The Warriors survived the Rockets on Wednesday night and will head back to Houston leading the series 3-2, but there was a major twist along the way. Late in the third quarter, Kevin Durant pulled up for a jumper over Iman Shumpert and seemed to land naturally, but a few steps later, he pulled up lame. Durant left the game from there. He went straight to the locker room, his agent left his seat to go join him, and the rest of the world was left to speculate. Reggie Miller was calling the game for TNT and he was one of several former athletes who noted the lack of contact and sudden hitch in Durant's step and worried that he'd torn his Achilles tendon. For about 20 minutes, maybe 30, the basketball world stopped.
As of Thursday morning it looks like disaster has been averted. Early reports Wednesday night—like this one, from Adrian Wojnarowski—indicated that the injury is not an Achilles tear. A doctor took us inside the process on Twitter for testing for an Achilles injury, which can apparently be done immediately. And then there was Steve Kerr, who said afterward that the team was "excited for the win but concerned for Kevin." Later he added, "It’s not the Achilles." But he also immediately ruled KD out for Game 6.
So that's where we are. The Warriors fought hard down the stretch to get the win, but the injury was the biggest news of the night, and it was all an occasionally-surreal reminder of exactly how important Durant has become to the entire NBA. He's been the most outstanding player in the playoffs thus far, and even for 30 minutes, the idea of a year-long and career-altering injury upstaged the biggest game of what could be the most dramatic series of the playoffs. An ruptured Achilles for Durant would have had massive implications for this Rockets-Warriors series and the rest of the postseason, it would have dramatically changed the way we think about free agency, and its impact would have continued to be reverberate through most of next season, as well.
Hopefully last night's reports prevail and Durant avoided a catastrophic injury in the middle of the best postseason run of his career. Of course, even in the best-case scenario, a Grade 1 calf strain can cost a player 7 days. Durant, himself, missed three games when he strained his calf last year. If the injury is more severe, KD could miss 4-6 weeks and the rest of the playoffs. Here are three more thoughts from Game 5.
1. KD's injury looms over the entire NBA. If Durant is sidelined for any extended period of time, all bets are off the rest of the way. The Warriors still have three other players who will likely be in the Hall of Fame one day, sure, but Golden State was already alarmingly thin. The team's been leaning on a 7-man rotation of Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Even if Kerr can eventually go deeper into his rotation against teams that aren't the Rockets, he'll be choosing from players like Andrew Bogut, Alfonzo McKinnie, Quinn Cook, and Jordan Bell.
Kerr's cupboard is bare, and that alone has given the rest of the league more hope than anyone could have imagined six months ago. Now take Durant away for an indefinite stretch that leaves the rest of us Googling recovery times for Grade 1 and Grade 2 calf sprains.
The story after Wednesday is simple and obvious but unavoidable: if KD misses extended time, the Warriors become... underdogs. The NBA title race becomes as wide–open as it's been since 2015, but in the most frustrating way imaginable.
2. James Harden has never had a better chance to silence his critics. Harden has spent the past few games playing the best playoff basketball of his life. Even as Golden State rotates elite defenders on the perimeter and uses Draymond Green as a free safety around the rim, he's been spectacular. Then the story got complicated in Game 5:
His numbers were excellent (31 points on 10-of-16 shooting, 8 assists), but as the Warriors teetered on the brink, he couldn't push them over the edge. It was strange to watch. Of all the times to be aggressive and go for the kill, the fourth quarter against a hated rival that just lost its best player in the middle of a pivotal game seems like it should be pretty high on the list. Instead, Harden in Game 5 was everything that's always made him confounding in the playoffs. It was a game that wasn't quite terrible, but moreso just hard to explain. And maybe that's OK. Because if anyone wants to have a conversation about Harden's playoff ghosts, it should also be noted that he's been mostly excellent in this series, and he's never had a better chance to silence the doubters.
Wednesday night obviously went sideways down the stretch, but that's OK. Houston has already played the Warriors closer than any team we've ever seen, and with KD's status unclear, the gap has never been as narrow as it looks right now. If Harden can be the one to finish them, no one will be worried about a fourth quarter shot chart from Game 5.
3. Steph Curry has an opportunity of his own. At some point there will be room for a bigger conversation about Curry's game, his struggles in this series, and what all of this says about what where we might be headed through the second half of his career. For now, we can note that Wednesday's Game 5 was another alarmingly uneven performance from Curry for the first three quarters. He was turning the ball over, he wasn't finishing at the rim, and the Rockets had once again succeeded at keeping him marginalized. Then Durant went down, Curry went to work, and the Warriors started solving the Rockets defense by zipping the ball over the floor. It all worked, and Curry was the catalyst. Before the KD injury, he'd been 4-of-14 shooting, including 1-of-8 from three, for 9 points. After Durant left the floor: Curry was 5-of-9 for 16 points and a win, including 2-of-3 from three.
After the first 10 days of this series, Curry skepticism was louder than it's been since at least 2015. Some of that makes sense: Houston has the personnel to wear him out on defense and make him work to score on the other end, and through most of these games, Curry's been half as effective as he's been at his peak. The first half of this series from Curry raises valid questions about what the Warriors will look like if KD leaves this summer. But other skepticism probably went too far: anyone questioning Curry's playoff history should note that he's top 10 all-time as a playoff scorer, and he's still so dangerous that teams are willing to trap him all over the floor and take their chances guarding Kevin Durant one-on-one (an insane-but-true thing to write).
In any case, Curry will have a chance to make a statement of his own at the end of this series. How much of Game 5's success will continue in Game 6 or a potential Game 7? Can he keep rolling? Has the NBA learned how to guard him? It's unclear, but if Durant is hurt, there's only one path forward for the Warriors. It starts with the guy who has been leading them all along.