ll see what happens.”
And if Durant is unable to play extended minutes or sputters around the floor, making mistakes and dogged by rust and fatigue and inefficiency? Then it’ll fall on his teammates, a group that couldn’t beat the Raptors in two games at Oracle Arena yet somehow must thrive in a Canadian madhouse that awaits Monday.
“You’re going to see a resilient Warriors team,” Thompson said. “We’ve had our backs against the wall with this same group. Obviously, it’s a little more daunting being down 3-1 but usually when our backs are against the wall, we respond the best.”
Question is, will Durant have their back? Or will he and that wall crumble under pressure from these hungry Raptors and the long odds?