Kit Shepard | June 11th, 2019
From the moment Kevin Durant stunned the basketball world by signing for the Golden State Warriors in July 2016, he and the team from the Bay have been the NBA’s most notorious villains. Prior to his move, Durant had finished his last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder by blowing a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Three weeks later, his new team-mates also managed to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, as they squandered their own 3-1 advantage, handing the Cleveland Cavaliers their inaugural title in the most humiliating fashion.
With KD and the 73-9 Warriors shattered after devastating series defeats, it made perfect sense for the pair to join forces, at least in theory. Durant needed Golden State to fill the ring-shaped hole in his NBA resume, while Golden State needed to Durant to ensure that the catastrophic collapse against the Cavs would not be repeated.
The pact was made but, with the Warriors now seemingly unbeatable, the backlash was as instantaneous as it was inevitable:
If u can’t beat um join um 🤔
— Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34) July 4, 2016
Somebody beat you ! And you go there… ? Superstar not doing that man..
— Jusuf Nurkić (@bosnianbeast27) July 4, 2016
And although the Warriors have captured the two championships since that fateful Independence Day, with Durant winning Finals MVP each time, the resentment has endured, if not enhanced.
That is at least, until last night. In game five of the NBA Finals, Golden State and Durant managed to win over much of the NBA, ironically just as their dynasty appeared to be reaching its conclusion.
The Warriors looked dead and buried after game four. The Toronto Raptors, spearheaded by the sensational Kawhi Leonard, had won back-to-back games in Oakland to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Klay Thompson looked hampered by a hamstring problem. DeMarcus Cousins was borderline unplayable due to his own injury issues. Toronto’s defense was not respecting Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala at the three-point line, and with good reason. Stephen Curry was trying his best to carry a team on its last legs in its fifth straight finals, but he too was being worn down by the constant Raptors trapping.
Heading back to Canada for game five, Golden State had one final trump card to play. Kevin Durant had not played since sustaining a calf injury in the second round series against the Houston Rockets, but even though reports suggested he had not fully recovered, he returned last night with the Warriors’ three-peat on the line.
Everyone knows what happened next:
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
Durant, after an incredible start to game five (he had 11 points in 12 minutes), aggravated his injury, resulting in what is suspected to be an Achilles tear.
Even the most die-hard Warriors-hater could not have avoided feeling some sympathy for KD. He had established himself as the league’s best player after a masterful first round display against the Los Angeles Clippers. Yet after going down against the Rockets. Golden State’s series-clinching game six win in Houston and the subsequent sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Conference Finals implied that Durant was a luxury, not a necessity for the Warriors, devaluing his two championships and Finals MVPs. Once the Warriors went down 3-1 to the Raptors, he was in an unenviable situation. He could play through pain and risk turning his injury into a far more serious issue (which he did). Conversely, his other option would have been to sit out, watch Toronto put the final nail in his team-mates’ coffin, before departing in free agency, which seemed almost a certainty prior to this injury. This would have led to claims that he was not committed to the Warriors, especially since Cousins, Thompson and Kevon Looney have all played despite seeming less than fully healthy. Either way, Durant would lose.
Then, as he limped towards the locker room in game five, the Raptors crowd reacted like this:
Kyle Lowry and the Warriors tell fans to stop cheering as Kevin Durant walks off with an injury. pic.twitter.com/UldE49bF22
— ESPN (@espn) June 11, 2019
All of a sudden, NBA fans turned on the Raptors. It should be said that the Toronto players immediately ordered the crowd to show Durant some respect and that the reception once he reached the tunnel far more positive. Nevertheless, this was a classless act from a fanbase that has received so much praise for their passion in recent weeks, but may lose the support of many neutrals will surely switch their allegiance to Golden State after this poor showing. On the court, Warriors players were ostensibly disgusted by the cheers, perhaps giving them the extra motivation they needed to win the game and send the Finals back to Oakland for one final game at Oracle Arena.
Yet there were no joyous celebrations following the final buzzer, where Green blocked a potential Kyle Lowry game-winner, just a sense of exhaustion and dejection. Curry was close to tears in his post-game interview when discussing Durant’s injury, before GM Bob Myers was unable to control his emotions in his press conference, as he effectively announced that KD would miss the remainder of the Finals, and most likely the majority of next season too.
Whether Durant should have played will be debated for eternity, but there is no doubt that the Warriors are no longer the mean, evil franchise that destroyed the NBA. Reaching five consecutive Finals is nigh on impossible, even for a team with as much firepower as Golden State, and can only be achieved through otherworldly talent, mental fortitude, and a strong team-spirit. Last night, the Warriors displayed all three in abundance, earning not only an unexpected win, but also the overdue respect of many who follow the league.
So with game six awaiting on Thursday, Golden State finds itself in an unfamiliar position. Not only are they the underdogs, but after Durant’s terrible fortune, the Toronto crowd’s disappointing behavior, and the outpouring of emotion at the end of game five, they just might have the support of the general public. Their chances of a third straight championship remain slim, but if this is the end of the Durant-Warriors era, a 3-1 comeback would be the most poetic of conclusions.
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Follow Kit Shepard on Twitter @KitShepard
Main Credit Image:Embed from Getty Images