By Adam Clements
Adam is the senior basketball writer at The Unsportsmen - You can follow Adam on Instagram for dope NBA content.
Before we start, let’s put this tape on rewind just a little.
At the end of Game 4 in this years edition of the NBA Finals, it was easy to apply the ‘eye test’ and discern who had the upper hand in the series. The Golden State Warriors have fallen into an almost insurmountable hole, 3-1 down in the series, and their superstar leader throughout the unforgettable years of their dynasty, Steph Curry, looked broken. Shoulders slumped, feet dragging, he was an embarrassed, heartbroken mess, knowing his team was on the edge of collapse. In the Toronto Raptors locker room, the big challenge was keeping everyone on the level, something their emotionless leader Kawhi Leonard has turned into an art form, hereby confirming that robots feel nothing. The Raptors were all business but the optimism out of their camp was not reciprocated down the hall in the depths of Oracle Arena.
Bringing us back into the present, heading in to game six in Oakland, it seems quite strange to think that in the championship series of the most elite basketball league on the planet, there would be a case where both teams leave the floor completely exhausted, emotionally drained and entirely devastated, but Game 5 of the NBA Finals in 2019 was no ordinary game of basketball.
The NBA Finals have always been the place where the world’s very best basketball players make their mark and the biggest moments of their career are forever etched in the history books, becoming moments that will be replayed, discussed, dissected and critiqued by one and all for eternity. Seismic shifts in the landscape of the league often occur due to the outcomes of the Finals. This year has been no different, and the 4 best players in this series all had their moment in the spotlight during this game.
News broke during the lead up to Game 5 that Kevin Durant would play, and watching him warm up on the hardwood he seemed unbothered by his mysterious ‘calf injury’ that had rendered him inactive throughout the Western Conference Finals and the first 4 games of the 2019 NBA Finals. With his team down 3-1, it was time for the man many consider to be the best in the business to step up to the plate and deliver when his champion team, on the brink of the first 3-peat since the ShaKobe Lakers (read: The Shaq and Kobe Lakers) of the early 2000’s, needed him the most.
The Warriors were undoubtedly buoyed by Durant’s presence which gave the Toronto crowd pause once they realised KD was here to play, hitting three 3-pointers in a row, moving freely and reuniting with his sharpshooting Splash Brothers to open the game 5-5 from deep. The mere presence of KD in the building seemed to give the Warriors energy as they clicked up a gear and stepped on the gas.
After racking up 11 first quarter points and reminding everyone just how dangerous he is, a fact that had been slightly lost in the wash of a months worth of playoff basketball without him, partnered with many feeling he wouldn’t return, it would be fair to say most Raptors fans were begging for mercy as this game appeared to be a wrap even in the very early jousts of it. Durant the back to back Finals MVP, had come to play. Just when it seemed he’d began to find his lengthy stride, KD jogged across mid-court, perhaps a bit ginger from the rebound contest, and took possession. As he went to crossover his opponent on a run into the paint it was immediately obvious that something was not right, leaving the ball behind as he pulled up lame. Serge Ibaka gobbled up the loose ball and took off, all with the spritely enthusiasm of a teenager who had just discovered the darker corners of the Internet. Durant crumbled in pain at the other end, as he knew his season was now, undoubtedly after so much speculation, over.
Out of all the talking points and seismic shifts that will come of this series, the entire Durant situation will be the biggest and most evergreen - a torn achilles and impending free agency. A superstar, perhaps one of the best ever, held out of the first 4 games of this series and held out of the spotlight as well, under intense scrutiny about where his loyalties lie, laying it all out there in one final act of desperation to keep his team afloat on what appeared to be a sinking ship, near capsizing under the enormous pressure of wave after wave of Raptors ferocity and holding on by the weakened muscle fibers in Kevin Durant’s ‘calf’.
The tense nature of what had occurred was not entirely understood at first by the Raptors home crowd, who, bloodthirsty for their first title and in a hostile environment, immediately started cheering before pleas from their own players on the court enticed them to lower their voices. A strange hush filled the arena as KD limped down the halls, a trepidation filling the building as the Raptors knew this would only galvanise the Warriors further to ‘do it for Kevin’.
Such was the power of KD’s mere presence in the building that when he left the floor the game seemed to go into a sort of holding pattern, where the Warriors would sneak out to a manageable lead, on a night where they were scorching the nets from three, only to look up at the scoreboard and see that the Raptors were within reach. This was thanks to even contributions across the floor while Kawhi to this point had been very quiet within the sphere of such a big game. This team simply wouldn’t go away, and the heavyweight fight rolled on as it has all series, a scrappily fought contest in which one team appears to be on the ropes before finding something to fight back.
When Kevin Durant was broadcast leaving the arena in a moon-boot surrounded by an entourage of Warriors medical staff, the battle on the floor was just beginning to intensify, as though the Raptors knew that the Warriors most dangerous weapon was no longer in the house.
It was now Kawhi’s turn. His 2019 finals moment.
After a quiet night for the intensely private and levelled superstar, Kawhi went on a run that many described as Jordan-esque. He simply took over the game. Toronto went on a 12-2 run, in which Kawhi scored almost at will to rack up a 6 point lead, a lead they hadn’t seen since early in the 1st quarter. This was going to be the moment that put him in the room with some of the greatest to ever play. I am currently unable to find the right superlative for Kawhi’s two minute stretch but it was a special moment and something people will remember.
However you can never doubt the best, and with a few simple flicks of the wrist, Steph and Klay were able to bring the game back. Down 6 with 2 minutes to play, a lot of teams would have rolled over, especially with their best player off the floor, but the Splash Brothers proved they can still turn up in the big moments. This was despite their own DeMarcus Cousins doing everything in his power to lose them the game. Two goaltending calls and an illegal screen all within the last two minutes meant Steph and Klay had to take charge. The Splash Brothers were able to arrest the momentum of a raucous crowd and a despicably inept series of mistakes from a teammate to drag back the lead and come out with the win.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy was in the building, in the players tunnel ready to be rolled out onto the podium. Simply metres away from being unveiled to the champions right then and there in Toronto. But we’re going back to Oakland. How both teams react, with the Raptors being ever so close to taking the title, and the Warriors having to handle the immense weight of a career altering injury to go with having an almost perfect night offensively and still only winning by a point, is going to be the next big story of this years Finals. Both teams were on their knees at the end of this bout, one dealing with the disappointment of being within literal reach of the trophy, while another mourns the loss of its superstar player. A somber mood overshadowed both press conferences, particularly when teary eyed Warriors president Bob Myers faced the media to take blame for KD’s fate.
While the headlines will once again be dominated by everything except the actual series once again, it’s going to take another Finals moment to put an end to this captivating series once and for all. Now, having (foolishly) already farewelled Oracle Arena, I’m happy to leave my predictions aside as this series just keeps on bringing out more surprises every step of the way. There’s a laundry list of reasons why both teams should or could win this game, from the uplifting team spirit of the wounded Warriors to the utter self belief of the Raptors to keep a team so dangerous in check even on one of their better nights. The physical and emotional drain on both teams is immeasurable, but the way this series has gone, nothing will surprise me at this stage. Hell, KD might even play - perhaps Quinn Cook could just wheel Durant’s hospital bed three point line to three point line.
Just put your money on Cousins imprinting himself on the series either for good or something detrimentally stupid.
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