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.