© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
In 2016, the landscape of the NBA was fundamentally changed. The defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors were down 3-1 to the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
Less than a week later, the dynasty that was envisioned back when the Thunder were still the Seattle Supersonics, with a wiry, budding superstar from the DMV, and a newly-drafted, breakneck-pace-minded, freak-athlete guard from UCLA, was gone. It evaporated into the ether of Oracle Arena, before anyone could realize it.
Who knows if Durant would have stayed in Oklahoma if not for the events that followed.
The Warriors’ 3-1 comeback was the 10th time in NBA history a team had recovered from a 3-1 playoff series deficit.
Surely, this was destiny. The greatest regular season team ever, on the back of a 73-9 record, comes back in historic fashion to clobber the LeBron James-led Cavaliers. Surely, this was meant to happen.
But three weeks later, after an impossible block from James and a series-winning three from the pre-flat-earth-believing Kyrie Irving, the Warriors were on the receiving end of a brutal fate.
Without those two collapses, of course Durant may have still come to Oakland. But the severity of those losses left deep wounds, neither of which healed until the Durant and Curry-led Warriors hoisted the Finals trophy a year later. Those scars are still evident, as Warriors players recalled after their Game 4 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Durant has yet to speak to the media, but you could bet your mortgage on the fact that he’ll never forget that Game 7 loss in 2016.
Now he’s back, according to Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.
It presents an opportunity for redemption on a cosmic scale, while many are already locked in on what may or may not happen this summer.
The speculation over Durant’s future is like a gallon of spoiled milk that continues to get poured into a bowl of stale cereal. It has loomed over the Warriors since the start of this season, and was punctuated by the spat between Durant and Draymond Green in Los Angeles.
Whether Durant leaves or stays, Game 5 presents him with the opportunity to show something that’s already been proven; the Warriors are significantly worse without him. For those who have a functioning frontal lobe, it was always clear that the Warriors needed him. They’re a top-heavy team that has been forced to get by with a weakened bench. With a healthy core, that’s no issue. But when recent injury disasters take shape, everything falls apart.
Monday night is his first, and maybe only chance to make the business-as-usual Raptors feel something they have yet to feel in this series: discomfort. Every game has seen someone step up alongside Kawhi Leonard, but Durant’s return could act as a bludgeon, stunning the calm, efficient approach that the Raptors have functioned with.
If you saw the fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz, Jr., there are similarities brewing. In Round 3, Ruiz was knocked down, and Joshua all but started celebrating. By the end of the round, Joshua had been knocked down twice, stunned, along with every spectator in the arena. And in Round 7, Ruiz had full shocked the world, taking out the undefeated Joshua and raising the three heavyweight title belts he’d won.
A Warriors comeback win in this series would feel much the same, although the comparison is inexact, what with Joshua being the favorite, and the Warriors entering this series as the favorite. Still, the feeling at series conclusion would be similar.
If Durant can give the Warriors 20 points and defend with the capability to switch and at least challenge shots without being taken advantage of or putting himself in a vulnerable position to re-aggravate his calf, there is a road map for the Warriors coming back in this series. His presence alone will be massive in limiting the minutes of what’s been an out of shape, not fully recovered DeMarcus Cousins lineup, and allows the Warriors to go small.
Whether that actually works or not over a theoretical three more games is tough to envision. The size of the Raptors means that the Warriors, who have relied on Cousins, Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney in the post, have been vulnerable to mismatch exploitation by the Raptors regardless of what lineup the warriors put out. In theory, the “Hamptons Five” lineup would allow the Warriors to force the Raptors to adjust, something that has not yet been seen in the series.
The real issue with that is Nick Nurse. If you look back on this series, Nurse has been Gregg Popovich-esque with his timeouts. He uses them efficiently and with purpose. Nearly every time the Warriors started to look like they were poised to go on a run, Nurse called time and stemmed the rising tide.
A slow pace doesn’t work for the Durant-less Warriors. Stoppages interrupt the free-flowing, avalanche approach that defines their style.
But with Durant? That might be a problem for Toronto.
Kawhi Leonard might be the best defender on the planet (groan if you want, Klay Thompson and Green are obviously also in the conversation) and Pascal Siakam is extremely long and talented defensively, but Durant is like Dirk Nowitzki in that if he wants to get his shot off, you physically cannot stop him.
The Warriors play slower with him. Their pace becomes more methodical and they use him in isolation situations when things get stuck in the mud like they frequently have.
There have been countless times in this series when the Warriors bench failed to hit a shot for an extended period of time, and Curry and Thompson were forced to try and do everything when they returned with a deficit that already seemed insurmountable.
Durant is arguably the best player in the world. The scars of his loss to the Warriors are borne in the fact that he’s on the team, and the Warriors’ scars of the 2016 Finals loss are borne in the same way. They were married out of a deep pain and a desire to rewrite the definition of greatness.
Monday night is a chance for the Warriors to embark on a three-game journey that could etch their already-written names at the top of the list of the NBA’s most iconic dynasties. It’s a near-impossible road back, but as Durant and the Warriors have seen firsthand, that “near” means the door has yet to shut.