Kevin Durant’s 2019 NBA Finals will leave lasting imprint

Kevin Durant
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Twelve minutes.

Kevin Durant played 12 minutes in the last month. As the NBA season crescendoed toward its culmination with his team in the thick of a title pursuit, Durant played just 12 minutes. That’s it. It’s a miniscule amount of time.

But those 12 minutes changed his reputation, the rest of his career, how players handle injury and maybe even the 2019 NBA champion.

By leaving the Thunder for an already-excellent Golden State in 2016, Durant became vilified. Fans called him a snake, coward and worse. Even the Warriors were reportedly frustrated as he remained sidelined so long with a leg injury.

Durant returning in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and suffering a devastating Achilles injury changed perception. People finally saw him for the competitor and teammate he is.

It’s a shame it required him sacrificing his body like that.

Durant might never be the same. Dominique Wilkins and Rudy Gay provide hope, but most players who rupture their Achilles experience a significant drop in production. An all-time great career is suddenly sidetracked.

As Durant can enter free agency, no less. This injury was a life-changing event that could draw him closer to the Warriors or push him away. There’s no telling how it affects his thinking.

Teams are reportedly still planning to offer him max contracts. However he plays, Durant having a high salary would significantly affect roster construction around him. His deal could sink a team for years. Or someone could land a highly coveted player who elevates his team to new heights. Even if his production slips post-injury, there’s still plenty of room for Durant to remain a star, though maybe not a superstar.

There’s a wide range of possible long-term outcomes.

Even beyond Durant, injured players could resist playing through injury. There’s an inherent conflict of interest when team-employed doctors evaluate players. This will draw new attention on the entire system.

Those high-stakes possibilities have overshadowed how brilliantly Durant played in Game 5 of the Finals – a critical outcome in Golden State’s season.

The Warriors outscored Toronto by six points with him. They got outscored by five points without him.

That was the game.

And it wasn’t as if Durant just happened to be on the court during Golden State’s good stretch. He was highly involved.

Durant scored 11 points in his 12 minutes. Nobody who started a game has a higher scoring rate in an NBA Finals since 1971, as far back as Basketball-Reference has Finals starters listed.

Here are the players with the most points per 36 minutes in a Finals since 1971 (minimum: one start):

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Of course, those other players played at least 10 times as many minutes as Durant. Durant scoring 33 points per 36 minutes might be unsustainable, especially against an elite Toronto defense.

But also consider: Durant scored even more points per minute against the Clippers in the first round. He’s capable of elite production.

Not only did Durant score efficiently himself, his presence scrambled the Raptors. They repeatedly got lost defensively reacting to the extra shooter on the floor. His teammates took advantage.

Durant’s impact on Golden State’s season-extending Game 5 win has been so understated amid all the other concerns.

Still, the Warriors trail 3-2 in the series.

Golden State will probably lose tonight. Teams that win a Game 5 on the road to force a Game 6 at home have usually lost the Game 6. Considering the Warriors also lost Durant, they’re in even deeper trouble than the average team tonight. If the Warriors win tonight, they’ll be underdogs in Game 7 in Toronto.

But Golden State has a real chance. The Warriors can absolutely win the next two games. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala provide enough talent to compete, and the group has found an inspiration. A third straight championship is possible.

It’s a credit to Durant that Golden State even has this opportunity tonight.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.

Watch Lakers fan drain half-court shot to win $75,000

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers
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It might have been the loudest the crypto.com Arena was all night.

Between the third and fourth quarters, Lakers fan Jamie Murry of Downey won $75,000 draining a half-court shot — and he got to celebrate with Anthony Davis.

Murry’s celebration is the best part — with Anthony Davis coming out to celebrate with him (and seeming a little shocked by the hug).

One other big shot fell at this game, but Lakers’ fans didn’t like it as much — Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard drained a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.