With around 2:05 left in the 3rd quarter of Game 5, the Houston Rockets, who were down by as many as 20 points against the Golden State Warriors, were in the middle of a furious rally. Down by 14 points at halftime, the Rockets managed to take advantage of a lethargic and uninspired quarter by the Warriors, pouncing on them and cutting their deficit to 1 point.
With the score at 66-65, the Warriors sorely needed a bucket, having scored only 11 points in a span of 10 minutes. They went to their failsafe, their go-to guy whenever they needed an assured 2 points. Kevin Durant, defended by Iman Shumpert, is fed the ball by Stephen Curry, and everyone else clears the floor for him to go to work.
As expected, Durant was able to knock down the mid-range jumper to provide some cushion for his team — but it came at a great cost. As Durant came down and started his gallop toward the other end of the floor, he suddenly looked down at his right leg, as if something made contact with it.
As Durant limped off the floor, trying his best to walk it off amidst the pain and growing fear, everyone in Oracle Arena as well as those watching on TV all over the world held their collective breath. Fears of a lower leg injury — especially one that seems to be localized in the lower calf area — brought back memories of those who succumbed to similar injuries.
Kobe Bryant. Wesley Matthews. Rudy Gay. DeMarcus Cousins. And most recently, J.J. Barea.
So many NBA ramifications — tonight, these playoffs, this summer and far beyond — ride on whether this scary Kevin Durant injury is what many fear pic.twitter.com/ZYFDnaUkXX— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 9, 2019
In one swift moment, the Warriors’ roller-coaster ride of a season, which at times seemed to be hanging on a thread, became even more fragile. After Durant’s injury, which kept him out for the rest of the game, it seemed like it would only take a simple pull on that thread to break it, and the Warriors’ season — and perhaps their dynasty — would break with it.
Stephen Curry had been mightily struggling. There was something off about his approach to the game. The joy wasn’t there; the aggression and the superstar mentality seemed like they had taken off for early vacation. The face of the Warriors’ franchise, the one who kept his promise of leading the team toward the promised land, was performing like he was about to lead them away from it.
Going into Game 5, Curry was sporting a shooting split of .394/.263/.850 for this series against the Rockets. His true-shooting percentage — 51.5 percent — was extremely below his lofty standards. Granted, he has been sporting a left middle finger injury due to a dislocation during Game 2, as well as possibly still feeling the effects of an ankle injury he suffered from Game 6 of the first round against the Clippers. Those factors, however small of an effect they may be having, should still be taken into consideration.
The fact that he was able to play amidst possible hardships, both physical and mental, is an admirable trait. But that desire to stay on the court carries with it the burden of expectations. Curry is expected to produce, and to produce with flying colors. His gravity on the floor, while still an otherworldly force of nature that bends defenses and warps the opponent’s proverbial space-time continuum, won’t be enough to save the Warriors’ season, especially since there is one less superstar who will benefit from it.
Curry needed to take matters into his own hands, more so now than ever. Durant wasn’t coming back, and by the look of things, will probably sit out the rest of the series at minimum. Curry, the Warriors’ original superstar and MVP, needed to revert back to what made him and this team special during their 2015 championship run and their magical 2016 regular season run.
It wasn’t only Curry who needed to step up — Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, both bona fide All-Star caliber players, were counted on to become who they were back in 2015 and 2016 — not as mere complementary players; not as seemingly “overrated” stars who didn’t deserve their All-Star status, as some detractors would say — but as players who proved to be elite in their own special ways.
Together, the original 3, the trio who started this dynasty and is still around to see it through to its conclusion — whether it be this season, the next, or in a couple of years from now — had to make sure that that conclusion wouldn’t arrive prematurely.
The possible final quarter of Oracle Arena was approaching — and it was up to them to make sure that the fans still had a home to come back to.
The 3rd quarter closed with both teams even at 72-all. To Curry’s credit, he was able to bury the final two field goals of the period for the Warriors by handling the ball and by being aggressive.
To start off the 4th quarter, the Warriors get a successful stop courtesy of a Chris Paul miss from beyond the arc, and Green gets the rebound. He pushes the pace and takes advantage of the Rockets’ lackluster transition defense to feed Jonas Jerebko in the corner for a three.
Clinging on to a 1-point lead, the Warriors manage to get another crucial defensive stop. The Rockets successfully manage to get James Harden the ball, but the Rockets take too long to do so. With 3 seconds left on the shot clock, the Splash Brothers unleash a double team on Harden, who does not get a shot up, is forced to give up possession, and is eventually called for a shot clock violation.
Down by 2, the Warriors again push the pace after a made basket by the Rockets. The Rockets’ transition defense is caught off guard, with Jerebko setting a screen on Paul while Curry runs to the top of the arc, receives the pass from Green, and gets an open look, which is made possible by the Rockets failing to communicate properly on a switch.
This is followed not long after by a Curry mid-range shot. Curry takes matters into his hands after inbounding the ball, knowing that he must establish a rhythm and that he is the only player left on the Warriors who could reliably create his own shot.
The Warriors manage to get a basket in this possession by leveraging Curry’s gravity while he is handling the ball. After Thompson sets a screen and slips it to pop toward the left wing, Curry takes his defender off the dribble, drives inside, and draws two defenders. Green, stationed in the dunker’s spot, is left open, allowing Curry to feed him inside for the close-range floater.
After an Eric Gordon three ties the game at 84-all, Thompson gets the ball on an inbounds play and isolates against Harden. Despite good defense from Harden, Thompson manages to bury a tough mid-range jumper to regain the lead for the Warriors.
Leading by a single point yet again, Kevon Looney sets a quick screen for Curry, resulting in Clint Capela getting switched onto the smaller and quicker guard. Curry takes advantage of the size difference by going up for a deep three that Capela isn’t able to contest properly.
Up three with just under 4 minutes left to go, Green — as he has done on many occasions — comes up with a clutch defensive play. He draws a charge on Paul, who tries to barrel his way past Green, but to no avail, and the Rockets waste another possession. (However, Green did get a technical due to extracurricular activity on Paul after the whistle.)
Green gets his revenge after the technical free throw, when a drive by Thompson leaves him open on the left wing. He knocks down the three and lets everyone know about his feelings, as well as giving the Warriors a 5-point cushion.
In this possession, the Warriors’ team defense forces a crucial turnover. The Rockets try to switch Looney onto Harden, but Andre Iguodala fights over the screen and recovers well enough to blow that attempt away. With only 10 seconds left on the shot clock, the Rockets scramble for a last-second bucket. Gordon, denied an open look at the rim, kicks it out to P.J. Tucker in the corner, but his shot is nullified due to him stepping on the line.
On the other end, a Curry jumper bricks, but Looney is in prime offensive rebounding position. While three Rockets players watch the ball instead of boxing out, Harden is overpowered by the bigger and taller Looney. He passes it to Iguodala, who quickly whips it to a wide-open Thompson for the three and an 8-point lead.
Off of an inbounds sequence, the Rockets commit a transgression on defense. Iguodala, the inbounder, is largely ignored by the defense, and he takes advantage by cutting inside, receiving the lead pass from Curry, and easily laying it in.
Green eventually fouls out, and after a series of free throws and field goals, the lead is cut to three with 18.6 seconds left in the game. The Rockets put pressure, and Thompson eventually breaks free to catch the inbound pass. He races down the court, passes to Iguodala, and eventually gets the ball back.
Harden and Paul trap Thompson against the sideline, trying to force a turnover in lieu of fouling; it almost works. Thompson’s errant pass triggers a free-for-all, with Shaun Livingston’s fall allowing him to deflect the ball toward Looney’s hands. Looney’s presence of mind allows him to locate Thompson, who gets inside and lays the ball in for the game-winning bucket.
After the game, Steve Kerr was asked about Durant’s apparent lower leg injury. Kerr reassured everyone that it wasn’t as serious as everyone thought it was.
“It’s not the Achilles,” Kerr said. “When I walked into the coach’s office after the game the replay of the play was going on, and I thought the same thing because he kinda looked back like he had been kicked or something. I’ve seen that before with guys who’ve hurt their Achilles. ... I was assured that it was a calf strain and not the Achilles.
“We’re all obviously disappointed for him. Excited about the win, but concerned for Kevin and disappointed for him. He’s been on this incredible playoff run. I’m proud of our guys for pulling the game out. We’ll see how Kevin’s doing tomorrow.
“I don’t know if you’re a soccer fan, but Liverpool yesterday came out with one of the great wins in soccer history. After the match, their manager, Jurgen Klopp, said, ‘The young kids in Liverpool are probably asleep by now so I’m just gonna go ahead and say it but our boys are f******g giants.’ ... I know how he feels, and I apologize to my mom, who’s probably watching, but our boys are f******g giants.”
When a team faces a sudden bout of adversity in the form of a serious injury, only one of two things may happen. They can choose to wilt away and let their wave of emotions overwhelm them, until they drown in deep waters. Or they can use that same adversity as a rallying point toward a second wind, a sudden surge of effort, heart, and desire to come out with a victory.
The struggling Curry, the streaky Thompson, and the highly-emotional Green all came together and gave everyone a nostalgic look at a time when it was just the three of them — along with their supporting cast — against the world. There was no fourth superstar, no second MVP-caliber talent. It was only the trio, the core that managed to surpass expectations and shock the NBA on their way to greatness.
Durant may very well be out for the rest of the series. The Warriors have a 3-2 lead, but the journey toward that win to cement their place in the Western Conference finals will be an uphill battle. The Warriors’ original Big 3 may have pulled this one out, but they will need to pull the next game out as well.
The Warriors could have easily chosen to give up all hope and let the Rockets run roughshod all over them. But their grit and determination in the moments where they truly mattered came out and caught their rivals by surprise.
If there is one thing that everyone else underestimates about this team — looking beyond the surface level of the team’s identity, which is comprised of their championship pedigree and elite talent that they possess — it is their unquestioned desire to win and refusal to give up.
These Warriors may be mostly skill, mostly talent, and mostly confidence — arrogance, even.
But these Warriors are also all heart.
Seven wins down, 9 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.