TORONTO — An hour before tipoff for Game 5, Kevin Durant walked out of the Scotiabank Arena tunnel alone and onto the court. There were maybe a couple thousand people in the stands at the time, and several hundred of them began to boo.
Durant grabbed a ball, walked to the baseline, and clanked a jumper off the rim. The fans’ boos morphed into cheers of derision. Durant missed two of his next handful of shots, and the cheers got only louder with each one.
Then he made about 20 straight from the mid-range, moving from one side of the court to the other. He made rainbows from the baseline and one-handers off one foot from the free-throw line. Then he spun 360 degrees on the same foot before shooting, testing the calf that had kept him out of his team’s previous nine games.
By the time he missed again, only one or two cheers emerged from the crowd. Then they stopped entirely. An hour before tip-off and Durant had already effectively silenced the Toronto crowd.
Still, perhaps ominously, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr preached caution in his pre-game press conference when he announced Durant would start and play in short bursts.
“I don’t want to put too much of a burden on him,” Kerr told the gathered media. “It’s been a while. We don’t know how it’s going to go, how it’s going to look. But just his mere presence makes a huge difference for us.”
Early on it went well. It was all going according to plan. Durant hit all three of his three-point attempts and added a couple of free throws, with some decent early defence on Pascal Siakam.
Anyone who wondered what Durant would look like in his return to the court had an answer: like himself. Like the reigning two-time NBA Finals MVP.
Then disaster struck. Just past the 10 minute mark of the second quarter, Durant dribbled toward Serge Ibaka on the right wing, spun away to protect the ball and planted his foot awkwardly. He lost the ball, went down to the court and stayed down before exiting the game. He did not return.
Later, during a sombre and emotional post-game statement at a podium from Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers, it was revealed Durant had suffered an Achilles injury and he will have an MRI Tuesday.
“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to, you can blame me,” said Myers. “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.”
Initially, fans in the Scotiabank Arena crowd seemed to cheer Durant’s injury, but several Raptors — including Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green — weren’t having it, waving for the crowd to stop.
“At the end of the day, we’re all brothers and it’s a small brotherhood and you never want to see a competitor like him go down,” Lowry said later. “You don’t know what the circumstances are.”
Durant’s absence left a major hole in the Warriors attack, but it didn’t stop them. The Golden State lead only grew as Curry stayed hot and DeMarcus Cousins, the other high-profile returnee from injury in this series, scored seven unanswered points on his own.
The Raptors managed to close it to within one before halftime, but a 20–7 run from the end of the second quarter into the third (hey, I’ve seen this movie before) built up a 14–point lead — the Warriors’ largest of the game.
Even without Durant, the Warriors met every Raptors run with a run of their own.
None was bigger than the one that began at with 2:32 to go in the fourth, and the Raptors up by six.
First Klay Thompson hit a three.
Then Steph Curry did.
Then Thompson again.
“They’re amazing,” Kerr said of the Splash Brothers after the game. “They’re amazing competitors, great shooters. 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.”
The Raptors would close it to one again, but Draymond Green blocked a last-second heave by Lowry to end the game.
“I just told the team I didn’t know what to say because on the one hand I’m so proud of them, just the amazing heart and grit that they showed, and on the other I’m just devastated for Kevin,” Kerr said. “An incredible win and incredible loss at the same time.”
Now the Warriors must reset after an emotional roller-coaster of a night to put together a plan for Game 6. They responded well in the face of losing not only Durant but also Kevon Looney for a second time to the same costal cartilage fracture injury he suffered early in the series.
But can they do it again?
“It’s going to be a rough go in terms of just trying to recalibrate,” Curry said after the game. “We’re going to have to will ourselves for another 48 minutes to stay alive. And whatever it’s going to take from every single guy in our jersey.”
Thompson suggested Durant will play a major role in that, no matter where he is.
“We do it for Kevin. We do it for K,” Thompson said. “I can tell you this. He wants us to compete at the highest level, and we’ll think of him every time we step on the hardwood.”