TORONTO – Warriors general manager Bob Myers fought back tears. Coach Steve Kerr was somber. Players spoke in hushed tones.
And this was on a night Golden State won Game 5 of the NBA Finals to stave off elimination!
Any feelings of frustration have morphed into sadness and inspiration. Durant returned from a month-long absence, played well then re-injured himself in a whirlwind stretch to open the game. Everyone is still processing their feelings, but the unified message from the Warriors now: They stand with Kevin Durant.
They also showed they’re good enough to win without him, at least for a night and only with his early boost.
Stephen Curry was at the center of both causes.
Curry’s last five seasons can be split into two distinct periods – before Durant and with Durant.
In the former, Curry won back-to-back MVPs. He was the Warriors’ undisputed best player and good enough to lead them to the 2015 title, 73 wins the next season and Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. His on-court excellence commanded respect, and he rose to his natural leadership position.
In the latter, Curry often deferred to his co-superstar. Golden State still belonged to Curry, and he clearly took on the burden of making Durant feel welcome.
Both sides of Curry came through when Durant got hurt.
Curry left the game to walk with Durant and Andre Iguodala toward the locker room. Though he usually frames his desire to accommodate Durant in terms of doing whatever it takes to win, Curry gave a different explanation for this gesture.
“Everybody gets so wrapped up in chasing championships and the greatness that you see on the floor,” Curry said. “But life is more important in terms of caring about an individual.”
Curry still found his way back to Golden State’s bench in time to regroup his team.
“You could kind of just feel the life just go right out of us,” Draymond Green said. “But to Steph’s credit, he kind of rallied the troops. He talked to everybody, went around the huddle and just told everybody to stay locked in and do this for Kevin.”
At least after Durant’s important start.
Golden State outscored Toronto by six in Durant’s 12 minutes. Toronto outscored Golden State by five in the other 36 minutes.
In three years, Durant has made a deep impact on the Warriors – mostly for better and occasionally for worse. He attracts drama, but he also produces in these big games. With 11 points in 12 minutes, Durant became the first player to enter an NBA Finals this deep into the series and score double digits in his first game. He has also been open about his life journey and trying to find himself – endearing himself to a few of us.
“He’s one of the most misunderstood people,” Myers said. “He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person, it’ not fair. I’m lucky to know him.
“Sports is people. I know Kevin takes a lot of hits sometimes. But he just wants to play basketball, and right now, he can’t. Basketball has gotten him through his life. So it means – 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.”
It seems unlikely that will happen again this season, but an MRI on Tuesday will reveal more.
In the meantime, Durant’s latest injury has brought him and the rest of the Warriors even closer together. Eventually, they’ll have to snap out of this funk and prepare for Game 6. But their motivation will be easy to find.
“We do it for Kevin,” Thompson said. “We do it for K.”