TORONTO – Take the context out of the moment and it was a time for celebration.
They were down six with two and a half minutes left, an elimination game on the road in front of a Toronto Raptors crowd that was delirious at the possibility of celebrating the franchise’s first championship.
Then the Golden State Warriors channeled all the rise-up-to-the-moment greatness that’s defined their five-year run as one of the greatest dynasties the NBA has ever seen: A Klay Thompson 3. A defensive stop. A Stephen Curry 3 to tie it up with 1:22 left. A defensive stop. Another Thompson 3, this one a stepback 57.6 seconds left, to take the lead. And then, on the final possession, lockdown team defense on Kawhi Leonard that caused him to pass out of the double-team, and then a heroic defensive play by Draymond Green to catch a piece of what could have been a series-winning 3 by Kyle Lowry at the buzzer. The Warriors were heading back to the Bay for Game 6, one more game at Oracle Arena after what Green called the greatest, gutsiest win of the Warriors’ run.
But, then, the context: Kevin Durant, looking spry in his first minutes in more than a month, falling to the ground in the second quarter. Durant holding his leg – his Achilles tendon, specifically. Andre Iguodala helping Durant to the locker room with Curry at their side. Durant leaving the arena in crutches and a walking boot. The announcement that Durant would have an MRI on Tuesday to officially diagnose his injury, and then the reports that the Warriors believe that : A torn right Achilles tendon.
A big-time 106-105 Warriors win – the type of win that could spur one of the greatest comebacks in NBA Finals history – that didn’t feel like a win at all.
“An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time,” a solemn head coach Steve Kerr said afterward.
Without context, you’d expect celebration: A big-boy win where the Warriors outran and outshot the Raptors in the first half then grinded out a win in the slower, more physical second half. A historic 3-point shooting night – 20 made 3-pointers, the second-most in Finals history – that reminded us why we call them the Splash Brothers. A bevy of timely defensive plays, none bigger than the team defense on the final possession that was capped by Green flying at Lowry and getting a piece of his 3 at the buzzer.
And yet, because of that context, what we had instead was a general manager of one of the most successful sports franchises in modern American sports history, sitting at the postgame podium, in tears.
“He was cleared to play tonight; that was a collaborative decision,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department. And 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.”
At times, Myers was choking on his own words. It was one of the rawest, authentic displays of human emotion that you’ll ever see on a stage like this. Myers pointed the finger at himself – If you must assign blame, the buck stops with me – and yet there was another bogeyman out there that Myers and other Warriors pointed at, too. That bogeyman was the people who doubted Durant’s heart, who wondered why he was still on the sidelines a month after straining his calf, who ratcheted up the external pressure on the Warriors, backs against the wall, to get perhaps the best player on earth back on the court.
Durant’s public image has traveled the gamut: From good-guy K.D., the guy who dedicated his MVP speech to his mother – “You da real MVP” – to villain K.D., the guy who ruined the NBA by joining the already-established Warriors dynasty. On Monday night he was neither. He was just Kevin Durant, a human being who was going through pain and uncertainty.
“He’s one of the most misunderstood people,” Myers said. “He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person. It’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him.”
We now have a series – an actual NBA Finals, not the Warriors coronation of the past two years. That should be celebrated, I suppose. What we might also have is the ultimate test of this Warriors dynasty: The biggest hole they’ve ever faced in a Finals, and the pressure of knowing this could be the end of their run. If the best stories combine low lows with high highs, the Warriors are writing one helluva story.
As Monday night turned into Tuesday morning, though, it was tough to see those highs.
“It’s very deflating,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to even celebrate this win.”
But then he added on a note of optimism – something that this team must feel if they’re going to turn Durant’s injury into the team’s inspiration: “We do it for Kevin,” Thompson said. “We do it for K.”