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The Golden State Warriors enter Game 5 looking to do what only one other NBA franchise has done in Finals history. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit has been historically improbable, but according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, reinforcements are on their way.
With Kevin Durant planning to play for the first time against Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, Bleacher Report asked five NBA writers to break down the impact the two-time Finals MVP could have.
The Steph Impact
Basketball analysis can be overly reactive. Snap judgment characterizations of players after a game result in recency bias that changes how the world perceives the NBA’s top talent.
In Golden State’s first eight playoff games of 2019, Kevin Durant finally overtook LeBron James as the world’s heir apparent. He then strained his calf, and whether the Warriors are better without him became a talking point. With Durant out of the way, Kawhi Leonard’s historic playoff run then became enough for him to scoop up the mantle. Who knows what snap judgment is next?
Rather than thinking the “WaRrIoRs ArE bEtTeR wItHoUt DuRaNt,” think how much better Durant and Steph Curry make each other.
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Without Durant, the Warriors have loaded up on Curry. From box-and-ones to double-teams, the Raptors have been openly cutting off the Warriors’ engine and daring the spare parts to beat them. Curry has gotten his points, but the Raptors can’t rely on paying all their attention to him anymore. With more shot creation and shooting on the floor, Curry will have more room to operate.
This Finals, the Warriors have not been able to use their small-ball lineup, which has been their trump card during this dynastic run. That will change Monday. It allows them to speed things up, revamp their defense and supercharge their offense. With another premier shot creator forcing the defense to gravitate toward him, Steph can be Steph, and that would give the Warriors a chance.
How much Kevin Durant impacts the Warriors offense will depend heavily on what he looks like.
A fully healthy return inoculates their offense against any foggy stretches. Golden State is averaging under 0.92 points per half-court possession in the series, a far cry from the 1.03 it posted before the Finals. Durant’s size, length and handle are teflon against Toronto’s defensive pressure.
If the Warriors are playing him more out of necessity than readiness, they risk diminishing that impact. That, for the time being, is fine. They can’t afford to care. Their non-Stephen Curry, non-Klay Thompson players are shooting under 27 percent from three for the series, and Durant is at the very least another option who will split Kawhi Leonard’s defensive focus, and who allows head coach Steve Kerr to trot out the hyper-effective Draymond Green-at-center lineups that have barely breathed air in his absence.
Basically, the Warriors need whatever version of Durant they can get—even if it’s a half-hobbled iteration only suited to drain set jumpers off the catch.
Everybody is right to focus on the way KD will ease the scoring strain, but you can’t overlook how he can change things on the other end. His absence is one of the main reasons the Warriors haven’t been able to lean on their undersized lineups, which short-circuits their switching schemes. With Durant back, Golden State can slot Draymond Green at center, resurrect the Hamptons 5 and show the Raptors a look they haven’t seen in this series.
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The Warriors have gotten themselves into trouble defensively by sending two defenders to the ball and failing to rotate quickly enough when Toronto whips the ball around. The Raptors have generated heaps of open shots that way and converted a high percentage of them.
Now, if the Warriors can switch more liberally with Durant in the lineup, perhaps those tic-tac-toe sequences will disappear for Toronto. And even if Golden State continues to aggressively double when the opportunity arises, the help rotations should be quicker.
The smart money is on Durant’s return being too little, too late. But if he’s remotely healthy, he’ll unlock one of the Warriors’ most potent defensive looks.
Impact On Raptors
It’s unrealistic to expect Kevin Durant to be close to 100 percent when he takes the court Monday, given that he hasn’t played in over a month and was only cleared to return to practice 24 hours ago. But the Raptors defense has been dominant in this series by swarming Curry and daring the likes of Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie to make enough shots to beat them.
That isn’t going to work anymore with even the threat of a healthy Durant. Curry has been the Warriors’ only reliable shot creator in the Finals to this point, and that changes with KD back.
Equally intriguing will be how Durant changes the Warriors defensively. When healthy, he’s a game-changer at that end. But his physical condition will likely limit him, and it wouldn’t be a shock if the Raptors target him at that end and make him prove he’s healthy.
Durant’s return adds plenty of intrigue to Game 5 and beyond, but it’s likely going to be too little, too late.
With Durant back, Game 5 almost feels like a must-win for the Raptors. It’s wild to say that about the team up 3-1, but consider what Durant has done in the Finals over his career.
Among players with at least 100 minutes in the league’s biggest series, Durant has the highest average game score, with Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal rounding out the top five.
Toronto should have little interest in exposing itself to KD for more than one game. If the Warriors steal Monday’s tilt in Canada, you have to figure they will be favored in Game 6. Then, there’s the unpredictability of a Game 7.
All the while, Durant will be getting more treatment and presumably getting more up to speed.
Golden State has had no answer for Kawhi through four games. Now it might, and that could make all the difference.