The good, the bad, and the questionable from Wednesday night’s Game 5s.
Game 5: Warriors 104, Rockets 99
Injury Concern: Kevin Durant
With 2:11 left in the third quarter of Warriors-Rockets Game 5, Kevin Durant reportedly strained his right calf when he landed after a jumper. It was a 15-footer over Iman Shumpert to push the Warriors ahead three points, a shot we’ve seen a million times: Durant’s long arms stretching overtop his defender, the net swishing for him on command. But as Durant retreated back for defense, something new: He reached toward his lower leg. And he reached in a way we have seen before—not a million times, but enough. It’s hard to forget what an Achilles injury looks like, and that was the worst feared for Durant as he left for the locker room.
A calf strain is a relief by comparison but is still no small thing: Last season, Durant missed seven days—three games—due to a calf strain.
Loser: The Rockets’ Attempts to Capitalize
It’s a popular question: How many Warriors need to go down for anyone else to have a chance? Take away one—Durant, for example, who left late in the third quarter with a calf strain—and Golden State will probably still win. The combination of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and [traditional low-usage rate big man of your choosing] has won a chip before. But lose two Warriors—say, Durant and Green, the latter of whom fouled out with 1:14 remaining in the game—and it’s no longer a superteam. Houston beat Golden State twice in this series with the Warriors at full strength. On Wednesday, with their best chance to pull ahead in the series after Durant and Green went out, the Rockets failed to capitalize.
Golden State played the entire final quarter without Durant, its best player. Meanwhile, Houston’s best player went into hiding: James Harden took only one shot after the 8:58 mark, when he missed a 3, and it was a layup with 18.6 seconds left. For the majority of the fourth quarter, the Rockets’ top scoring option didn’t look twice at the basket. It wasn’t as if Harden were having an off-night, either; his final line was 31 points on 10-for-16 shooting overall, 3-for-9 from deep, and 8-for-10 from the free throw line. His two sidekicks didn’t have the hot hand, either: Chris Paul went 3-for-14 from the field (0-for-6 from 3), and Eric Gordon 5-for-14.
When asked about Harden being quiet in the fourth, Mike D’Antoni replied that “he kind of let it go a little bit, but we scored every time that he was quiet.” For the most part, this is true, save an Iman Shumpert missed 3 or a P.J. Tucker layup gone awry. And once Green had fouled out, Clint Capela was free to return to catching lobs unobstructed. Still, if there were ever a time for Harden, the man who led the league in usage rate this season, to take over rather than “kind of let it go a little bit,” it’s a tied series against the best team in the world.
Winner: Steph Curry Returning to Form
These playoffs haven’t been Curry’s best. To be fair, he’s had his share of great postseasons! But these—and this series against the Rockets, especially—haven’t been great, not by typical Steph standards or by any standards, really. Through the first four games versus Houston, Curry averaged 21.3 points on 19 shots. That’s 39.5 percent from the field. Even worse, he shot 26.1 percent from behind the arc, a.k.a. the Russell Westbrook special.
The majority of Game 5 was headed the same direction. Before Durant’s injury, through almost three quarters, Curry had nine points on 4-for-14 shooting. He had taken eight 3s and missed seven. But after Durant left for the locker room, the real Steph Curry stood up. In the remaining quarter and change, he scored a quick 16 points on nine shots. Curry lighting up in Durant’s absence isn’t an example of the Ewing Theory—Durant is the Warriors’ best player, but Curry’s too close in talent for anyone to count the team out sans Durant—but it’s not new, either:
Steph Curry had 16 points on 9 shots after Kevin Durant got hurt. For as long as KD is out, we'll witness old Steph:— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) May 9, 2019
Curry with KD: 25 points on 17.5 shots per 75 possessions
Curry without KD: 30.7 points on 24 shots per 75 possessions
These are playoff numbers since 2016-17.
Game 5: Bucks 116, Celtics 91
Loser: Kyrie Irving’s Irish Goodbye
At a fan event in October, Kyrie Irving told the TD Garden crowd that he wanted to re-sign with the team this summer “if you guys will have me back.” After his second-round performance against the Bucks, I’m not sure Boston will. In fact, he played an awful lot like a man who doesn’t want that invitation. Irving shot badly in Game 5 and defended worse, finishing with 15 points, one rebound, one assist, one steal, three turnovers, two fouls, and a gaggle of missed assignments. He took one lone trip to the line and went 1-for-7 from behind the arc.
Irving is one of the better point guards in a league congested with them, a crafty, iso-adept ball handler who was expected to thrive under Brad Stevens. Had Irving and his younger teammates never clashed off the court, as they did multiple times this season, Boston might’ve realized its potential on it. That’s the clean, easy rationale for this Celtics season, a letdown on all accounts. But locker room disagreements didn’t lose the Milwaukee series, a nonstarter offense led by Irving did.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Irving is the first Celtic to go four straight playoff games taking 15 or more shots and making them at a rate lower than 40 percent since Sam Jones in 1966. (But, hey, Jones is a Hall of Famer.) Irving was all at once doing too much and not doing enough against Milwaukee, especially in Game 5: He opted for ornate jumpers in traffic over finding teammates, and on defense, he was sometimes not even close enough to his man to contest the shot.
More questionable defense from Kyrie: George Hill is his man and Baynes has Giannis. What is Kyrie doing here? pic.twitter.com/GxUiPvHjjy— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) May 9, 2019
Irving went on his runs, as he does. He entered the second quarter with 3:54 remaining and scored seven points in less than two minutes. But even those were unexpected, and from start to finish, there was the same degree of uncertainty in his performance in Game 5 as there was in his happiness in Boston all season.
Winner: The Body of the Buck
Let’s rewind to before the season began. Take the best player from each team in this series out of the picture. So, Giannis Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee, and for Boston …. Irving? Jayson Tatum? Al Horford? YABU? In October, I’d tell you Boston has the better remaining roster. Tatum will be a star, I would say; Gordon Hayward once was a star himself, in the very recent past; Al Horford, five-time All-Star, technically still is. But that was before Mike Budenholzer repurposed Jason Kidd’s mess (and before Irving destroyed Boston’s locker room chemistry) (and before Tatum trained with Kobe Bryant) (and before Hayward stepped back on the court).
In the Bucks-Celtics series, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe were the superior complementary players. They combined for 37 points to close out Game 5, making up for the Bucks’ other other starter, Brook Lopez, who went 0-for-7 from behind the arc for zero points. The Bucks go deeper, too. Malcolm Brogdon played his first game back after missing seven weeks. George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova racked up double digits. And then there’s Pat Connaughton, who played the most minutes of any Bucks reserve in Game 5 with 28, and who tied for a game-high 11 rebounds.
Loser: Paul Pierce, the Prophet
Sometimes the Truth can’t handle the truth.