The Golden State Warriors, during the four games so far in the NBA Finals that Kevin Durant has missed with a calf strain, have looked nothing like the team that so easily dispatched LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 and ’18.
Indeed, even with Stephen Curry scoring 47 points in Game 3, the Toronto Raptors have had the Warriors outmanned and outgunned on their way to a 3-1 lead with a potential series-ending Game 5 coming Monday night in Toronto.
But if there’s one thing the Warriors understand, it’s blowing a 3-1 lead in the Finals, and Golden State hopes to do to the Raptors what LeBron and the Cavaliers did to them in 2016.
They’ll get a big boost with Durant reportedly returning to the lineup in Game 5.
ESPN reported that the two-time Finals MVP practiced Sunday for the first time since suffering the injury May 8 and plans to play Monday night.
Coach Steve Kerr was cautiously optimistic about having one of his best weapons available for an epic last stand, the report said.
“It looked good and we’ll see where it all goes,” Kerr said of Durant’s strained calf muscle.
On the other hand, the rigors of a win-or-go-home game are intense, and Durant had giant ice packs wrapped around his calf and Achilles tendon after practice that made him look less like a professional athlete and more like a container of potato salad being kept cold on the trip to a summer barbecue.
KD just walked out of the arena with assistant coach Mike Brown. He had an ice pack on the lower part of his right calf and Achilles. pic.twitter.com/hUk4r1XQSC
— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) June 9, 2019
Kerr was asked if he was worried about Durant being rusty after all that time off the court.
“You worry about the conditioning … the skill obviously is undeniable and he’s a guy who can get his shot off any time he wants,” Kerr said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “He’s Kevin Durant. So, if we have him out there, he’ll be a threat, we know that.”
The problem with that otherwise airtight logic is that Toronto has been playing solid lockdown defense on the Warriors all series long, holding them to a woeful 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a clip that would rank tied with the 22-win Chicago Bulls for 29th in the league, ahead of only the pathetic New York Knicks (104.5).
Put another way, the Raptors’ 104.8 defensive rating in this series would be first in the league, beating out the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks.
Kawhi Leonard — the runaway favorite to win Finals MVP, provided Toronto finishes the job in any of the three chances they’ll get to do so — is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time All-Defensive and 2014 Finals MVP. He’ll be guarding a gimpy Durant and trying to put the lie to Kerr’s assessment of Durant’s ability to “get his shot off any time he wants.”
Marc Gasol has looked like his old self from his prime in Memphis, completely removing DeMarcus Cousins as a threat in the middle and putting even more pressure on Curry and Klay Thompson, whose combined 55 points in Game 4 ended up being 60 percent of the Warriors’ 92 points in that 13-point loss.
And just for a little added energy out of the gate, the Raptors are going to take a page from the 2006 Edmonton Oilers and have the crowd sing “O Canada” before the game.
There will be no famous face singing O Canada at Scotiabank Arena for Game 5. Instead, the NBA says it will be up to @Raptors fans inside the venue, and across the country, to sing loud and proud.#WeTheNorth | #NBAFinalshttps://t.co/2eIE075pyj
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 10, 2019
Perhaps more interesting is the effect that these Finals have had on Durant’s legacy, cementing just why he was the Finals MVP for both of his “mercenary” championships in Oakland.
If he comes back and leads the Warriors to an improbable comeback, he might just win a third straight Finals MVP and etch his name into the conversation for greatest of all time.
If he comes back, plays limited minutes and is clearly only out there because Golden State is out of options, and the Raptors pull off the win, the Warriors will have to hear about how they wouldn’t have won their 2017 and 2018 titles without Durant.
And if Leonard wins Finals MVP and then takes off in free agency, that will be hands down the greatest one-season rental in NBA history.
Game 5 is Monday night on ABC.
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