By Ed Klajman
Special to S.F. Examiner
TORONTO – After the dramatic return of Kevin Durant, his equally dramatic injury departure and a wild finish, the Golden State dynasty lives on, at least for a few more days.
With their dynasty on the line, the Warriors came to Toronto with the hope that return of arguably the greatest scorer of his generation would be the difference to turn the tide in a series that Toronto had dominated – up three games to one and needing just one more win to clinch the championship Golden State has held for the last two seasons and three of the last four.
In the end, the Warriors won 106-105, managing to overcome a six-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining, thanks to a couple of huge defensive stops, clutch three-pointers by Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry and a great defensive play by Draymond Green in the dying seconds to get a piece of Kyle Lowry’s last-second shot that would have brought the title to Toronto. As dramatic as the ending was, it was superseded by four words from general manager Bob Myers: “It’s an Achilles injury.”
Inserted into the starting line-up for his first action in over a month because of a calf injury, Durant certainly had a huge impact from the moment the game began. He was every bit the superstar the team had become accustomed to – playing lockdown defence to force turnovers, hitting key three-pointers, and simply making everyone else around him better. Through one quarter with him playing most of it, the Warriors took control of the game and built a lead that at one point reached double digits.
And then it was over for the two-time Finals MVP in an instant, just three minutes into the second quarter. With Serge Ibaka defending the 10-time All-Star, Durant clutched his right ankle as he sunk to the floor, a sight reminiscent of his right calf strain suffered in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets on May 8.
“I’m not a doctor, I don’t know how those are related or not, but it’s a different injury,” Myers said.
As for the rest of the Warriors, the players after the game made it clear that they felt a jolt of emotion watching their teammate go down. On the one hand, they were devastated for him. On the other, they played with an inspirational drive and determination to be at their best as they thought of Durant back in the locker room.
“It’s a bizarre feeling that we all have right now,” said head coach Steve Kerr. “An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.”
The win means the Warriors extend the series to Game 6 in Oakland, in what will be the final game at Oracle Arena after serving as the Warriors’ home for 47 seasons. If Golden State wins that, the deciding Game 7 will be in Toronto on Sunday night. The loss of Durant may mean the Warriors won’t have enough firepower to completely the unlikely 3-1 comeback against a deep Raptors team.
Adding to the emotion was the reaction of Toronto fans when Durant went down. They started cheering. Immediately, several Raptors players gestured for them to stop, as they helped tend to Durant. The crowd then started to chant “KD” as Andre Iguodala and Curry escorted Durant to the locker room, but the impression had been made and some of the Warrior players made it clear how much it it bothered them.
“That’s crazy. That’s classless,” said Green, who ended the game with 10 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. “For me, I’ve always witnessed Canadians being nice people that I’ve ever encountered. That was classless.”
Curry, who lived in Toronto for a year and a half while his father Dell played for the Raptors, said he was shocked to see the reaction.
“I’ve lived here, I really enjoyed the people and their passion and excitement for not only the game, but just when you come into town, they just enjoy life and they’re nice people. (I’m) very confused around that reaction. It’s not my experience with the people of this city.”
What fans in the building saw was Curry and Thompson adding another chapter to their illustrious history of putting up big numbers when the Warriors needed it most. Curry finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while his Splash Brother Thompson pitched in with 26 points, along with six rebounds and four assists.
“I’ve seen it an awful lot,” Kerr said. “It doesn’t happen every night but it seems to happen most nights. They’re amazing. They’re amazing competitors, great shooters. (Former coach) Mark Jackson said it years ago, they’re the best shooting back court of all time. But maybe what people don’t know is how competitive they are, and I thought that showed tonight.”
Golden State led 95-93 with 5:30 to play when Kawhi Leonard took over, hitting two clutch three-pointers, and another two on a runner, as Toronto took over to lead at 103-97 with 3:05 left. A Thompson 3-pointer made it 103-100, and Curry hit his own triple on the next possession to tie it at 103 with just over a minute left. After Leonard missed a shot, Thompson hit on another triple, giving the Warriors a three-point lead with just under a minute left.
Lowry got Toronto to within one, and Golden State had possession with under 20 seconds left, but DeMarcus Cousins was called for an offensive foul on screen against Fred VanVleet. That gave Toronto one final chance. With five seconds left, Leonard wanted to take the shot for Toronto, but a double team by Iguodala and Thompson forced him to pass the ball to VanVleet, who passed to Lowry for a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won the game. A leaping Green disrupted the shot the caromed off the back of the backboard and the Warriors survived.
“When you’re down six with a couple of minutes to go, we could have thrown in the towel. But we didn’t. As I’ve said before, I’ve never seen this team fold. That stands true still,” said Green.
A major key to the victory was the play of Cousins. Coming off his own major injury – a torn quadriceps that took seven weeks to heal – he had been far from his best in the earlier games of the series. The loss of Durant gave him a chance to shine, and he took full advantage. Cousins was a force in the paint – where the Warriors had struggled all series long – scoring 14 points and grabbing six rebounds in over 19 minutes of playing time.
Rather than say how inspired he was by Durant going down, he was cryptic in what was at the heart of his great play.
“Just a lot of things that transpired over the past couple of days and I just used it as motivation,” Cousins said. “So, I’ll leave it at that.”
Cousins minutes were a necessity, as Golden State also lost Kevon Looneyto injury. He was grimacing in severe pain because of a couple of rough falls to the floor that aggravated a cartilage fracture in his upper chest suffered in Game 2. He returned to action much quicker than anticipated; he was originally ruled out of the rest of the series. Looney had to leave the game, but said he expects to be back for Game 6.
And, he said, Durant has given him plenty of inspiration to keep fighting through the pain.
“Kevin gave us a big help in that first half, a spirit boost, and him going down like that was tough on us,” Looney said. “But he went out there and put his career on the line to help the team win and you got to respect that. And now we have to complete the mission.”
With the scene shifting now to Oracle Arena getting a final send-off as the Warriors try to force a return trip to Toronto, Green said now the focus has to be squarely on that mission, and the players cannot be distracted by any waxing nostalgic about the end of the line for the building.
“We’re just trying to play another game in this arena (in Toronto),” Green said. “Obviously, we want to close out Oracle the right way but we’re trying to win a championship. We can’t be crying tears because we’re leaving Oracle. We’re trying to win a championship.”