After last night’s Game 5, the word that Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers would address the media felt like one last stomach churn in a night full of them.
When Myers took the podium, choking back tears, to announce that Kevin Durant had suffered an Achilles injury, it was the period on a long, strange Game 5 — one that ended with Golden State making the last run and taking the series back to Oracle Arena down 3-2.
“Sports is, it’s people, sports is people,” said Myers. “I know Kevin takes a lot of hits sometimes, but he just wants to play basketball and right now he can’t.”
Myers’ statement was hard to watch in the moment and prescient as you take a step back. Basketball, especially, is a sport driven by people, where a game can quickly become about one player, about a redemption story and his team’s motivation — even when there are stakes elsewhere on the court.
Twenty-two years ago today, NBC cold opened their broadcast of another Finals Game 5 with the word that Michael Jordan had the flu. Playing without sleep, barely able to stand, and hydrating between whistles — the basketball game was lost in the analysis of Jordan.
For anyone who’s watched that game, you can’t help but watch Jordan for the signs of sickness; how his game was changing, getting lost in the story of one player. After 45 points and the game-winning shot, Jordan’s flu game is cemented in basketball history — the Utah Jazz, the Game 6 win that followed (including a game-winner from Steve Kerr), it all took a back seat to Jordan’s feat, one that seemed bigger than basketball.
OTD in 1997: Michael Jordan's Flu Game— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) June 11, 2019
(via @NBATV) pic.twitter.com/cKHACBIHWb
There was a similar surreality around last night’s Game 5. Despite four games already being played, it felt like a new series was starting with the return of Durant. Nerves were at an all-time high, knowing that the last punch against a defending champion is always the hardest to throw.
The outset of the game confirmed the paranoia. The Warriors came out blazing, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Durant all making impossible threes. Durant, for his part, looked as close to 100% as you can be, splashing three triples with a hand in his face — including his patented top of the key shot in transition. He also blocked Pascal Siakam inside, while unlocking the Warriors’ offense by putting a third elite shooter on the floor.
The game’s momentum stopped, though, when Durant went down early in the second quarter.
Some fans cheered as Kevin Durant exited with an injury, and the players weren't having it— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 11, 2019
Everything happened all at once. Durant clutched at a spot too low to be a calf injury. The Raptors fans reacted by cheering — not just in Scotiabank Arena, but outside, in bars, and all over social media. Too many places to not feel some secondhand guilt for disgusting behaviour. The Raptors players did their part, physically silencing the crowd from the court. A chant of “KD” and a standing ovation was an attempt to save face by the rest of the fans in the building, but one that wasn’t received from the audience watching the game.
“I’ve lived here, I really enjoyed the people and their passion and excitement for not only the game, but just when you come into town they just enjoy life and they’re nice people,” said a political Steph Curry on the moment. “That’s not my experience with this city and I just hope that ugliness doesn’t show itself again as we go forward in this series.”
The response from both teams in the minutes after Durant left was really where the game was decided. The Raptors, fresh with the opportunity of going against a lineup with DeMarcus Cousins at centre — one they had played off the court in Game 4 — watched as Cousins scored seven unanswered points, part of a 13-4 run that stretched Golden State’s lead into double digits. It was quickly apparent that the Raptors might’ve been more rattled by Durant’s injury than Golden State.
“To Steph’s credit, he kind of rallied the troops,” said Draymond Green. “He talked to everybody, went around the huddle and just told everybody to stay locked in and do this for Kevin.”
Toronto became part of the Warriors’ narrative from there. Every time the Raptors made a run, Golden State answered back, both keeping the fans in an uncomfortable state of anxiety and furthering the incredible story of winning despite Durant’s injury. Curry and Klay Thompson were the best players on the floor, the former dropping 31 on 23 shots and the latter putting in 26 on 21. Efficiency be damned, they dragged their team to victory.
“They’re amazing. They’re amazing competitors, great shooters,” said Steve Kerr. “Mark Jackson said it years ago, they’re the best shooting back court of all time. But maybe what people don’t know is how competitive they are, and I thought that showed tonight.”
Kawhi Leonard, for his part, almost wrestled the game singlehandedly back to the Raptors in the fourth quarter. Ten straight points from Kawhi gave the Raptors a six-point lead, but after Nick Nurse took a use-it-or-lose-it timeout to rest his team at the three-minute mark, the air came back into the Warriors instead. Curry and Thompson both made clutch threes to take the lead back, and Golden State played picture perfect defence on the final possession of the game — Green blocking Kyle Lowry’s shot at the buzzer to seal it.
From here, the need for the Raptors to turn the page from Game 5 is obvious. The Warriors may have added motivation, but they’ve lost the bodies that they needed to win in the first place. Durant is now out of the series for good. Kevon Looney may play again, but his chest injury hasn’t allowed him to play long stretches. The Warriors’ centres behind those two — Cousins, Andrew Bogut, Jordan Bell — have given back as much as they’ve provided in this series.
The Raptors just have to be better than mediocre, and eliminate the small mistakes that added up over the totality of Game 5. Fred VanVleet fouling Curry on two three-pointers was critical. Kyle Lowry’s turnover in the last two minutes was a backbreaker — part of 13 committed as a team. Shooting 25% from three won’t cut it. Even Kawhi, who nearly stole the game himself, started the game poorly and finished just 9-for-24 from the field.
There are players ready to be heroes, ready to make their own title moments. Serge Ibaka was great again, playing with aggression in the second half to get to 15 points. Marc Gasol was up from the opening tap, making 4-of-6 overall to score 17. Even Lowry, who is always fighting against his playoff narrative even when it no longer makes sense, shot 50% for 18 points to go with six assists and four rebounds.
In Game 5, Durant went off early, the Warriors self-motivated in the second quarter, Curry and Thompson made their critical shots late — and the Raptors lost by one point. The front page story hanging out there is admittedly great: a defending champion loses their superstar in heartbreaking fashion, then comes back from down 3-1 to win.
The Raptors need to understand, though, that they’re too good to be someone else’s plot device. Game 6 will be another chance to show their resilience, and my bet is we see it in droves.