After working up a sweat on the court during the Golden State Warriors’ time on the court, after over an hour in the trainer’s room, Kevin Durant walked out of the arena. Was he limping? Not much, if at all. His injured calf has sidelined him for nearly a month, during which the Warriors had not lost. Until Thursday.
“Getting there,” Durant told one hallway friend. He kept walking, with security trailing. He is a very valuable commodity, you see.
The Toronto Raptors opened these NBA Finals with a commanding, poised performance in a 118-109 win in Game 1. They made mistakes, sure; so did Golden State. Toronto insisted they could be better, especially defensively, and in terms of Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard’s offensive outputs.
Sure, the defending champions expressed supreme confidence. You get to do that when you’ve won two years in a row, and three of the last four.
“People in the States are rooting against us because we beat all their teams,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green, grinning. “So it’s all good. When you’re at the top, no one’s ever cheering for you to stay there. People want to see you get to the top and they want to see you fall.”
Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported Durant was aiming to return in Game 3 or more likely Game 4, though until he’s out there, he’s not. And the biggest question the Raptors have now raised is whether the Warriors, mighty and terrifying as they are, actually need Durant to win the series.
“He’s done well with his rehab the last couple of days,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He’s continuing to ramp stuff up. And I’m just not going to answer any questions about do we miss him against this team or that team or whatever. Because it’s just a sound bite, and it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is we have to win the game with what we have, and then when he comes back we’ll put him out there. Nothing else matters.”
That’s how they have to talk, of course. Without Durant the Warriors still tagged the Raptors with Toronto’s fourth-worst defensive performance of the playoffs per 100 possessions, though it was Golden State’s 11th-best offensive performance, too. But watching, it hit home: they have two scorers. They have two real shooters.
Sure, it happens that Steph Curry is an offensive supernova whose gravity warps the floor so much that he should get assists for merely existing, pulling Raptors into his orbit so that lesser Warriors can find unimpeded routes to the rim. Oh, and Klay Thompson, the fourth-best Warrior when Durant is healthy, holds the NBA record for points scored in a quarter, with 37.
“I think that we’re champions,” Green said. “We understand what it takes.”
But when the Raptors got Golden State in half-court defence, they did to them something like what they did to the Milwaukee Bucks. Three of Curry’s four threes on the night came on broken plays: two off scrambling offensive rebounds that Kawhi’s giant vacuum hands couldn’t quite grab, one when Lowry fell down. And all those happened in the first eight minutes. Curry hit one more three all night.
There are a lot of Warriors who won’t beat you offensively, especially now that the Raptors have confirmed that after trying to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo from the rim, keeping Draymond from getting there is a relative breeze. Curry got 34 points by getting to the free-throw line 14 times, despite Fred VanVleet’s superb job of bashing through screens to stick with him. But Toronto’s puzzle-solving defence tends to get better as a series wears on. Thompson had 21 points on 17 shots, and only six of those 17 shots were deemed uncontested by NBA.com. Eight of Curry’s 18 shots were, and again, some came off broken plays.
This is the vision of what the NBA might be like had ESPN not dropped a rights-holder money bomb on the league in 2014, and had the players’ union not rejected a solution to ease that money into the salary cap, giving the Warriors a max salary slot to go chase Durant after coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat his Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference final in 2016. If Durant doesn’t join a 73-win team, the competitive balance of the league is not warped beyond recognition; a Durant-free Golden State is merely great, perhaps even champions, but a team that plays more than one truly competitive playoff series over the past three seasons.
This might be the second, though. Raptors like Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam and VanVleet and even Danny Green won’t all combine to shoot 66 per cent again, but then, Lowry and Kawhi probably won’t go 7-for-23 again, and 4-for-14 on the uncontested shots. The Raptors served notice in that game that their defence is a passport that can carry them, and they belong in a series with the champs.
So do the Warriors need Durant? They just might, and he is the thin-skinned superstar who needs to feel needed. Kerr said Durant won’t be rushed: “It’s not like this is a sore ankle or his knee is sore, whatever, and you can play through it. This is a tricky one. If you reinjure the calf, then that’s it and then he’s done for the series. So when he’s ready to play, he’ll play. That’s our approach.” When he comes back, too, Kawhi will be waiting for him.
Maybe Golden State comes in here Sunday and takes back control of the series. But Sunday, the Raptors can prove that they’re in this for the whole haul. A win Sunday and the seven-footer with the tricky calf isn’t just the biggest vanity yacht in the collection anymore. Win Sunday, and he’s the life raft in the middle of a storm.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur