Not only will forward Kevin Durant play Game 5 of the NBA Finals for the Golden State Warriors, but he’ll be starting, announced head coach Steve Kerr before the game in Toronto.
Before Durant went down with a calf strain in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, he was having arguably one of the best postseasons in his career. Down 3-1 for the first time in the Finals to the Toronto Raptors, the Warriors will get arguably the best scorer of his generation back in a lineup that has lacked punch beyond just Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. In short, Kerr said, Golden State will look more like itself.
“Even without having played he’s still such a huge threat and he can get his shot off against anybody and we’ll see,” Kerr said. “I don’t want to put too much of a burden on him. It’s been a while, we don’t know how it’s going to go, how it’s going to look, but just his mere presence makes a huge difference for us, so we’ll start him and play him in short bursts and see how he responds physically.”
As Durant came out to begin his shooting routine before the game in Toronto, fans lustily booed the two-time Finals MVP both when he came out, and on every missed shot.
Durant’s return turns a 3-1 comeback at least a bit less daunting. Golden State has been on the other side of that equation, giving away a 3-1 Finals lead in 2016 to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers after losing Draymond Green due to a suspension, and Andrew Bogut to injury. The last time they faced a 3-1 deficit themselves was against a Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder team in 2016.
“I haven’t researched every 3-1 deficit, but generally speaking, when you get to the Finals or the Conference Finals, you got two great teams,” Kerr said. “If a team can get a win when it’s 3-1 and make it 3-2, they got some momentum. So that’s the idea, that’s the whole idea tonight is play better than we have been playing and get some momentum early, win one game and then the tenor of the series changes. So that’s our goal.”
Given the will-he-won’t-he nature of Durant’s comeback over the duration of the Finals, and even in the preceeding days, the Raptors have prepared for him.
“The reports have been coming out since Game 1, I think, that he was going to play by Game 3,” said Toronto head coach Nick Nurse, who has masterfully coached the series so far, throwing the rare box-and-one at Curry twice in three games. “So we prepared each game, 3, 4 and now 5, so it wasn’t like it was a total departure from everything we have been doing.
“He brings everything, right? He first of all, brings an explosive transition game. He’ll race up the floor and pull up from across half court, like a couple of their other guys do. So it’s another threat in transition you got to get ready for. They have got a package of stuff they run for him. There’s a lot of the 3-5 mid-pick-and-rolls, there’s the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll, there’s a Durant-Curry pick-and-rolls, there’s some pin-down plays that he runs where he isos the side of the floor and then there’s a post-up game. So that’s a lot of stuff.”
Toronto watched clips on Monday ahead of the game to prepare even more for Durant, who at times is nigh on unguardable, particularly with his one-legged jumper that he can hit from anywhere in the half court. Durant will lighten the load on a bench that hadn’t been asked to do much throughout the regular season, but has played over its head at times in the playoffs.
“I’m more hoping that Kevin’s return can sort of normalize the bench players’ roles,” Kerr said. “Guys get into routines in the NBA and they’re used to playing with certain combinations and playing certain roles. It’s tough when you move pieces around.
“So I think the idea tonight is let’s get back to looking more like ourselves and everybody can fit into their role and everybody can do their thing and we’ll play better.”
Durant will also bring length on defense, something that should help jam up Pascal Siakam and even perhaps Kawhi Leonard. Durant will also draw Leonard on the other end, as the one-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year will try and stop Durant’s arsenal of shots.
“One of the big things with Durant is you got to have somebody that can — well, you don’t really have anybody that can look him in the eye, but at least maybe the chest up,” Nurse said. “You can’t get too small on him or he’ll shoot over the top of you. So Kawhi’s one of our bigger defenders, along with Pascal, Serge would probably guard him, again, that’s the biggest thing. He does it all, but probably the biggest way he hurts you is by shooting over the top of you. Kawhi’s size, Pascal, Serge [Ibaka], those guys will need to be on him as much as possible. So he’s got to see some contest level.”
If Durant draws Ibaka, he’ll be able to mitigate some of the damage the Congolese center can do against Golden State’s battered center rotation. DeMarcus Cousins has looked out-of-sorts over his past two games against Ibaka and Marc Gasol, and drawing some heat away from still-sore backup center Kevon Looney should give him some more space to work, and lighten the load on his injured chest and shoulder.
Durant’s length will also allow the Warriors to play Draymond Green as a small-ball center, or to move Andre Iguodala into that role, perhaps mitigating some of Cousins’ minutes and allowing him to play in shorter bursts, and thereby be more effective coming off a seven-week layoff due to his torn quad.
“Kevin’s insertion changes quite a bit for us and so we have an idea of how we’re going to play and what our rotation will look like,” Kerr said.