Will Kevin Durant’s return be enough for Golden State?

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After missing a month’s worth of games with a strained calf, Kevin Durant is finally going to step on the court in these NBA Finals, playing in Game 5.

Golden State needs him.

It is the only card the Warriors have left to play in a series where they trail 3-1, have been outplayed in 10 of the 12 quarters, and near the end of Game 4 (and in the locker room afterward) looked like a beaten team.

Durant back on the court is an important turn in this series. It certainly fuels Golden State’s dream of turning the 3-1 tables in the Finals and writing their own historic comeback saga.

It also will be too little, too late.

There are a few questions about Durant’s return, but the biggest one is what Durant will be out there?

It’s impossible to say how he will move and feel, but missing a month of basketball and then getting dropped into the middle of a high-level NBA Finals will be a jolt to the system. Before the injury we talked about how Durant and Kawhi Leonard were the two dominant forces of the playoffs, he was playing that well. Durant averaged 34.2 points per game, shooting 55.9 percent from three (with a ridiculous 66.5 true shooting percentage), plus had 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. It’s not fair to expect that Durant to suddenly reappear this series, for his game to be that sharp and his conditioning to be at its peak.

Durant also is one of the games great scorers, he’s going to come in and still get buckets. It’s what he does. Durant is who the Warriors have needed in the halfcourt against a stifling Raptors’ defense that has kept the Warriors below a point per possession in halfcourt offense in Toronto’s three wins. Durant, the walking mismatch, is the guy Golden State leans on to get buckets in the halfcourt and they will revert to that again.

It’s not just that Durant plays, it’s whose minutes he takes away. Durant on the court means Alfonzo McKinnie is not. Durant on the court means the return of the Hamptons’ Five lineup that is the Warriors’ best — don’t be surprised if Kerr starts it and plays it 20ish minutes in this game — and that means DeMarcus Cousins (who was awful in the past two games) and Andrew Bogut are on the bench.

Durant on the court also messes with Toronto’s defensive matchups. Leonard will have the primary responsibility on KD, but that means he can’t be switching on to Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, Leonard can’t be in the same help positions. Golden State’s backcourt should have a little more room to operate.

Durant’s return changes the series… but probably not enough.

The Warriors are down 3-1 in this series because the Toronto Raptors are very good, and right now playing with incredible confidence. That is not changing. Toronto is still long, still athletic, can still defend, still has shooters all over the floor, and still has Leonard. It’s a high IQ team that will test Durant from the start (don’t be shocked if the Raptors drag Durant into some early pick-and-roll defenses just to test how he moves).

Durant’s return doesn’t change the fact Thompson, Cousins, Kevon Looney, and Andre Iguodala are all playing through various injuries and ailments.

The math also just doesn’t support the Warriors, as NBC’s own Dan Feldman noted on Twitter.

Even with Feldman’s very generous odds, it means the Warriors would have a 44.1 percent chance of winning the series. Less than half the time. The reality is far, far less than that.

Still, the “Durant as Warriors’ savior” belief is out there because the Warriors organization fed it. If Golden State had been honest from the start and called it a Grade 2 calf strain — something that takes 4-6 weeks to heal (if this were the regular season Durant would not be out there Monday night) — we would all have expected him to return around this time and had the appropriate expectations for what he could or could not do.

Instead, the Warriors called it mild, kept flying him around with the team, kept hope alive in the locker room and in the fan base. It just hung out there, and eventually created resentment and frustration. The question of how committed to the Warriors Durant has crept into the conversation. Golden State didn’t play this card until now, when its back is against the wall, when there was true desperation. All of those pent up feelings are on the organization, not KD.

Durant is back Monday night and this series will get more interesting. The Warriors are closer to their peak. We get to see the Warriors we expected.

But doing that now, down 3-1, seems a too-late gesture against a Raptors team playing like champions.

 

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade

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The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.