Don’t get me wrong, these NBA Finals have been fascinating.
The first five games have generated drama by the bucket load, as the underdog Toronto Raptors have assuredly gone about dethroning the banged-up champs. But Game 5 threw up something of a curve ball in what looked to be becoming a fairly predictable narrative.
For the first time in the series, the Golden State Warriors rolled out their starting five of choice, as Kevin Durant made his first appearance in 32 days. We all know how that worked out. But, in the 11 minutes and 57 seconds he spent on the floor, we got a sense of just how great this series could have been were it not for injuries.
Durant is, after all, arguably the best player in the NBA. Heading into Game 5, he’d averaged 34 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.2 steals, while shooting 51.3% from the field and 41.6% from three in 11 postseason appearances. And the Raptors are arguably the best opponent the Warriors have faced since this great Finals run began in 2015.
It seemed like the ideal matchup. But the Warriors have been derailed by injuries to key personnel, and, prior to Monday’s game, Durant was little more than the sub-plot to every broadcast, article and piece of social media analysis produced, as fans and critics alike awaited his return with baited breath.
Then it happened. And he didn’t disappoint, scoring 11 points before suffering a ruptured Achilles in the cruellest twist of fate.
Well, he’s pretty good, I think. He just changes the whole game, with his shot-making and the attention that he draws from the defense.
Miraculously, his teammates went on to win the game by the narrowest of margins, having shown the heart and determination we’ve come to expect from these Warriors over the past five years. With Durant on the floor, they shot 57.9% from the field and an incredible 70% from three, while holding the Raptors to just 16.7% from deep. This only resulted in a six-point lead at the end of the first, but anyone watching the game probably got to that first interval with a sense that the series was all of a sudden likely to go the distance.
The Warriors were, after all, a lot longer, considerably deeper and better equipped on the offensive end. With Durant and Andre Iguodala joining Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in the starting five, they appeared to have all the tools necessary to put the challengers back in their box.
From the opening possession, their floor spacing, which has been an issue throughout these Finals, looked much improved. Green and Durant flirted with the paint, drawing the Raptors bigs away from the bucket, thus making way for Curry to get into the teeth of the defense – something he’s struggled to do at times in this series. And the Warriors playmaker suddenly looked a lot more confident, driving his team forward at the kind of breakneck speed we haven’t seen from them in some time, while putting up a scintillating 14 points in the first quarter.
KD’s return didn’t aid the Warriors a great deal on the defensive end. They looked more adept on the perimeter, but by going small they were vulnerable to the talents of the ever versatile Marc Gasol, who scored 10 points in the absence of Kevon Looney or DeMarcus Cousins in that first quarter. The additional shooting KD brought to the line-up did mean that Golden State Head Coach Steve Kerr was able give Iguodala (who has become something of an offensive liability for this team) an extended run. He and Thompson took it turns to guard Leonard, occasionally working together to limit his contribution to just 6 points.
Speaking about Durant’s impact on the first quarter, Kerr told ESPN’s Doris Burke: “Well, he’s pretty good, I think. He just changes the whole game, with his shot-making and the attention that he draws from the defense.”
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While this is true, the fact that the Warriors were able to field an extra shooter was enough to give them a huge edge during his time on the floor. As has been observed throughout this postseason, they ultimately sacrificed a lot of depth to add him to their roster and that’s meant that at times they’ve had to rely on groups that are simply no match offensively for the defensively talented Raptors.
In reality, this is why they’re trailing in the series. This, and the fact that Game 3 was practically a write off due to injuries. After all, Cousins is rehabbing, Thompson’s hamstring probably still isn’t right, and Looney hasn’t gone a minute without grimacing since suffering that chest injury early in the series.
Taking all of this into account, it becomes apparent that the Raptors should probably close out the series tonight. If they’re to do so, they’ll have to ignore what will undoubtedly be a raucous crowd in downtown Oakland for the last ever game at the Oracle. It’ll be an emotional affair and maybe, just maybe, Durant’s injury will inspire the Warriors to force a Game 7.
Even if they win it all, these Finals will likely go down as one of the most compelling yet bizarre in NBA history – one that, like Kevin Durant, gave us everything, including a glimpse of what might have been.
Feature photo – Claus Andersen / TNS / Getty Images / CBS / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington