- Golden State received a much-needed offensive lift from their two-time MVP when the team's reigning Finals MVP went to the locker room late in Tuesday night's Game 5 victory.
OAKLAND, Calif. –– Just when it seemed the Warriors’ disastrous third quarter couldn’t possibly get any worse, a wave of dread passed through Oracle Arena. Kevin Durant had come up limping, first, and then clutching at the back of his right leg. The circumstances were alarming. No other player had touched Durant, and yet he glanced back behind him as if his leg had been clipped—a hallmark of an Achilles injury. “Anytime you see something non-contact like that, it's scary,” Stephen Curry said. The Warriors fouled to allow Durant time to limp off the floor. He bypassed the bench and, along with Warriors general manager Bob Myers, headed straight for the locker room.
By that point, the Warriors had already squandered a 20-point lead down to three. Inconceivable turnovers were chased with failed box-outs, allowing the Rockets all the opportunities they needed to close the gap. Most everything that could go wrong for Golden State had, turning Game 5 on its head and threatening worse. Houston closed the gap completely by the end of the quarter, setting up one final frame to shape the rest of the series. Durant had disappeared into the back, and Curry’s scoring game had yet to show. It looked as if a dynasty were slipping away.
“When you lose your best player, it's deflating,” Klay Thompson said. So the defending champions took a moment to pump themselves back up. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, a self-described player-coach, tried to help teammates find their center. Draymond Green called for the next man up. DeMarcus Cousins, per Iguodala, stepped in to keep his teammates focused. Then the Warriors took to the floor and won the damn thing, 104-99, with gut-check play after gut-check play. It was the mainstays who provided the intestinal fortitude. “I think you saw Steph go into a different mode when Kevin went out,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. Curry shook off an otherwise crummy performance to be the creator Golden State needed to be. Crucial defensive stands were anchored, as usual, by Green—including the ballsiest charge taken all year: inside four minutes in a one-possession playoff game, one star down, and on the brink of fouling out. Thompson shot, and made, fearlessly.
“They responded beautifully,” Kerr said. Word was eventually passed to the team that Durant would not return, but with that came good news: there was no damage to his Achilles. Officially, he was diagnosed with a right calf strain pending an MRI. Yet even with the worst avoided, Golden State will likely need to replace its single most valuable contributor in this series. Durant had played at least 43 minutes in each previous game by necessity. Now, Kerr and his staff will have to scrounge up minutes from an already strapped rotation, asking more of players like Iguodala and Livingston despite their own injuries.
This is a problem for tomorrow, when the Warriors will essentially draft a new rotation from scratch en route from Oakland to Houston. Let Wednesday be a sigh of relief. There was no pall in Golden State’s locker room—not after digging deep for the most impressive win of their playoffs. Durant sat at his locker, draped in towels, as he might after any other game. Curry put in work on a stationary bike, with miles still to go. Every Warrior to speak to the media offered unsolicited praise for Kevon Looney, who turned up five offensive rebounds in a game where every possession mattered. “Kevon was the unsung hero tonight,” Kerr said. While sharing the podium, Green playfully chided Thompson for the final basket of the game: a layup out of a broken possession with just four seconds remaining. Had Thompson missed, the Rockets could have rebounded the ball and played for the tie. “I couldn't believe this man took that layup,” Green said. “But you made it, though!” The two high-fived.
Five games in, this heavyweight matchup is as uncertain as can be. The entire series thus far has been decided by six points in total. The best player involved will likely miss the remainder, and yet his absence leaves room for another MVP on his team to scale up his production. Curry’s previous contributions could be weighed in fits and starts. The player who dominated the final quarter of Game 5 felt materially different: a bolder, freer Curry, delivering in a game the Warriors couldn’t afford to lose.
“It was a breakthrough, for sure,” Curry said. Golden State’s postseason survival still hinges on the truth of that declaration. But for tonight, the Warriors had enough. The occasion brought out a certain appreciation in Kerr, channeled through the words of a kindred spirit.
“Liverpool, yesterday, came out with one of the great wins in soccer history. After the match, their manager, Jürgen Klopp said, 'The young kids in Liverpool are probably asleep by now, so I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: Our boys are f***ing giants.' That's what he said. I know how he feels. I apologize to my mom, who's probably watching, but: Our guys are f***ing giants.”