After weeks of cruising in rarefied air above the mere mortals grinding their way through the 2019 NBA playoffs, Kevin Durant fell to earth. With just more than two minutes remaining in the third quarter of Rockets-Warriors Game 5, Durant lofted a one-dribble pull-up jumper over Houston swingman Iman Shumpert, and then he landed. Durant took a couple of steps, then grabbed his lower right leg and started limping his way back to the locker room, leading the basketball-watching world to fear the worst.
After about 15 tense minutes, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that it looked like Durant hadn’t, as TNT’s broadcasters repeatedly speculated, injured his Achilles tendon; the Warriors then quickly announced their superstar forward had suffered a right calf strain. After the Warriors survived another pulse-pounding affair against Houston to score a 104-99 win—and “survived” feels like the only word for it, given the every-possession-is-sudden-death tenor of that fourth quarter—and take a 3-2 series lead, both Woj and Golden State coach Steve Kerr said the team had ruled out the possibility of an Achilles tear. (A Thursday MRI confirmed the strain. Durant is set to be reevaulated next week, according to Woj.)
There’s an awful lot cast into chaos by Durant’s descent—from what kind of rotation Kerr will roll out in Game 6 to the fate of the 2019 NBA championship, and beyond.
As I watched the Warriors eke out the win in the closing seconds Wednesday, the term “Pyrrhic victory” came to mind. So did Chris Paul’s reaching for his right hamstring in Game 5 of last spring’s matchup between these two teams.
Chris Paul appears to aggravate hamstring injury late in 4th quarter pic.twitter.com/ZymxtH0J6Q— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 25, 2018
Paul had been brilliant in the second half of that game, scoring 18 of his 20 points to push Houston to the brink of a 3-2 lead. But then he crashed and had to watch the rest of the series from the sideline. The Rockets won the game, but lost the floor general they’d imported to help steel their reserve for these exact moments. Paul could only sit and watch as Houston squandered double-digit halftime leads in Game 6, which saw Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry combine for 64 points and 14 3-pointers, and Game 7, which featured the most staggering 3-point shooting slump in NBA playoff history. (The helplessness must have been agonizing to someone as competitive as Paul.)
The Rockets needed Paul to provide an elite playmaking complement to James Harden, to ensure their offense remained elite when Harden rested, and to act as the tip of the spear on the defensive end. Without him available to fill all those roles, Houston stumbled and came up just short of the brass ring. The Warriors hope the symmetry between the two cases stops shy of that point.
On paper, the Warriors don’t need Durant as much as last season’s Rockets needed Paul. They’ve still got Curry and two-way havoc wreaker Draymond Green to run the offense, Thompson to act as a defense-distorting motion scheme unto himself (no more settling from “crumbs” now), and Andre Iguodala to spark difference-making smart plays on both sides of the ball. In practice, though, Durant has been the Warriors’ most dangerous weapon all postseason, their break-in-case-of-emergency option whenever things get hairy. Against the Rockets, he’s averaging a team-high 33.2 points per game, while also serving as Golden State’s most accurate high-volume 3-point shooter, knocking down 43.8 percent of his 6.4 long-distance attempts a night. The Warriors can’t just replace his production. (Or, for that matter, the defensive versatility that allows a 7-footer with a transcontinental wingspan to check Harden, Paul, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, or anyone else in a Rockets jersey.)
Their best bet at trying, though, was on display late in Game 5: let Steph be Steph. Or, more accurately, force Steph to be Steph.
The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player has spent most of this postseason as a second option behind a wreathed-in-flames Durant. Even after a 30-point, eight-assist Game 4 to bounce back from a dismal Game 3, Curry seemed content early in Game 5 to occupy a supplemental role. When he did search for his own offense, Curry struggled mightily, missing seven of his first eight 3-point tries, 10 of his first 14 shots total, and several layups that should’ve been easy money.
With Durant gone for good, though, Curry had no choice: He had to be the one initiating the offense, spreading and puncturing the defense, and creating quality shots, because no other Warrior really could. So he went to work in the high pick-and-roll, partnering with Green and Kevon Looney to create space and opportunity. Then, he made the most of it.
Let's talk about how clutch Steph Curry was after Kevin Durant left the game. He finally stepped up and it was so damn gratifying to watch. pic.twitter.com/N0pFzirH5z— Chris Montano (@gswchris) May 9, 2019
Curry scored 16 of his 25 points after Durant’s exit, making five of his nine shot attempts and going 2-for-3 from deep. He also dished a pair of assists for layups, one for Green and one for Iguodala, that helped keep the Rockets at arm’s length long enough to secure the win.
”It reminded me of four or five years ago, before we had Kevin,” Kerr told reporters after the game. “... [Curry] doesn’t have as big of a burden on his shoulders now, but he’s fully capable of taking on that burden.”
Even during a series in which Curry’s had such a hard time getting his jumper to click, the threat of him pulling up to rain fire produces panic, which creates chances; the Warriors have continued to score at an elite level in Steph-but-no-KD minutes during both the regular season and playoffs. Replicating that no-Durant offense against Houston, though, could be a much tougher ask.
Even after leaving Game 5 before the end of the third quarter, Durant is still averaging a team-high 42.4 minutes per game in this series, and had played 41 or more in every game since Game 5 against the Clippers in Round 1. With Curry, Green, and Thompson all already averaging more than 40 minutes a night themselves—and Kerr having slotted Iguodala into the starting lineup at the beginning of the series, burning his most reliable reserve—there’s just not much more the coach can ask of his remaining starters in terms of additional playing time to defray the cost of losing KD. That means turning to the bench. And while Golden State’s “Strength in Numbers” slogan sounds great in theory, there’s not much in store for Kerr to count on.
Shaun Livingston, long one of Kerr’s most trusted backups, has looked like a man pondering retirement, shooting just 34.3 percent from the field this postseason. Kevon Looney is a load on the glass, but he’s got a limited offensive game. Alfonzo McKinnie is an energetic rebounder who can defend a couple of different spots, but he’s a trick-or-treat offensive contributor who’s just 3-for-14 from deep in the playoffs. Jonas Jerebko can space the floor some, but he’s only 3-for-11 in limited postseason burn. Quinn Cook can stroke the 3, but he’s undersized and prone to exploitation on the other end; Kerr’s dusted him off for just 42 minutes this postseason.
With the exceptions of Cook and maybe Jerebko, if Kerr rolls out a lineup with any of those players alongside Green and Iguodala, he’ll cramp Golden State’s already janky-at-times spacing. The Rockets will likely help liberally off them to swarm Curry and Thompson, hoping to force the ball out of their hands and make far iffier marksmen beat them. Considering that no game in this series has been decided by more than six points—and that the series as a whole has been played to the same margin, with Golden State outscoring Houston 552-546—the performance of those tertiary Warriors could determine whether Golden State can survive this series without KD.
The Rockets, for their part, will rue a missed opportunity to seize control. They erased a 20-point deficit with ruthless efficiency Wednesday, sitting tied at 84 after a Gordon 3-pointer with 6:09 to go. And while Harden—brilliant through three quarters, scoring or assisting on 42 of Houston’s first 72 points—largely receded from view late, attempting just one shot in the final eight and a half minutes of play, that was largely the result of him making the right reads out of the Warriors’ traps and setting the table for his teammates. The Rockets still scored well enough down the stretch, pouring in 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting in the fourth and getting at least something out of eight of the last 10 trips on which they attempted a shot. (It could’ve been more, too, if Tucker’s feet were just a little bit smaller, and if Paul—in the throes of perhaps the worst playoff performance of his career—still had enough burst to beat Looney to the rim.)
Houston just couldn’t quite come up with enough stops, though. The rebounding battle has been a major bellwether in this series, and the Warriors—desperate to escape with a win after Durant went down, lucky to have some of the game’s most vital bounces go their way—tilted it just enough to finish the job and push Houston to the brink.
The Rockets can force Golden State to join them there by winning Game 6 back in Houston on Friday. On Wednesday, Kerr told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic that Durant wouldn’t travel to Texas for the potential closeout game. Even if his teammates can beat the Rockets without him, he could miss some or all of the Western Conference finals, depending on the results of next week’s evaulation.
That would send Golden State into a tough matchup against either Nikola Jokic, the top non-Durant performer in the West this postseason, or Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, one of the few backcourts capable of coming out of a firefight with Steph and Klay unburnt. Survive that, and you’re staring down an NBA Finals matchup against, in all likelihood, either a marauding Bucks team with wing firepower to spare and a weapon of mass destruction in Giannis Antetokounmpo, or the resurgent Raptors, led by a now-fully-healthy version of a guy who briefly put the fear of God into them when they had an operational KD. To defend their title, the Warriors will have to survive—there’s that word again—that gantlet while fielding a five-man team incapable of throwing its best punch.
Maybe Golden State can manage to scrape through two more rounds. (If DeMarcus Cousins really can come back this postseason, that’d help.) But it sure doesn’t seem like nearly as much of a foregone conclusion as it did a month, or two weeks, or 24 hours ago, does it? The door’s more open now than it’s been since the summer of 2016, and it could swing wide depending on how Durant’s injury is looking next week. It is possible that we won’t see Durant again until the Finals; if things break bad for the Warriors in his absence, it’s possible we’ve already seen the end of the Kevin Durant era in Golden State. And if that’s true … well, the league could look a hell of a lot different by the next time we see him suit up.
Possibilities abound, which is exciting until you remember why. Until Durant returns, there will be a yawning vacancy at the heart of these playoffs—one befitting a player who only recently, for the first time in a career spent bristling at occupying second place, had finally risen to primacy in the public mind as the league’s best. This postseason was Durant’s highest moment. Eventually, though, everything that rises has to come down. The hope, at least, is that he won’t be down for long.
This piece was updated at 4 p.m. ET with additional information after publication.