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).
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.