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One Way or Another, Kevin Durant Will Dominate the Finals

The Warriors looked just fine without KD in the conference finals, but the Raptors have proven a stiffer challenge. Can Golden State overcome the 0-1 deficit? It all comes down to KD.

TORONTO — This was all very predictable, but it felt dramatic nonetheless. After Kevin Durant was sidelined with a strained calf near the end of the Rockets series and the Warriors responded with two weeks of thrilling wins, every podcast and groupchat in the world had at least one "Are the Warriors better without KD?" discussion. Then, late in the fourth quarter, the minute it became clear Golden State would lose Game 1 of the NBA Finals, everything flipped. The next 48 hours will now be dedicated to wondering when KD might return. It's like the entire world just realized exactly how insane it is for Warriors to be trying to win this without him. 

And of course, to be 100% clear: they still might do it. "We're down 0-1," Steph Curry said after Game 1, "but it's not the end of the world." 

Draymond Green didn't sound worried, either. "At the end of the day," he said, "you got to come on the road and win one. So that's still the mission. We got to win one game on the road, and I like where we are. This is a team or a city a country that hasn't seen a Finals ever here, so we expected it to be a great atmosphere and it was. But we can still play better and I know we will."

Asked about KD's absence, specifically, Curry began with the now-familiar disclaimers that all Warriors players have offered when asked about Durant's value. "KD's an all-time great player on both ends of the floor," he said. "I could sit here and talk for days about what he adds to our roster." 

But then he doubled down on his confidence in the team that played Game 1. "When he's out," Curry said, "we can have guys step up. I think the first half after that 10-day break was a little bit sloppier than we might have thought and a little bit more rust that we had to shake off, but we still had a chance to win in the fourth quarter. They did what they were supposed to do on their home floor and close out the game. I don't think it's that complicated what we need to do differently. It's just play better, take away the easy buckets for them and control the momentum a little bit better. We're definitely capable of doing that, no matter who is out there on the floor."

After five straight trips to the Finals, this is the most confident team on the planet. But even beyond faith in themselves, the logic after Game 1 makes a decent amount of sense. The Warriors were outplayed for the entire night—beaten repeatedly in transition, bottled up on offense, trailing from the first quarter on—and it was still a three-point game early in the fourth quarter. They were effective against Kawhi Leonard, who looked hobbled by a lingering leg injury. And if they approach Game 2 with the same blueprint, they can probably feel comfortable betting against another 20 points from Marc Gasol or an 82% shooting night from Pascal Siakam. Even without KD, it's not at all impossible for the Warriors to win Game 2 and return to Oakland with control of the series. 

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Nevertheless, the Finals conversation will be focused on Durant's health for at least the next 48 hours, and it should be. This is one of the most mind-boggling stories in recent Finals history. Durant is a Hall of Fame scorer at the peak of his powers and he spent the first half of these playoffs staking his claim as the best player alive. He's about to hit free agency this summer and he's likely to leave Golden State. And here, in his final run with arguably the most talented starting lineup in NBA history, he is out indefinitely during the NBA Finals, and nobody has any idea when he'll return. 

Everyone talked about the Durant variable before the Finals, but none of those conversations seemed to have come with as much urgency or drama as they should have. Maybe it was because everyone was too responsible to speculate on the possibilities, or maybe it was just that everyone was too exhausted by speculative conversations about this particular player. Either way, it seems like somewhere in between rhapsodizing about Kevon Looney's versatility or Toronto's basketball culture, we've all been staring at this matchup for so long that we've been missing the story that will obviously come to define how we remember these games one day. 

Thursday night probably changes that dynamic going forward. Ignoring Durant’s injury is now impossible. Golden State's confidence postgame aside, the Raptors were bigger and faster than the Warriors all night long in their 118-109 win. Steph had to work hard for his 34 points and Klay Thompson added 20 of his own, but that was the essentially the end of the story on offense. The Warriors are trying to beat an elite defense with two scorers in the backcourt and eight other players who don’t want to shoot. It’s not impossible, but it won’t be as easy it as it looked against the Blazers. Game 1 was a reminder that the Warriors traded back-end depth for Durant's high-end talent three years ago. It was always the correct decision, but if Durant's not out there, the rest of the team can look shockingly thin. All of this, and particularly Toronto's size and length, would be easier to handle with Durant. 

"Whenever [KD] does play," Kawhi Leonard said, "we're definitely going to have to prep for him. He's another guy that could just score 30 points in his sleep. And I mean, everybody knows who he is. For sure, we're going to have to prep for him."

"It doesn't matter until [KD is] out there," Steve Kerr said. "If he's out there, he's pretty good. But if he's not out there we play with the guys we have, and we have got enough. We have won the last, whatever, six games without him, five, six games. So we have enough."

In the end, there’s no Finals outcome that won't be dominated by Durant discussions. He may never return and the Warriors could win a title without him, but that ending would only amplify the debates everyone was having during the conference finals. If he returns halfway through the series and the Warriors lose, that would lead to a summer of inquiries into whether Durant was 100% healthy and how his return affected chemistry. If he returns halfway through the series and the Warriors win, this could be the series that confirms exactly how valuable he's been all along. 

Or, again, Durant may never come back. No one is sure how much longer his recovery will last, and instead of a take-amplifying title without him, the Warriors could also just lose. A Raptors title would come with credit deserved up and down the roster in Toronto—just like Game 1—but Toronto would be exactly half the story in that scenario. The other half would be rooted in KD, his injury, this Warriors team, and an incredibly strange end to an incredibly strange era. "You play with the guys who are healthy and you go," Kerr said after Game 1. "So we'll see what happens."