• Anyone expecting Kevin Durant to reach the level of play in Game 5 he had before suffering a calf strain was always setting themselves up for disappointment. Even one of the several rarest talents in league history shouldn’t be able to enter the NBA Finals in an elimination game and perform like he was fighting for a championship all along.

    That’s especially true of Durant not just because he hadn’t taken the floor in 33 days, but also because he was averaging 34.2 points per game on 65.5 percent true shooting over the first 11 games of the playoffs – a measure of efficiency and production that the league had literally never seen before. 

    The Golden State Warriors didn’t need Durant to be anywhere his best against the Toronto Raptors. Sapped of “Strength In Numbers” to a more sweeping extent than ever, the Warriors still just needed a long body who could knock down open shots, serve as an inherent obstacle in the paint, and, most importantly, make life easier for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson by commanding attention of the defense. Durant, obviously, is overqualified to play that role, hard as it often is to fill, and proved as much in the 11 minutes and 57 seconds he was on the floor at Scotiabank Arena in Game 5.

    He drained his first shot attempt, a trail three courtesy of an early-clock drive from Curry, just more than 90 seconds after tipoff, hit another triple in the near corner off a quick ball reversal that caught Kawhi Leonard flat-footed, and even connected on a pull-up three from his favorite left-center spot – following a drag screen from Draymond Green, naturally – in the final moments of the first quarter. He blocked a reverse layup by Pascal Siakam in transition and stole a dump-off from Leonard to Serge Ibaka.

    Most significant defensively? Often checking Kyle Lowry at the start of possessions, his presence coaxed Golden State into switching across the floor, a strategy they didn’t quite commit to full-time on Monday night but nevertheless employed far more than in any other game this series.

    Even so, the possession that most accurately conveyed Durant’s all-encompassing on-court impact was one where he played bystander. The Raptors have neutered the Warriors’ half-court offense in the Finals by roaming off the likes of Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Steve Kerr’s cavalcade of hobbling, limited centers away from the ball to focus on curbing easy looks for Curry and Thompson from the perimeter. But with Durant stationed on the weak side, Leonard and Siakam, his primary defenders, couldn’t offer that type of assertive help on split cuts, pin-downs, and back screens.

     

    If Durant was replaced by any other non-Splash Brother here, Siakam would have dug down from the top of the arc to bump Curry on his cut, ensuring Danny Green would have time to recover and daring Golden State to kick the ball out to a wide-open shooter. Warriors not named Curry, Thompson, or Durant are hitting catch-and-shoot threes at a 29.5 percent clip in the Finals, per data compiled at NBA.com/stats.

    Everything Toronto has been doing defensively is meant to accomplish two goals: Preventing Curry and Thompson from getting open shots, and encouraging everyone else on the roster to take them. It’s not as easy as the Raptors have often made it seem; just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Siakam and, on more fleeting occasion against Golden State, Leonard are terrors on and off the ball, capable of switching across five positions, contesting shots at the rim, and denying easy catches. Lowry and Marc Gasol are geniuses, compensating for comparatively substandard physical tools by always moving a half step ahead of the offense, putting out fires most of us can’t see. Fred VanVleet is a tireless grinder, Danny Green has loads of experience checking elite offensive players, and Serge Ibaka, sipping from the fountain of youth, has been absolutely everywhere in the paint.

    But with the two-time reigning Finals MVP on the floor, none of that seemed to matter. Golden State shot 56.5 percent from the field in the first 14 minutes and 14 seconds of Game 5, assisting on nine of 13 baskets. The reigning champions connected on a scorching 8-of-13 from 3-point range and pushed the ball up the floor at every opportunity to keep the Raptors scrambling and create mismatches in semi-transition.

    The result? A 154.5 offensive rating with Durant in the lineup — the type of relentless explosion the Warriors had managed to sustain just once over the previous 16 quarters of this series.

    Durant’s fingerprints were all over the Warriors’ awesome start offensively. Even so, he was still being utilized more as a cog in the whirring machine of Curry and Thompson than a hub, spotting up from deep and occupying defenders wherever he was on the floor. Durant’s first attempt as a primary source of offense, an air-balled 18-footer after flying around a screen from Kevon Looney at the elbow, suggested he wasn’t ready to make quick-twitch movements with the ball in his hands, and so did Golden State’s obvious gameplan to ease him into the action in the first quarter.

    With Curry on the bench to start the second quarter, though, Durant was pressed into resuming the role of his team’s primary creator. His lack of burst was evident when he settled for a pull-up 20-footer over the outstretched arms of Siakam on Golden State’s opening possession, but still didn’t indicate any real cause for concern. As the Warriors’ early onslaught made abundantly clear, a diminished Durant could still be game-changing.

    Off-dribble twos aren’t created equal. Durant shot an incredible 53.6 percent on those attempts during the regular season, and got Golden State out of tough spots against the LA Clippers and Houston Rockets in the first two rounds of the playoffs by hitting them again and again. The Warriors, especially with Curry off the floor, can live with contested twos from Durant even if Kerr would always prefer to play the beautiful game.

    One problem: Siakam, Leonard, and Ibaka aren’t Patrick Beverley. Durant can’t just shoot over the top of those guys the way he did LA’s tone-setter and expect to produce at anywhere near the same efficiency, and the Raptors knew it. He’d have to put the ball on the floor to get enough space to launch comfortably, which meant testing his tender right calf to a manner none of his rehabilitation over the past month or preparation in the days leading up to Game 5 could have come close to replicating.

    And with nine minutes and 51 seconds remaining in the second quarter on Monday night, after bringing the ball up the floor and using a screen from Andrew Bogut that coaxed a switch from Ibaka, Durant put more strain on his calf than he had in over a month, to absolutely devastating result.

    The severity of Durant’s injury is still unclear, but Bob Myers, fighting back tears, said after the game that his Achilles is the current cause for so much concern. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne later reported that the team believes an MRI on Tuesday will confirm that Durant tore his right Achilles tendon, an injury that, no hyperbole, puts his longevity at or near the top of basketball’s individual hierarchy in doubt.

    No one but the few directly involved in the preparation process know how much public pressure factored into Durant’s return. It’s certainly worth reminding that there was initially optimism he would play in Game 4, only for it to be suddenly squashed following an on-court workout that ESPN’s Jalen Rose would subsequently say “didn’t go well on any level.”

    There were multiple articles written from highly-respected reporters after the game, a Toronto blowout, that included plenty of sourcing about Golden State’s “frustration” stemming from the uncertainty surrounding Durant’s status. That Thompson and Looney, both battling injuries that kept them out of Game 3, returned to the court and laid it on the line in what could have been the last game ever played at Oracle Arena threw fuel on that already-burning fire of rampant speculation, too.

    The truth almost surely lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes. Durant, a notorious gym rat right in the thick of his prime, playing arguably the best basketball of his life before hurting his calf versus the Houston Rockets, badly wanted to play in the Finals even at less than full health, and one of the reasons why was the growing perception that he was quitting on his teammates, with one eye focused on free agency.

    Golden State would never force Durant to play, and even if team officials – or hell, his teammates and coaches – had tried to manipulate him into suiting up explicitly or otherwise, final say on the matter, was his and his alone once doctors cleared him.

    Where the Warriors, and mostly Kerr by virtue of his position, perhaps bear culpability is how they used Durant after so much time spent away from performing on the game’s brightest stage. He played 12 of the first 14 minutes on Monday, subbing out at the 5:50 mark of the first quarter and returning just over two minutes of game time later, finishing out the opening stanza and starting the second quarter. He brought the ball up himself on several different occasions and had three isolation opportunities, the last of which he came up limp after pushing hard off that injured right leg.

    Curry was off the floor for the first couple minutes of the second quarter, a rotational stint that’s made the Warriors understandably queasy throughout the Finals. Indeed, one of the easiest benefits of Durant’s return would be that Thompson wouldn’t be left to carry the offense alongside a lineup of non-shooters to begin the second and fourth quarters. The effect of more scoring punch in the second unit was highlighted immediately after Durant went down, too, when DeMarcus Cousins got off the bench to score a quick seven points, extending Golden State’s lead to double-digits.

    But using Durant as a weaponized threat away from the ball and making him the primary weapon of a non-Curry offense are two very, very different things, especially after he’s played 12 of the first 14 minutes in an elimination game that could have ended a dynasty and brought an entire country of fans new and old its first ever championship.

    It’s not hard to understand why Golden State felt compelled to let Durant shoulder anything close to his full burden, in terms of playing time and style. He’s maybe the best player in the world, the only one on a roster including the two greatest shooters of all time and a brilliant frontcourt playmaker for whom defenses don’t have an answer. Durant was cooking in his early minutes, too, splashing jumpers and making his presence felt defensively. No one would have been surprised if he dropped 40 points on Toronto the way he began the game, completely changing the tenor of this series in the process and putting together an instant-classic performance the league would remember forever.

    Prudence is one of the Warriors’, and Kerr’s, most defining qualities, though, and they just didn’t show enough of it by asking Durant to play something like his normal self in the late first-first and early-second quarters, when he’d already proven so influential as a glorified spot-up shooter and long-limbed helper defensively.

    Golden State, despite hitting 12 3-pointers, put up a 101.5 offensive rating after Durant left the game, well Below the New York Knicks’ league-worst mark from the regular season. Following a blistering start, Curry went 5-of-17 from the field for 17 points, scoring just once from inside the arc. After all, it’s hard to create efficient offense when the defense can completely abandon two, oftentimes three and other times four, players away from the ball.

     

    Toronto simply can’t do that when Durant is on the floor. Before the game, Kerr lamented the possibility of overstretching him before admitting the Warriors didn’t need to make that mistake to ensure Durant was effective. “I don’t want to put too much of a burden on him, but just his mere presence helps,” Kerr said, per The Athletic’s Anthony Slater.

    Golden State won’t have that help now, and probably shouldn’t count on the Raptors shooting 8-of-32 from three – including a ridiculous 1-of-10 from the corners – going forward, either. The Warriors, as much credit as they deserve for the grittiest win of their ongoing run, got lucky to extend this series. Without Durant out, both now, for the foreseeable future, and possibly forever, they’ll need even more of it to take the next two games and win an unprecedented fourth title in five seasons.

Fantasy News

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    C, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Whiteside is rolling along in fantasy land even as his on-court lapses continue to harm the Blazers. We wouldn't expect him to finish at his current top-35 standing so there's a bit of a sell-high window, though the numbers he's bringing back in blocks and rebounds might change the calculus since you probably won't be able to replace them in a trade.

  • Kent Bazemore
    SG, Portland Trail Blazers

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    PF-C, Los Angeles Lakers

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    SG, Los Angeles Lakers

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  • JaVale McGee
    C, Los Angeles Lakers

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  • Danny Green
    SG, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Green is just a late-round guy and doesn't have a ton of upside given that he's only getting 25.5 mpg on the year. He's worth holding onto in general, but a drop won't hurt you that much. The same goes for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had five points, five assists, a steal and a 3-pointer in 27 minutes.

  • Kevin Love
    PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Source: ESPN

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