1. Winning for Durant > winning without him
We all should have bosses who care about us the way Bob Myers clearly cares about Kevin Durant. Myers took to the podium late Monday night, after earlier helping Durant to a waiting car as the Golden State Warriors’ star hobbled out of the building in a walking boot and into an uncertain future.
When Myers spoke publicly, he still sounded devastated, tearing up as his voice cracked in the midnight hour for those in the East.
“It's people, sports is people,” said Myers, the Warriors GM. “I know Kevin takes a lot of [criticism] hits sometimes, but he just wants to play basketball and right now he can't. Basketball has gotten him through his life. … I don't know that we can all understand how much it means to him. He just wants to play basketball with his teammates and compete."
Durant’s ability to do that in these Finals ended early in the second quarter, when he lost the ball on a spin move, staggered, then fell into a sitting position, grabbing his lower right leg. Durant had missed Golden State's last nine playoff games with a right calf strain. His Game 5 injury was termed an Achilles injury, with an MRI set for Tuesday.
Myers self-nominated for any blame that people cared to lay, offering cover to the Warriors’ medical and training staff for their input into the decision to have Durant play in Game 5. But blame is a waste of time. The impact on the Warriors and on The Finals ranked second and third, frankly, to the impact of this mishap on Durant’s short- and longer-term future.
In the moment, his teammates and coaches were pulled in opposite emotional directions, delighted with the outcome but anguished over the circumstances. “I'm so proud of them,” coach Steve Kerr said, “just the amazing heart and grit that they showed, and on the other I'm just devastated for Kevin. So it's a bizarre feeling that we all have right now. An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.”
Stephen Curry also talked about his friend, the situation, Durant’s toughness and having the opportunity yanked away from him like Charlie Brown’s football. But it was left to Klay Thompson, who hit two of the Warriors’ three daggers in the closing minutes that snagged Game 5, to provide the proper perspective.
“We do it for Kevin,” Thompson said, when asked how his team soldiers on. “We do it for 'K.' I can tell you this, he wants us to compete at the highest level, and we'll think of him every time we step on the hardwood.”
This no longer is the conjecture and abstract stuff from the past five weeks, when analysts wondered if Golden State might be “better” without Durant. Every one of the Warriors has shot that theory down, and different does not mean better.
There’s no doubt losing Durant for what’s left of the series leaves Golden State’s cupboard more bare basketball options-wise. Kerr and Toronto’s Nick Nurse have talked repeatedly about all the ways in which the Warriors benefit from Durant's presence, whether he’s shooting over the Raptors' defense or simply exerting gravity to open space for his teammates.
But now, there’s a focal point for the Warriors’ emotions. It’s not the muddle of will-he-or-won’t-he, and how-much-will-he-have. Now the Warriors can distill the jumble of exhilaration and depression that washed over them Monday into a goal and an inspiration.
“It's going to be a rough go in terms of just trying to recalibrate,” Curry said. “Until this point it's been about our hope that he could play and our hope to stay alive in this series.”
But the emotional roller coaster Curry spoke of is on a straightaway now, maximum speed to the end. One game at home, (possibly) one more on the road, without the guy who gave them 11 points in 12 minutes Monday but with a fresh fire, and a better chance than they had at tipoff of Game 5.
Ask yourself this: Does this make the defending champions less dangerous? Or more dangerous?
2. Timeouts cut both ways
Through three preliminary rounds and four Finals games, Nurse was introducing himself to the NBA’s casual community in impressive ways. His unaffected personality makes him easy to like -- “Enjoy the game,” he tells reporters as he wraps up each pregame media session -- and his adjustments against each opponent so far makes him easy to respect.
Nurse has been demonstrating a willingness for weeks now to try things without sweating the reaction of the basketball intelligentsia. His decision to throw a box-and-one defense at Curry raised eyebrows and triggered smirks from those who consider the tactic a relic best reserved for college or high school games. But Nurse shrugged and partied on as the Raptors moved within three minutes and five seconds of hugging the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Then, uh oh.
Toronto -- more precisely, Kawhi Leonard -- had just scored 10 unanswered points to thrust the Raptors into a 103-97 lead. The crowd at Scotiabank and the tens of thousands more outside at “Jurassic Park” could taste the franchise’s first NBA title.
But when Nurse called not one but two timeouts at 3:05, he doused some of that enthusiasm, snuffed his team’s moment and gave the Warriors a chance to gather. By current NBA rules, he was going to lose those two timeouts at the 3-minute mark. But he didn’t have to use them.
“We just came across [mid-court] and just decided to give those guys a rest," Nurse said. “[We] just thought we could use the extra energy push."
While his guys were resting, though, so were Kerr’s. As Draymond Green said, “We had a … chance to gain our composure.”
The Warriors scored the next nine points, and Toronto’s only counter was a Kyle Lowry bucket on which DeMarcus Cousin’s goaltended. There’s no way to know if all of that happens without Nurse’s timeout calls, but his double-stack when he could have put pressure on Kerr to burn his final one did get in the way of the Raptors’ run, something coaches are loathe to do.
(By the way, can we all calm down about the Toronto fans momentarily cheering Durant’s injury? It was a reflexive response, seeing an opposing player they respect and fear perhaps headed back to the sideline for The Finals after aggravating a calf injury that no one considered career-altering. From their seats, that’s about all those locals knew.
The fans needed to shift gears in that moment, same as Warriors fans had to adjust on the fly when Kyrie Irving blew out his knee in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals. Once they did, there was applause in the building and even a chant of “KD! KD!” Nobody was delighting in Durant’s pain or suffering, nobody was wishing him the worst.)
3. Who wins Bill Russell Finals MVP?
Leonard was in the midst of his personal 10-0 push when the time came for selected media members to submit their Finals MVP ballots. It was a simple piece of paper, with room for one name only, and the obvious choice -- assuming the Raptors closed out the victory -- was Leonard.
The laconic forward had been terrific through the Finals’ first four games. He was finally cutting loose in Game 5, too. And yet, Leonard had an inefficient, unreliable game Monday. Until his late spark, he missed 13 of his 18 shots and was stuck on 16 points. He wound up shooting 9-of-24, 2-of-7 on 3-pointers, and had five turnovers to go with his 26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
He was absolutely correct to pass up the final shot, blitzed as he was by Golden State’s Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Forcing something there would have fed the worst elements of “hero ball.” So instead Leonard got the ball to Fred VanVleet, who seemed to have the best options -- shoot or drive.
But VanVleet shoveled the ball to Lowry in the left corner, and the point guard’s attempt barely left his hands before it hit Draymond Green’s fingers.
Certainly, Leonard could use a little more help. Lowry, Danny Green and Norman Powell are shooting a combined 38.8 percent overall. Pascal Siakam is 2-of-15 from the arc in this round and 15-of-72 since Game 1 against Philadelphia.
But if Leonard is going to walk off with the second Finals MVP of his career, he’s going to have to earn it Thursday and/or Sunday. Ballots will be recast both days (barring a blowout for the Warriors in Game 6), and he’s a heavy favorite. But save for the fourth-quarter spurt, Leonard labored against Golden State’s defensive attention.
4. This is going to Game 7
C’mon, does anyone really believe the Warriors are going to lose all three of their home games in this series? They were 9-3 in The Finals at Oracle Arena through their past four trips (2015-18).
The crowd in Oakland, on top of all that talent, made for one of the most daunting stops in the NBA for road teams. And this was well before the sense of finality that has descended on the outdated and soon-to-be forsaken barn in the East Bay.
Until the final few minutes of Game 5, it was possible that Golden State had played its last game at Oracle, though that reality never fully hit home. The players and coaches didn’t dare get their heads around it because once Game 4 was in the books, any sense that they were done at Oracle meant they necessarily would be done in The Finals in Toronto.
Now order has been restored, Toronto up only 3-2, as if each team has controlled its home games.
“The biggest thing, the biggest advantage is being at Oracle Arena one more time,” Curry said, “where our fans can really get behind us, and we’re going to have to will ourselves for another 48 minutes to stay alive.”
Said Draymond Green: “I’ve never seen this group fold. And that stands true still.”
Green, who had 10 points, 10 boards and eight assists while hounding Leonard and thwarting Lowry’s final shot, isn’t done yet. Neither, it turns out, is Cousins, who stepped into the breach when Durant went down and finished with 14 points.
Consider the alternative for the Raptors -- wringing champagne out of their clothes, finalizing a parade route -- the last thing they wanted to do was travel three time zones again, regardless of their success in Games 3 and 4 there.
“Yeah, our goal was to get them back on the plane, get them back to Oakland,” Thompson said.
Frankly, if Toronto could, it might take the loss now and wave everyone on to Game 7 Sunday at Scotiabank. It would save the Raptors the wear and tear of hauling their butts to California and back, and avoid subjecting themselves to whatever indignities, ankle sprains and confidence dings the Warriors and their fans might heap upon them.
“Yeah, we had a chance to win a championship … and we didn’t do it,” VanVleet said. “We didn’t play well enough. We didn’t execute enough down the stretch and that stings a little bit. But there’s a lot more basketball left to play.”
How much is left in either team’s tank at this stage?
“It don’t matter,” Draymond Green said. “I hope no one has anything left in the tank [after Game 5] because if you do, you didn’t give enough. But when we step back on our floor for Game 6, that’s all that matters. It’s not like we’re the only team battling. They’re battling as well. Everybody is facing fatigue at this point. … You’ve got to do what you came here to do anyway.”
5. Finals change free agency's course
Certainly it’s possible Durant could still make the biggest splash on the market this summer. And there’s no reason to think one or more suitors wouldn’t be willing to pay him premium bucks next season to rehab and provide hope beginning with the 2020-21 season. Even that, though, could affect what free agents might choose to play with him, if they’d feel as if they’d be sacrificing a year, too.
It’s possible that this mishap keeps Durant with Golden State -- he can invoke his player option for next season, earn another $31.5 million and rehab on the dime of the team for whom he sacrificed this week, while taking another run at the market in 2020.
Then again, Durant will turn 31 in September. He has logged big minutes and long seasons and it’s only a guess as to how the most severe of Achilles injuries might affect his future performances.
Maybe he’s still effective at an All-Star level, but a changed player in the way, say, Rudy Gay got stronger and bulkier but less mobile after his Achilles tear. Maybe it’s all a great unknown until Durant actually rehabs and makes it back, wherever he opts to land.
There’s no denying, though, that it adds another huge variable to summer that already had Leonard pondering a relocation, Kyrie Irving presumed to be gone from Boston, Anthony Davis still making unpleasant noise in New Orleans and about 40 percent of NBA players overall in search of new contracts this season.
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