Analysis: Warriors' hopes hinge on Durant coming back
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — When Game 4 was over, while Toronto fans were waving Canadian flags in celebration inside an otherwise-stunned Oracle Arena, a glum-faced Kevin Durant was outside the Golden State locker room to greet equally glum teammates as they sauntered off the floor.
That's been his only visible role on game nights in the NBA Finals.
If that doesn't change Monday, this series is probably going to end.
With it, in that case, so would Golden State's reign as NBA champions. And then it's possible that Durant, a free-agent-in-waiting, has played for the Warriors for the last time.
Durant limped off the floor at Oracle Arena a month ago — Game 5 of the second round — with what the team called a mild calf strain. It's apparently the most severe "mild" calf strain in the history of injuries, because he hasn't played since and there's no way of knowing if that's going to change on Monday.
And the Warriors clearly need him if they're going to pull off a comeback against the Raptors in these NBA Finals.
"Nobody's going to feel sorry for us at all," Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. "It's just a matter of can we get it done or not, and we're going to leave it all out there starting on Monday."
That'll be the case, with Durant or not.
Here's reality: Any Durant is better than no Durant for the Warriors right now. His mere presence might throw the Raptors off just enough to create more chances for the rest of the Warriors. It's really the only card the Warriors have left to play at this point.
Toronto took full control of the series Friday night, winning 105-92 for a 3-1 finals lead. Durant wasn't on the bench for Game 4, and hasn't been since getting hurt. He'll be on the plane Saturday headed to Ontario, and his uniform will be packed inside the Warriors' equipment bags.
If it goes unworn again, the Warriors are in big trouble.
"There's been hope that he will come back the whole series," Warriors forward Draymond Green said. "So that's not going to change now. Obviously we hope to have him, but we'll see what happens. We don't make that final call ... he don't really even make that final call. His body will tell him if he can get out there or not. And if he can, great. And if not, you still got to try to find a way."
They've been trying, with limited success.
Even with Durant.
The Raptors are 5-1 against the Warriors this season, even going 2-0 in the regular season when Durant scored 51 in one game and 30 in another. The Warriors just looked tired on Friday night, weary against a Toronto team that has had every answer in this series. They haven't been able to muster the offense they need against Toronto.
With Durant, that story could be different.
But even if he plays on Monday, after not playing for a month, how good could he be anyway? Even someone as talented as Durant, who is in the conversation of "best player in the world" right now, can't fake rhythm. Throwing him into an elimination game in the NBA Finals, after not playing for a month, is an unbelievably daunting ask.
It might be what's required.
"We're hoping he can play Game 5 or 6," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "And everything in between I've decided I'm not sharing because it's just gone haywire. There's so much going on, and so it doesn't make sense to continue to talk about it. He's either going to play or he's not."
The Warriors will practice on Sunday. With so much at stake, unless his calf muscle just won't allow it, Durant will probably try to do something that day. It's hard to believe that he doesn't want to play, and the fact that he hasn't been seen yet in this series just reiterates how not mild this "mild" strain was.
A shot at a third straight ring is slipping away. Maybe it was gone the second Durant got hurt. When the Warriors swept Portland in the Western Conference finals, there was silly talk about how the team might be better without Durant.
That talk is nonexistent now.
Any team is better — a lot better — with Durant. And if he finds a way back to the court, the Warriors might just get a lot better in a hurry.
Or else, this era could end Monday night.
"We've got to win one game," Green said. "We win one, then we'll build on that."
Without Durant, winning that one game on Monday might be too tough an ask, even for the Warriors.