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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Durant Provides Spark Before Getting Injured Again, Warriors Hang on to Beat Raptors, 106-105

The king is not dead--at least not yet. The two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors took a double digit lead in game five, survived Kevin Durant's re-injury and staged a last minute comeback to defeat Toronto, 106-105. The series returns to Oakland for game six and the Warriors still have an opportunity to become the first NBA team since the 2000-02 Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant-led L.A. Lakers to win three straight titles.

However, this night will very possibly be remembered not for a classic Finals game with a dramatic ending but rather for the moment that might have changed the landscape for the entire NBA--because all signs are pointing toward Durant's injury not being merely an aggravation of his original calf issue but a serious injury that could sideline Durant far beyond just the 2019 NBA Finals. Golden State General Manager Bob Myers' stunning, teary-eyed post-game press conference--during which he described Durant's injury as an "Achilles injury" and implored the assembled media to "blame" him for the decision to have Durant play--strongly suggests that the Warriors fear that Durant has suffered an Achilles tendon tear, which would have huge implications not only for this series but also for the entire league. Rather than providing what was expected to just be an update about Durant's condition, Myers went into great detail about how the entire medical staff, through a "collaborative" effort, cleared Durant to play and that no one is to blame for what happened but that since someone is always blamed in today's world that he--Myers--will accept that blame. Myers did not provide any details beyond confirming that Durant suffered an Achilles injury and will have an MRI on Tuesday but why would Durant leave on crutches with the game in progress and why would Myers be so emotional if this were just a re-injury?

Once Durant's exact condition is confirmed, there will be plenty of time to analyze the decision to let him play and to break down the league-wide implications of that decision but for now we will return our focus to game five and to this series.

In his 12 minutes of action, Durant scored 11 points on 3-5 field goal shooting (including 3-3 from three point range) and posted the best plus/minus number (+6) for Golden State; three of the other four Golden State starters had negative plus/minus numbers, with only Andre Iguodala (+3) in positive territory. We got a glimpse of the reality about these two teams; with Kevin Durant, the Warriors are clearly the superior team but without Durant the matchup is in Toronto's favor, though the Warriors can still generate enough spurts to pull out a win.

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 31 points on 10-23 field goal shooting (including 5-14 from three point range), while also grabbing eight rebounds and dishing seven assists. Klay Thompson scored 26 points on 9-21 field goal shooting (including 7-13 from three point range) and, with just under a minute left in the fourth quarter, he calmly drained the three point shot that turned out to be the game-winner. DeMarcus Cousins--pushed out of the starting lineup with Durant's return--stayed ready, and after Durant went down he contributed 14 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes. The Warriors do not win this game without his scoring and inside presence.

The Raptors blew a golden opportunity to clinch a championship and if they do not win this series they will surely rue their awful three point shooting (8-32). Kawhi Leonard had an up and down game by his high standards. He finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists but he also had five turnovers and shot just 9-24 from the field. His personal 10-0 run during the fourth quarter seemed to put him on the verge of clinching his second Finals MVP but the Warriors answered with a 9-0 run and the outcome shifts the focus back to the long stretches during this game when Leonard did not impose his will, which is uncharacteristic for him during this series specifically and during this postseason in general. Still, his presence always had a significant impact and it is telling that on the final possession of the game the Warriors played what could best be called an "anyone but Kawhi" defense: they trapped Kawhi in the middle of the court and showed that, with elimination on the line in a game that they only led by one point, they were willing to live with a wide open shot by anyone else on the court. "Anyone else" turned out to be five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, whose last second shot from the left corner was not even close.

Lowry finished with 18 points and six assists, while Marc Gasol had 17 points and eight rebounds. Serge Ibaka scored 15 points and collected six rebounds in just 17 minutes.

The start of the game had a different feel from the previous four games, as the insertion of Durant into the starting lineup had an obvious effect on both teams. Durant hit his first two shots--both from beyond the three point arc--to give the Warriors an 11-6 lead. Golden State was up 34-28 by the end of the first quarter. Curry, freed from the responsibility of being his team's best player and the focus of the Toronto defense, scored 14 points on 5-6 field goal shooting, while Durant looked as sharp as ever with 11 points on 3-4 field goal shooting.

Golden State led 39-34 at the 9:46 mark in the second quarter when Durant was helped off of the court and taken straight to the locker room. He suffered the injury with minimal or no contact; he was trying to drive by Ibaka when his lower right leg just gave out, much like it did when he had the original calf injury--but it was evident from his reaction and the reaction of his teammates that this time was different.

Cousins took Durant's place in the lineup and he had an immediate impact. Just like it is stupid to suggest that the Warriors are better without Durant, it is also stupid to suggest that the Warriors are better without Cousins, a four-time All-Star. Cousins is recovering from two serious injuries, so clearly he is not 100% physically and he is not in prime cardiovascular condition yet but he scores, rebounds, passes and knows how to use his size effectively. The Warriors initially extended their lead to double digits after Durant left the game, and if you tilted your head just right you could hear the keyboards of the "stat gurus" clattering as they furiously typed their "Golden State is better without Durant--but Cousins is still a scrub" stories--and then, in the second half, reality struck back hard. Golden State led 62-56 at halftime but the Warriors were outscored 49-44 in the second half, a glimpse of what the rest of this series will probably look like.

A lot of interesting things happened in the second half that will be swept away in light of Durant's injury and the frantic closing minutes but it is worth mentioning a few of these occurrences. Draymond Green picked up his sixth technical foul of the playoffs, which not only could have cost the Warriors this game--and the series--but also means that if he gets one more technical foul he will be suspended for a game. You may recall that a suspension for excessive technical fouls was one factor in Cleveland's comeback versus Golden State in the 2016 Finals. Fred VanVleet was awful in the first half--which is not surprising considering the inadvertent elbow to the face from Shaun Livingston that he suffered last game, a blow that drew blood and knocked at least one tooth loose--but he drained three three pointers in the second half and would have been one of this game's heroes if Toronto had held on to win. The Raptors need timely contributions from VanVleet in order to close out Golden State.

Draymond Green took a second stab at being the goat when he committed a backcourt violation in the last minute of the game. Toronto took advantage of this opportunity with a Lowry layup that trimmed Golden State's lead to 106-105. Then, Cousins committed an offensive foul on Golden State's next possession, giving the Raptors a chance to win on the game's final possession. For some odd reason, the Raptors did not seem to anticipate or prepare for the "anyone but Kawhi" defense. Leonard made the correct basketball play by swinging the ball, resulting in Lowry's baseline attempt that went awry, but if the Raptors had executed better and had better spacing then Leonard would have perhaps had a chance to create a shot for himself.

The Warriors escaped to live for at least one more game and the Raptors have to put this one behind them quickly so that they can embrace the great opportunity they will have in game six to win a championship.

It must be said that some of the media coverage leading up to game five was bizarre. Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated declared that Kawhi Leonard has a chance to join Hakeem Olajuwon and LeBron James on the exclusive list of players who have averaged 30 ppg and 9 rpg during a playoff run. Ignoring for a moment that the 30-9 combination of numbers seems a bit contrived, it is sad that many of those who cover pro basketball know so little about anything that happened in the sport before the mid-1990s. Even without an editor and a fact-checker, anyone who has a basic knowledge of pro basketball history knows Shapiro's statement is false. Off the top of my head, I immediately thought of Bob Pettit, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Bob McAdoo and Shaquille O'Neal. Again, the 30-9 combination is a bit odd--why not 31 and 8 or 29 and 11 if we are not going to use round numbers like 30-10?--but Olajuwon, James and Leonard are far from the only players who combined elite scoring with near-double figure rebounding during the playoffs. For the record, Pettit had one 31-15 playoff season, Chamberlain began his playoff career with four straight postseasons of at least 33-23, Elgin Baylor had four straight playoffs averaging at least 32-13, Abdul-Jabbar had four postseasons with at least 31-12 and Erving averaged 33-20 as a rookie and then 34-12 four postseasons later during one of the most dominant playoff performances in pro basketball history. McAdoo had two playoff runs of at least 31-13, McGinnis had one 32-15 playoff run and O'Neal had three 30-10 playoff runs. No wonder commentators think that everything that is happening now (other than Russell Westbrook's triple double seasons; those have to be minimized at all costs for some inexplicable reason) is the greatest thing ever; they do not have the vaguest concept about what transpired in previous eras.

Leonard has had a great 2019 playoff run but his playoff run is not in a scoring/rebounding category that includes only Olajuwon and James.

Shapiro's nonsense was just a warmup before reading an article by Greg Cote of the Miami Herald. Cote declared that if Durant does not lead Golden State to a comeback from a 3-1 deficit then this proves that he is not indispensable, or, as the headline put it, Durant "must now rescue Golden State to save his legacy." It is true that writers do not necessarily write the headlines but in this instance the article's theme was as stupid as the headline. Let's get this straight: if Durant did not come back from more than a month off due to a serious injury and then lead the Warriors to a historic Finals comeback from a 3-1 deficit against a team that enjoys home court advantage then his "legacy" is ruined? So, two championships, two Finals MVPs and an 8-1 (now, 9-1) record in the NBA Finals with Durant compared to one championship and an 8-9 record in the NBA Finals without Durant does not at least suggest--if not prove--that Durant is "indispensable"? Get out of here with that nonsense. It is amazing that people are actually paid to write things that make no sense and have no factual basis.

Durant risked his health to come back, he may suffer for it the rest of his career and if the Warriors win this championship they would not have been able to do it without the boost that he provided--but he still has something to prove, some part of his legacy that needs protecting? That may be the worst basketball "analysis" that I have read since Kobe Bryant was in his prime and media members were dueling with themselves to see who could display the least understanding of his impact and value.

So, what is going to happen next? Michael Shapiro and Greg Cote probably are confident that they can predict this with certainty, but anyone who claims to know what will happen next is a fool. It is obviously demoralizing for the Raptors to blow a six point lead when they were less than three minutes away from clinching the franchise's first championship, but it is also demoralizing for the Warriors to rush their best player back into action and lose him to a possibly serious injury.

Without Durant on the court, the Raptors led Golden State 3-1 and since Durant is surely out for the rest of the series it is clear that the Raptors enjoy a distinct advantage. Will they close out the series in California, or at home in game seven? That is hard to say but the Raptors have shown the ability throughout the playoffs to shrug off tough losses and bounce back--and the Warriors have not shown the ability to win consistently in the Finals without Durant. The objective evidence points toward an eventual Toronto victory but there are good reasons that I picked Golden State before the series without knowing when/if Durant would return; the Warriors are a veteran-laden legitimate championship contender even without Durant and, although they cannot dominate elite competition without him, they can hold their own and have a puncher's chance at the end. It will definitely be interesting to see how this turns out.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 AM



At Tuesday, June 11, 2019 1:10:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


Great article. Tough game to watch. If Durant did tear his Achilles, I wish him a speedy recovery. I love Kyle Lowry and appreciate him as a human being and as a player, but he reminds me a lot of Pau Gasol from a mental standpoint.

Kawhi Leonard has been one of my favorite players for the past 4-5 seasons. I love elite defensive players, and even when he wasn't the offensive player he is today, he always was a beast defensively. That said, I don't know how to measure his performance historically, or even against his peers for that matter.

I would like your take on how much of his performance is due to only playing 60 games this past season. He looks better than everyone else, not just because he may actually be better, but also because he's the most well-rested. He even admitted as much in a recent interview. He credited load management.

I appreciate you providing context and facts regarding historical performances of other NBA players that a lot of people are unaware of. Most of those guys you mentioned played full seasons on top of excelling in the playoffs and then the finals. The NBA season is a grind. Add to that the intensity of the playoffs, and it's understandable how teams like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers and this Warriors team, lose steam the more they win year after year.

And while all of the players you mentioned had a shorter playoffs due to the previous format, they still shouldered a heavier load in terms of minutes played, especially considering Leonard missed all but 9 games last year.

I wonder then, how his performance rates with all time greats.

At Tuesday, June 11, 2019 2:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Lowry is a baffling player. He can be smart, tough and clutch but he also can be dumb and not clutch (in terms of his decision making, ill-timed fouls, low shooting percentage, etc.).

Gasol is a smart player, almost too smart for his own good as he tends to overthink instead of just getting into a flow. Gasol is probably not as physically tough as Lowry.

So, not sure that I completely get the comparison but there are some similarities, the main one being that neither guy has ever been well suited to being the first option on a championship contender. Gasol was a solid number 2 and Lowry looks like a "2.5" (weak two or strong three).

I intend to write about Leonard's overall 2019 postseason after the Finals. His postseason is still in progress with one or two games to go, so the body of work is not complete and thus cannot be compared to complete postseasons logged by the greats of the past. It will obviously make a difference if Leonard is the 2019 Finals MVP for a championship team or the best player on a team that blew a 3-1 Finals lead while only having to face Durant for 12 minutes. Then, there is the horrible possibility that Leonard also gets injured and is not on the court when the outcome is decided; he was visibly limited for several games and, though he appears to be OK now, we just saw last time how tenuous life and basketball can be.

Hopefully, Durant will recover quickly and no one else will get hurt.

At Tuesday, June 11, 2019 4:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leonard is obviously TOR's best player. But what needs to be mentioned and not forgotten is that TOR was better without Leonard than with him, and considerably better. 41-19 with and 17-5 without. 22 games is definitely a large enough sample size, too. His cast might not seem that great on paper, but they have performed remarkably well. Without Leonard, they played at a 63-win pace, which would've been the top record in the entire NBA this season. So, Leonard has a considerable amount of help.

Leonard and TOR are also going up against a very depleted GS team. GS is very talented and very deep still, but several key players have been substantially injured that has limited their minutes. Injuries have greatly limited 4 of their top 6-7 players.

At Tuesday, June 11, 2019 10:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That stat of Toronto with and without Leonard means about as much as the stat of Golden State with Durant and without Durant. Obviously, a good and deep team can win a high percentage of regular season games in a small sample size without their best player. It is also possible that many of those wins came against inferior teams and/or teams that were also missing key players.

Toronto and Golden State both have excellent supporting casts and they both have one player who is clearly more valuable than anyone else on the squad.

If you are going to put some kind of metaphorical asterisk next to a Toronto championship (if Toronto wins the championship), then also put asterisks by Golden State's 2015 championship (Love and Irving were injured) and Golden State's 2017 championship (Golden State took out Kawhi Leonard with a dirty play in game one of the Western Conference Finals while Leonard's Spurs were beating the brakes off of the Warriors).

There a plenty of asterisks that can be attached to championship teams, if one wants to go that route.

At Wednesday, June 12, 2019 12:10:00 AM, Blogger Tristan said...

Very tough break for Durant and the Warriors, I sincerely hope that Durant recovers well enough, and continues to play at a high level for years to come. He's truly one of the sport's all-time transcendent talents (maybe the first 7-foot shooting guard, instead of his nominal "small" forward role), and arguably the game's best player, given his scoring prowess and Finals MVPs over the self-anointed, over-hyped and over-coddled claimant to that title (James).

KD's got an outside chance, if he can bounce back and produce for several more seasons, to become the league's all-time leading scorer.

That SI writer made his entire "hot take" moot by forgetting / disregarding the Hall-of-Famers who accomplished the 30-10 milestone in their playoff careers. The lame-stream sports media will jump at any chance to gratuitously plug in LeBron James, to embellish his legacy (or the public's perception of it).

Back to the Finals, this series is probably going the full 7.

At Wednesday, June 12, 2019 5:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, 22 games isn't a small sample size. Second, nobody was implying anything about an asterisk, though context is needed. Third, it doesn't look that good for Leonard. And as someone else pointed, the 22 games of rest he has gotten has helped a lot. All I'm saying is that Leonard very fortunate to face a much-depleted GS team and he's being hyped up quite a bit too much. There's little chance TOR wins otherwise. It's going 6 games already.

Timing is key. If HOU faced the current GS edition, they win. And if TOR faced the 2nd round GS edition, they probably lose, especially since they barely escaped PHI in the 2nd round.

And it's kinda ironic how you say Pachulia made a dirty play vs Leonard in 2017 while GS players were doing similar things to HOU's players by not letting them land after their shots this playoffs and then you're claiming how HOU's players were flopping or whining or whatever. Can't have it both ways.

At Thursday, June 13, 2019 12:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I picked Golden State to win this series but I made at least two assumptions that have not panned out: I assumed that Toronto's role players would not perform as well against Golden State as they did in earlier rounds and I assumed that Durant would probably play more than 12 minutes (I still thought Golden State could win without him but only in a long, tough series).

After five games, we have seen Toronto outplay Golden State in three of the four games that Durant did not play. In Golden State's one win, the Warriors had to overcome a 12 point deficit to barely survive. In game five, Golden State was outscored during the 36 minutes that Durant did not play; without the emotional lift and the production he provided, the series would probably be over now.

The hot take is going to be that Toronto will be so devastated by the squandered opportunity that they cannot recover; the reality is that the Raptors overcame adversity against both Philly and Milwaukee. I would not be shocked to see the series go seven but, objectively, the most likely outcome is that Toronto wins game six. Golden State's best player without Durant is a 6-3 guard who has proven that he wears down as the NBA Finals progress--and he has never been the best player for an entire NBA Finals, five games into his fifth Finals. Leonard has already won one Finals MVP, and he will probably author a signature performance on Thursday night. Anything could happen, but the above is the most likely scenario.

At Thursday, June 13, 2019 1:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Whether or not a sample size is small or statistically significant depends on what you are trying to measure. Here, we are talking about 22 games scattered throughout the season that the Raptors strategically chose to use as opportunities to rest Leonard. Presumably, the Raptors not only considered Leonard's needs but also which games they likely could win without him.

So, just glancing at Toronto's regular season wins without Leonard, we see Phoenix, Washington (twice), Atlanta (twice), Chicago (twice), New York (twice), Memphis, Sacramento, Miami. When they played good teams without Leonard, they typically lost and often by a lot (-25 versus Philly, -15 versus Milwaukee, -15 versus Orlando).

Before you go "Nick" on me and grab one or two stats out of context, yes, Toronto won one game against Golden State without Leonard and also one game against Utah without Leonard. Such things happen over the course of a long NBA season. The 72-10 Chicago Bulls lost by 32 points to the Knicks in a regular season game with both Jordan and Pippen playing.

You most certainly did imply an asterisk, both in terms of Leonard's supporting cast and in terms of the opposition he is facing. You stated that in what you consider to be a statistically significant sample size of games the Raptors were "considerably better" without Leonard. Then, you mentioned that Golden State is "much depleted." Again, if you want to place asterisks on championships during the past five years, let's start with 2015 (Irving/Love) and then go from there. You can't have it both ways.

The Golden State players never did to any Houston player what Pachulia did to Leonard. Pachulia practically hopped, skipped and jumped to make sure that his foot was underneath where Leonard landed. His movement was completely unnatural and has been specifically outlawed by the NBA. In contrast, Houston tries to cheat the game and bend the rules by expanding "landing area" to the point that it is meaningless. Just look at footage of Harden in the three point contest: he jumps up and then lands in the same space from which he jumped--but in a game if a defender is anywhere near him he may jump three feet forward, three feet to the left, three feet to the right or three feet backward. How is a defender supposed to contest his shot without entering a "landing area" that is apparently six feet by six feet? The NBA needs to define a sensible "landing area" and not reward offensive players who blatantly try to cheat the game.

At Thursday, June 13, 2019 1:46:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Golden State still has the luxury of starting five players who have All-Star selections even without Durant. They did so in Game 4 and were defeated pretty handily anyway. Toronto has three current All-Star players (and maybe a fourth future one in Pascal) in a completely healthy starting lineup. On paper, GSW is still the more talented team. The main issue is that their one current missing player is their actual best player and Leonard has instead been the best overall player this series, not Curry or anyone else.


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