Inside one of the most bizarre nights in NBA history

June 11, 2019 in Sports

Are the Golden State Warriors better without Kevin Durant?

Check that: The Warriors need Kevin Durant.

But the daily will-he-or-won’t-he hangs like a cloud over the Warriors’ locker room.

It’s a lot like his impending free agency.

And why won’t he play? Klay Thompson gutted it out on a busted hamstring. So did Kevon Looney, and he injured his damn collarbone.

For 11 minutes, 57 seconds, Durant could finally respond to every barb thrown his direction since he injured his calf in the second round.

And, oh, how he did it, reminding the world of his importance, his dedication, the fact that no matter what happens off the court, his game remains above reproach, his sanctuary, the place where one of the most talented, complex players in the history of the sport has always given it all.

Take one series with 90 seconds remaining in the first quarter. At once, he was a spindly 7-footer bumping Serge Ibaka out of the paint, then a Defensive Player of the Year candidate meeting Fred VanVleet at the rim, forcing a kick-out. The kid who couldn’t bench press his own weight 12 years ago summoning the dexterity and strength and instinct to snatch the offensive rebound from Kawhi Leonard’s famed claws, and the sheer want to dive on the floor after his deflection, drawing a loose-ball foul on Ibaka, and calmly nailing the free throws on the other end while the Raptors’ crowd tried to muster a “New York Knicks” chant. Then there was the Slim Reaper, dribbling up the floor, coming off a screen, and drilling his third triple — this one in Ibaka’s face — to give the Dubs a six-point lead.

Nobody knew what to expect from him. He was more than a warm body, more than a spot-up shooter. He was Kevin freaking Durant, exerting the full command of his powers on the Raptors and Leonard, who threatened his perch as the NBA’s best player.

Ten minutes later, he crumpled to the floor, holding onto his foot while his calf convulsed.

After the Warriors survived, 106-105, keeping their season alive for one last game at Oracle Arena, a teary-eyed Bob Myers took to the interview table to tell reporters Durant injured his Achilles and would need an MRI. “To tell you something about Kevin Durant … Kevin Durant loves to play basketball, and the people that questioned whether he wanted to get back to this team were wrong,” he said. “He’s one of the most misunderstood people. He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person. It’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him.”

Suddenly, a game that had all the makings of a classic got warped into a new dimension. Forget the series — the whistle sounded and the game went on, while the future of a generational talent hung in the balance. What transpired was the most perplexing, high-stakes game in NBA history. “It’s a bizarre feeling that we all have right now,” said coach Steve Kerr after the game. “An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.”

It started with the crowd’s reaction, which set the mood for the next few minutes. First, there were taunts. Then Ibaka, Durant’s former teammate, waved his arms down and up, a signal, basically, for the fans to shut up and have some tact. The PA announcer even issued a, “Shhh,” which customarily plays when a Raptor is at the free-throw line. That’s when the crowd shifted to clapping when Durant got up, and a “KD” chant broke out as he limped into the tunnel, flanked by Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry.

It was almost as if the fans clued into the talk of how well-behaved Canadians have been throughout this run (zero arrests!) and remembered to play the part. But fans, no matter the country, are just fans: fickle, selfish, prone to irrational tribalism that will not make a human of any opponent. All in all, it was a bad look.

“There was just a couple minutes there where it all seemed so eerie and strange,” Kerr said. “And it took maybe a little bit for both teams to collect themselves.” Eerie … surreal … abnormal. Pick any words you use when you just don’t have the words.

The part that made sense: The Warriors harnessed the emotion of the moment and rallied behind Curry’s and Thompson’s impossible shooting. “You could kind of just feel the life just go right out of us,” Draymond Green said. “But to Steph’s credit, he kind of rallied the troops. He talked to everybody, went around the huddle and just told everybody to stay locked in and do this for Kevin.”

But so much of what happened in between didn’t sit right. It was almost like Game 5 was a one-off Very Special Episode that had nothing to do with the structure or character development of the rest of the series, allowing the puppet masters to take the story in any direction they wanted because they didn’t have to worry about Episode Two.

Leonard, who has treated the stakes of every game as a new personal barometer, didn’t show up until the final seven minutes, scoring 12 points in four minutes and putting the Raptors up six with three minutes to go. Danny Green air-balled a wide-open three. Draymond Green had two backcourt violations, one of which wasn’t reviewed — and likely would have been overturned — in the final minute of the game.

Then, with a one-point lead, the Warriors in possession of the ball, and 16 seconds left on the clock, the referees whistled DeMarcus Cousins for the most innocuous of plays — a moving screen — giving the Raptors a chance to end Golden State’s season and win their first title in franchise history. But the champagne remained in storage.

Despite having to inbound the ball, Raptors coach Nick Nurse elected not to call timeout. Leonard secured possession of the ball with Thompson guarding him, and Andre Iguodala made the heady decision to take the ball out of the hands of the scariest closer in basketball, swarming Leonard and cutting off his runway to the rim. Leonard kicked it out and VanVleet, the release valve, made the extra pass to Lowry, whose shot from the corner was blocked by Draymond Green.

The tide was on the Raptors’ side: a six-point lead with three minutes left, and a series of weird whistles that gave them a chance to win at the end. But they couldn’t clasp on to it. The Dubs channeled some strange psychic energy at the end, with the Splash Brothers nailing back-to-back-to-back triples, and honestly, there were times when it felt like there was something karmic about the 50-50 balls that went the Warriors’ way, like the basketball gods were rewarding their precision and movement, their resolve in the face of a catastrophic injury and a crowd that delighted in it. There was no logic to this game, but in the end, there was justice.