In tonight’s Game 5 of the 2019 N.B.A. finals, the last, best shot of saving this Golden State Warriors season, and of continuing the team’s dynastic run, appears to rest on the (very recently) healed calf of Kevin Durant.
Expected to play for much of the day — though the team took its time confirming the news — Durant will make Golden State’s roster complete for the first time since May 8. A two-way force who, at this point in his career, can only truly be compared to LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, Durant at his best could seemingly swing a series — even one in which his team is in a three-games-to-one hole.
The big question, however, is whether Durant will be at his best.
“You worry about the conditioning,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said before the game when asked how Durant would perform. “The skill obviously is undeniable.”
Before the injury, which came in the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Houston Rockets in the second round of these playoffs, Durant was having his most prolific postseason, with an average of 34.2 points a game and a shooting line of 51.3 percent on field goals, 41.6 percent from 3-point range and 90.1 percent from the free-throw line. As if that weren’t enough, he was also co-anchoring the team’s defense alongside Draymond Green, regularly checking the best player on the opposing team.
Durant’s effectiveness could be a mixed bag. His offensive game is versatile enough that even if he’s compromised in speed or agility he could still find a way to thrive. The bigger question will be how he holds up on the defensive end, where he will presumably be asked to guard either Pascal Siakam or Leonard.
The news leaking out that Durant was likely to play moved the betting lines from Toronto being 1.5-point favorites to being 1-point underdogs, and Kerr seemed confident that Durant will not be limited.
“He’s been in similar situations with us where he’s had long layoffs — and he’s Kevin Durant,” Kerr said. “If we have him out there he’ll be a threat.”
What to watch for in Game 5
Are We Sure Toronto is a One-Superstar Team?
It’s easy enough to label the Toronto Raptors as an ensemble supporting the team’s one superstar: Kawhi Leonard. The team has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki’s 2011 Dallas Mavericks and, occasionally, to the 2004 Detroit Pistons, a team that had many stars but no true superstar.
Give it a few years and we may be wondering how Pascal Siakam had yet to be labeled a superstar. A breakout player in his third season, Siakam is a two-way talent with a physique that seems created in a lab for defensive versatility. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game during the regular season with advanced statistics suggesting he had an outsize impact on both ends of the court. In the playoffs his averages are up to 19 points and 7.1 rebounds with no dropoff in his defensive metrics.
Just 25, Siakam got a late start to his basketball career, but his season of working as Leonard’s protégé has him on the verge of being acknowledged as a true star and not just one of Leonard’s worker bees.
What Happened to Golden State’s Defense?
Much has been made about Toronto’s various methods of limiting Stephen Curry on offense, but the other end of the court has been just as problematic for Golden State. In the finals, the Warriors have given up an average of 115.1 points per 100 possessions, which is their worst mark in any of the five finals appearances under Kerr. In Game 3 they allowed 123 points at home, the fourth time this postseason that they have allowed 120 or more.
While in line with how the team played for much of the 2018-19 season, Golden State’s defense in the playoffs this year is quite a departure from the dynasty’s roots: In 2015, Golden State held its opponents below 100 points in 17 of 21 games with an average of just 98.7 points allowed per 100 possessions.
A Second Finals M.V.P. for Kawhi?
Leonard was the last player to be named the most valuable player of a finals before the run of four straight matchups between the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers began. Should Toronto hang on to win this series, he would likely win his second, especially with averages of 30.8 points and 10.3 rebounds a game in the finals.
Leonard would be the 11th player to win multiple finals M.V.P.s and would join LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to win one for two different teams.
With the retirement announcement of Leonard’s former teammate Tony Parker on Monday, the only active members of the finals M.V.P. club are Andre Iguodala, James, Durant and Leonard. And, considering the precarious spot Durant would have to carry his team back from, and Leonard’s impact in the series so far, that list does not appear likely to grow no matter which team wins.