By Marc Stein
A script-defying NBA finals continued Monday night when the Golden State Warriors welcomed Kevin Durant back from a monthlong injury absence, watched in horror as Durant reinjured himself after a storybook start — and then still managed to keep these NBA finals going.
Durant lasted only 12 minutes in his comeback before reinjuring his lower right leg, but the Warriors managed to pull themselves together after his emotional departure and dig out a 106-105 victory over the Toronto Raptors in Game 5. That narrowed Toronto’s series lead to three games to two and preventing the Raptors from securing the first championship in the franchise’s 24-year history.
Kevin Durant appears to aggravate his calf injury and heads to the locker room early in the second quarter. pic.twitter.com/VXu3SmTS8Y
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 11, 2019
Kawhi Leonard scored 10 of his 26 points in a stunning fourth-quarter flurry that erased the last of Golden State’s 14-point lead and appeared to swipe the momentum from the Warriors. But late 3-pointers from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and a huge defensive stop on Toronto’s final possession — when Draymond Green blocked Kyle Lowry’s corner 3-point attempt — enabled Golden State to escape with an improbable victory.
Yet there is grave concern about Durant’s status. He left the arena on crutches and with his right foot in a walking boot in the third quarter and will undergo an MRI exam Tuesday — less than three weeks before Durant is expected to hit the marketplace as one of the most coveted free agents in league history.
Sidelined since May 8 by a strained right calf he suffered in Golden State’s second-round series against the Houston Rockets, Durant duly made his first two 3-pointers and scored 11 points in the opening quarter. Then his night — and presumably his season — ended almost as quickly as it started when Durant’s right leg buckled just over two minutes into the second quarter as he attacked Serge Ibaka on the dribble from beyond the 3-point line on the right wing.
Durant simply gave up his dribble when he felt the pain and quickly fell to the floor, clutching his lower right leg. He was helped all the way to the locker room by his teammates Curry and Andre Iguodala, with Raptors players such as Ibaka and Kyle Lowry so shaken by the incident that they motioned to the Scotiabank Arena crowd not to the cheer after Durant went down.
Raptors players were trying to get fans to stop cheering on Durant’s injury 😔😔 (via garms1981/IG) pic.twitter.com/D1mvmxLzpY
— Overtime (@overtime) June 11, 2019
The Warriors made the decision to clear Durant to play Monday. The Warriors won their first five games after his injury without him before losing three of the first four in this series with Toronto to fall into a deficit that has historically been fatal in the finals.
In 34 previous instances in the best-of-seven finals, teams that took a three-games-to-one lead won 33 times — with Golden State serving as the lone exception after collapsing to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
Monday’s win will take the series back to Oakland, California, for Thursday night’s Game 6. Yet it remains to be seen how much Golden State will have left, both physically and emotionally, after the effort expended to extend the series in the wake of losing Durant again.
The Warriors also had to play much of the second half without reserve center Kevon Looney, who returned to the lineup in Game 4 to try to play through a chest injury but was clearly laboring in Game 5.
Some of the Raptors’ most rabid fans began camping out for access to the watch party space adjacent to the arena, known as Jurassic Park, on Sunday morning — more than 24 hours before Monday’s tipoff. But the nationwide celebration that surely awaited the Raptors had they won Game 5 and finished the series off on home soil has been put on hold.
The New York Times reported last week that the Warriors entered the finals loosely targeting Game 5 as the earliest Durant could play. Media reports that a comeback was possible in Game 3 or Game 4 appeared to spawn some frustration within team circles when it didn’t happen, as coach Steve Kerr acknowledged at Monday morning’s shoot-around, but Durant showed team officials and Golden State’s medical staff enough in Sunday’s practice and on Monday to gain clearance to play.
The manner in which Durant went down will undoubtedly raise questions about whether he was rushed back too soon in response to the calls, internal and external, for him to try to play through an injury given the stakes on the game’s biggest stage.