TORONTO — Kevin Durant walked out of Scotiabank Arena without a noticeable limp following practice with his team Sunday, one month to the day he suffered his calf injury, which feels like eons ago.
The next time he walks into that very arena, he’ll have the chance to be a savior in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, with the Golden State Warriors down 3-1 to the Toronto Raptors.
Two months ago, his present was as much a foregone conclusion as his future — a ho-hum third straight title with a stacked team and with free agency looming, a presumed trip out of the Bay Arena in part because he could only lose by staying, even if his team won.
But so much has occurred since this odyssey has begun, for Durant, Golden State and the NBA as a whole.
Durant’s absence opened up talk that his team didn’t need him, that Draymond Green’s heated words during an early-season overtime game were true after the Warriors dispatched the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers to advance to the Finals.
It was going to take something miraculous to change the tone of the conversation surrounding arguably the game’s best player, and something did: catastrophe, in the form of a determined, deep and hungry Raptors team taking it to Durant’s squad.
A determined Kawhi Leonard has added his name to the list of candidates whose play has inspired us to reignite a discussion about the game’s best player — validation he doesn’t seek but is receiving in the way Durant never has, despite Durant’s desire to be crowned.
Durant is officially listed as questionable, but he knows after four games the Warriors’ chances of winning without him are doubtful at best. The Raptors have performed brilliantly and coldly amid the emotion of Oracle Arena closing, the Warriors’ quest for a three-peat and even their own country’s hunger to make history.
But there have been openings in this series that the champions have not been able to exploit, instances where they simply have not had enough good players to take advantage.
Durant appears to be presented with a win-win: If he plays and performs to his standards, against all logic that says he should be rusty after missing so much time, he’ll be the hero he’s always wanted to be. If he’s less than himself, it’s certainly understandable given the injury, the fact that opposite him will be a guy playing the ball of his life, and that Durant hasn’t come up short individually many times in his career.
The circumstances aren’t perfect, but it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for a player who belongs to history more than he belongs to any one franchise, past, present or future.
The Warriors have looked drained — physically and mentally — from the drama, the extra games over the last five years and a fresh challenger that has everything to gain in the NBA Finals. It all adds up and it catches up to even the best at the worst possible time.
If Durant is in uniform on Monday night, his presence will give a tired team a jolt to offset the emotion that will face them when they leave the confines of a quiet locker room.
“Everyone feels it at some point,” Green said. “Obviously, physically, it’s the nature of what we do. You’re gonna feel it. But mentally as well. There’s so much that goes into a single playoff game. The level of focus, especially as the rounds go on.
“The first round, all right, cool, it’s the playoffs, it’s different than the regular season. You get to the second round, it’s amplified. Then you get to the conference finals, it’s more amplified. The Finals, obviously, it’s as large as it gets. It’s so much that goes into it, mentally and physically, that’s never an excuse. It’s what you prepare for.”
The Warriors may be prepared for whatever Durant decides in July, but June was supposed to be their month, their time of undivided attention and focus. His injury has unveiled truths many thought the Warriors were immune from, hence the league-wide whining since Durant joined them in 2016.
But no team in modern NBA history has won a title while missing an MVP-caliber player. A rookie Magic Johnson carried the Lakers in the absence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980, but it was one game. And when a fully grown Johnson went down with a bad hamstring in the 1989 Finals after an NBA season, his Lakers were swept.
The Warriors would likely be in this hole if Durant were healthy and Stephen Curry were hurt, because teams get used to playing with what they have, even if it’s an unfair advantage. But the Warriors’ depth has been revealed to be a flaw — an expected drawback when carrying top-heavy players in skill and salary.
Coach Steve Kerr has tried virtually everything, and even though Raptors coach Nick Nurse is proving himself to be a worthy adversary, there’s only so much Kerr can do besides tightening up his rotations here or there.
DeMarcus Cousins hasn’t been productive, and Andre Iguodala and Quinn Cook emptied their clips in the Game 2 triumph. It’s hard to win when starring roles are put on supporting actors, but when a headliner can emerge from the shadows it can change the tenor of an entire story. The Warriors are tired and drained from the 100-plus playoff games they’ve played the last five years — more than Larry Bird’s Celtics, Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Tim Duncan’s Spurs during any five-year span.
Curry talked more about sustaining the mental concentration necessary to keep the Raptors from going on those surges the Warriors used to force on their opponents, and he looked more upbeat compared to the dejection that filled the locker room after the Game 4 loss on Friday night.
“Having been here five straight times and been through all type of experiences and different styles of play, different paces, playing against amazing talents that we have had and even now with the way that Toronto has been playing these last two games, it’s just a matter of buckling down and figuring it out,” he said at his news conference before Sunday’s practice.
“Can you win one basketball game right now? Can you go out tomorrow, play an amazing 48 minutes, quiet this crowd that’s going to be probably unbelievable tomorrow, and slow down a team that’s been playing amazing, especially these last two games, and just win one basketball game and take it from there? And if we focus on that mission, our history kind of speaks for itself in terms of being able to get that done. Just win one basketball game and then we’ll worry about the rest.”
The rest is where Durant enters, as for once this season, the present won’t be overshadowed by the future, and everybody’s focus, assuming he plays, will be on basketball.
Just the way he wants it.
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