As he planted his right foot in an attempt to gain separation from his defender, Kevin Durant planted all of his hopes in that moment, anticipating that he would feel absolutely nothing. As the weight of his entire body transferred into his recovering calf muscle, old wounds re-opened both literally and figuratively — the strain that was created during Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals looked like it was re-aggravated, with hopes high up in the air that it did not progress to a much worse outcome than before.
It seemed that as that same injury was aggravated and Durant was forced to be shut down for the night, the Warriors’ small window of hope was closing along with it. In his brief return in Game 5, Durant scored 11 points while shooting 3-for-5 from the field, all 3 of which were from beyond the arc. Despite the fears of rust and the sneaking suspicion that he was playing with severely-limited mobility, Durant did all he could to contribute and will his team to a win.
His three 3-point shots looked exceptional; all of them were in rhythm, with Durant looking unbothered by his calf as well as by the defenders who were in front of him.
Despite those shots he made, it was obvious that the Warriors were avoiding giving the ball to Durant on what seemed like the majority of possessions. They were content on using Durant as a decoy, a spacer on the weak side to give Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson much needed room to work with. It made a lot of sense — even if Durant wasn’t fully healthy, even if he was just playing at 50 percent of his full capacity, it was still a whole lot better than giving minutes to Alfonzo McKinnie or Jonas Jerebko.
As the sequence above displayed, Durant’s presence made a significant difference. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t fully the destroyer of worlds or the reaper of souls — all that was needed was the mere possibility of him destroying the Raptors’ world or collecting their souls to plant doubt and small hints of fear into their minds. It worked for a while — the Warriors stormed out in the early stages of the 1st quarter to take the lead from the Raptors.
Despite the Raptors taking back that lead momentarily, the Warriors persevered. They answered each and every assault by the Raptors with a shot of their own. The Splash Brothers, in particular, came out with guns blazing.
Durant’s initial performance out of the gate as well as the fact that Curry and Thompson were both starting to heat up gave the Warriors plenty of hope as the 1st quarter finished. It was that same hope that was suddenly taken away from Durant and the team during the 2nd quarter due to a devastating turn of events.
Kevin Durant appears to aggravate his calf injury and heads to the locker room early in the second quarter. pic.twitter.com/VXu3SmTS8Y— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 11, 2019
But even more devastating, even more painful to witness was the opportunity that was taken away from Durant — an opportunity to give the Warriors what they needed in order to pull off a historic comeback in this series. An opportunity to show everyone that he wasn’t supposed to be counted out yet; that despite all of the outside noise and questionable narratives that were disingenuously generated — pertaining specifically to his desire to come back and play, that perhaps he was holding back on purpose to preserve his health and protect the big payday and opportunities that free agency would bring him — all of those were quite rubbish. Nonsense. Completely untrue.
“Let me tell you something about Kevin Durant,” Warriors GM Bob Myers said in a highly-emotional postgame statement. “Kevin Durant loves to play basketball, and the people that questioned whether he wanted to get back to this team were wrong. He’s one of the most misunderstood people. He’s a good teammate and a good person. It’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him.”
Video of Bob Myers’ emotional press conference via @espn. A lot of the Warriors decision makers were distraught postgame about the KD news. Myers explains decision to clear him and says, if anyone gets blame: “Blame me” pic.twitter.com/LSEt3zUuc8— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) June 11, 2019
Kevin Durant loved nothing more than to play basketball. Isn’t that why he came to the Warriors in the first place? This team provided him with the best opportunity to play the game at its purest form: egalitarianism that wouldn’t take away from each player’s individuality, but instead enhance it.
That is what Durant was attracted to when he chose to go to the Bay Area. He chose the chance to be part of something greater than his own all-time great self. He chose to be a part of collective greatness, rather than subscribe to the notion that he needed to do everything all by himself — a notion, by the way, that has often been over-romanticized to death.
A great player will always need the support of his team, and in turn, he will provide the same kind of support for his teammates. Durant is cut from this unique cloth; for the love of the game he has played since time immemorial, for the sake of the team that has supported him through perhaps the toughest stretch of his long and storied career, and for all of those fans who stuck by him and defended him to death from everyone else who tried to tear him down — he went on the floor and played.
It was an admirable 12 minutes, and he contributed more than what was expected out of him. His willpower was unlimited, and his mind was headstrong — but even an indomitable spirit cannot overcome weakened flesh.
Durant had done his part. He put his career on the line to give the Warriors the needed push out of the gates against an elite team running on a humongous reserve of momentum. As he was helped off the floor — amid a confusing reaction of cheers from the Raptors faithful — it was now clear that his time on the floor and in this series was over.
His job was finished. The baton — reluctantly but necessarily — had to be passed back to Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, and the rest of the Warriors. Durant fought hard to come back and play for his brothers-in-arms. Now, it was time for the team to fight for their fallen brother.
In a game that wasn’t pretty by basketball standards — the Warriors committed 15 turnovers, having had moments of jittery ball-handling, passes that were thrown without a care in the world, and playing without the laser-precise focus that was required of them in an elimination game — it was looking like the lead they had tried to preserve by staving off a furious Raptors rally was about to collapse right in front of their eyes.
And collapse, it did, due to the efforts of the monster known as Kawhi Leonard.
A backbreaking 14-5 run for the Raptors, spearheaded by Leonard’s personal 12-point run in the 4th quarter, allowed them to take a 103-97 lead with approximately 3 minutes left in the game. At that moment, it felt like it was the last 3 minutes of an emotional roller-coaster of a season for the Warriors.
No one would blame them if they chose to let the waves crash down upon them. No one would bat an eye if they decided to just let the Raptors have this moment and disappear into the somber Canadian night, turning their attention toward the status of Durant and toward the uncertainty of the offseason.
It would’ve been understandable for them to finally take their leave and take a much-deserved rest from this turbulent dream, one that quickly transformed into a nightmare as the season reached its tragic climax.
No one would’ve blamed them for not trying anymore — but they would’ve most certainly blamed themselves. And so, they kept trying. They kept on fighting. And they won.
They won on the back of limiting the Raptors to only 2 points in the last 3 minutes of the game. The Raptors offense suddenly went quiet. As the seconds ticked on the clock without a consistent stream of points from the Raptors, Leonard’s sudden burst of scoring was looking more and more premature, as unbelievable as it may sound.
They won on an infusion of offensive production from their two best offensive players on the floor. Curry and Thompson finished the night with a combined 57 points, most of them on the back of a combined 12-for-27 clip from beyond the arc (44.4 percent). Overall, the Warriors (20-for-42, good for 47.6 percent) shot much better from 3-point range than the Raptors (8-for-32, good for 25.0 percent). It was the Splash Brothers’ clutch 3s down the stretch, however, that spelled the difference.
With only 2:30 left in the game, Thompson buries this shot after playing outstanding defense on Leonard, forcing him to shoot an airball and using Green’s screen on the other end to knock down a wide-open look.
After a questionable offensive goaltending call on DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors manage to come out of that ordeal unscathed, as they force a 24-second violation on the Raptors. The Warriors go to a classic staggered-screen set for Curry, who gives up the ball and proceeds to loop around and along the baseline, past the screens set by Thompson and Cousins. He catches the pass on the wing and immediately shoots the ball.
Despite it being a tough shot that was released while fading to his right, Curry belies the difficulty of it by making it look all too easy. And just like that, the game was tied at 103-all.
After another successful stop on Leonard, Curry hauls in the rebound and pushes the pace. The defense scrambles to get back in time, but the sudden burst in transition from Curry, as well as his attention-grabbing nature, causes the Raptors to jumble their assignments. Thompson is left all alone on the weak-side wing, and Leonard attempts to close out. He falls victim to a fake and an open shot from Thompson for the lead.
The Splash Brothers’ clutch shot-making turned the tide immediately. Those sequences will be front and center on several news outlets and social media posts as the ones responsible for this successful fight for survival. But this clutch defensive block from Green to prevent a Lowry 3 from becoming the championship-clinching shot should be given an equal share of the credit.
Despite Durant going down from what is now confirmed as an Achilles injury and not an aggravation of his calf strain, the Warriors dug deep, reaching for any semblance of grit and determination that was left for them to grab. They found what they were looking for; they survived to fight another day.
But all of it was mired in a bittersweet aftertaste. Durant gave it his all for his team, and in the process might very well have sacrificed a year of his prime. The Warriors gave it their all for their survival, but they fight on with a heavy feeling in their hearts and their emotions all but drained.
After seeing this performance that will most certainly go down in the annals of Warriors lore, how could anyone question Durant’s desire to play and sacrifice his own health for a chance at winning? How could anyone question the Warriors, who have proven without a shadow of a doubt that they have the heart of a champion?
The Warriors will most certainly give it their all in the final home game that will be played in Oracle Arena. They are still down 3-2, and the mountain that looms ahead of them remains as monumentally high as it’s ever been. In the end, the championship may still be too far out of their reach.
But they didn’t go this far just to lie down and give up so easily. They will continue to fight, just as they did last night in a hostile environment. They will continue to survive, as they always have during this incredible 5-year run at the top.
And they will continue to fight for Kevin Durant, whose enduring sacrifice will forever endear him to the Warriors and their fans for all eternity.
Fourteen down, 2 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.