A single step could have changed the NBA.
Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors’ best player this postseason, the NBA Finals most valuable player the last two seasons and a league-altering free agent this summer, turned around to try to find the person who just kicked him in the back of his right leg. No one was there.
The initial fears were the grimmest — maybe an Achilles tendon injury. The early diagnosis was better — a calf strain. Either way, Durant finished the night hurt and not on the court, his status for the rest of the series in doubt.
It all meant so much — the Warriors’ dynasty that he helped define this generation of NBA, possibly on borrowed time. A loss in Game 5 meant the doors might not just be closed on a three-peat. They’d also be sealed on Oracle Arena, the beloved building the team is leaving after this season.
But the players who built this run — Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson — weren’t ready for it to move dangerously close to collapse.
Green howled at the Rockets’ bench after hitting a big corner three-pointer. Thompson stood at the top of the three-point arc, his right hand held high, his textbook follow-through frozen, after splashing a massive triple. And Curry, who has struggled much of this season, came alive with Durant in the locker room and finished the night crouched at center court, celebrating an emotionally exhausting 104-99 win.
“Liverpool came out yesterday with one of the great wins in soccer history,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, the stress from his own game still on his face. “After the match, their manager, Jürgen Klopp, saidm ‘The young kids in Liverpool are probably asleep now so I’m just going to go ahead and say it — our boys are ... giants.’ And I know how he feels.
“…Our guys are ... giants.”
Game 6 is Friday in Houston. Durant will undergo a MRI on his calf Thursday.
Had the injury been as serious as many feared, the implications could have been massive. Durant has a player option that he’s expected to decline, making him a free agent. The New York Knicks are considered heavy favorites as a destination if he leaves.
And the Warriors’ own title hopes certainly take a hit without Durant.
“With Kevin out, it changes everything,” Kerr said.
Prior to Wednesday’s game, the Warriors looked like a team enamored with the snooze button on their postseason alarm, slapping it after the Clippers took a pair of games here, hitting it again after getting out-hustled and out-toughed in Houston.
Maybe after all this winning, all these playoff games, all these championship banners and parades and ring nights, it takes a little more to get the best out of Golden State. Sure the playoffs are hot. But maybe the Warriors need to keep their hands pressed to the stove until their fingers start smoking.
“I don’t know if it’s quite that simple,” Kerr said before Game 5. “The journey does get more difficult the longer it goes. Any coach in NBA history would agree with that. I felt that as a player with Chicago. The third year was a lot tougher than the first year.
“That’s just the way it is.”
The Warriors seemed locked in, pushing out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter and rallying against a Rockets response with a 17-0 run — 10 points coming from Durant in a blur — in the second.
But a 20-point lead isn’t safe, not in this series. The Rockets are pests. And they’re wildly talented. And tough. Plus the Warriors are not always razor sharp.
They had puzzling turnovers. Kerr threw his fists in anger after Curry fired an outlet past that the Rockets intercepted. Everyone stared stunned later in the third when Green inbounded a pass to Curry, who wasn’t even looking.
“It felt like it was slipping away,” Kerr said.
And with a little more than two minutes left in the third, the lead cut all the way down to one, Durant made a baseline jumper, calming things for a blink, before sending everyone into a brief panic.
Durant reached toward the back of his leg. He bent at the waist. He grabbed again. And then he limped, all the way back to the lockerroom.
But the Warriors, a team that has had to fight the pitfalls of experience and expectations, were able to draw on everything that got them all of this.
“They got a lot of guts,” Kerr said.
Wednesday, they needed every bit of them.