The Toronto Raptors started the season fast, and quickly established themselves as serious championship contenders. On Nov. 29, they were a league-best 18-4, but faced their sternest test of the season: a game against the mighty Golden State Warriors.
The Raptors had three things going for them: Stephen Curry was at the end of an 11-game absence with a groin strain. Draymond Green was out for the Warriors as well. And the game was being played in Toronto. The Raptors did win, in overtime, 131-128.
For the Warriors, Kevin Durant had 51 points.
That performance, his best of the season, shows the kind of impact Durant might have if and when he returns to the N.B.A. finals, perhaps as early as Monday night. He is listed as “questionable” for the game with the Warriors down 3-1 in the series.
Durant practiced Sunday for the first time since he was injured in the second round of the playoffs.
He shot 18-for-31 on that November night, including 4 of 7 from 3 points. He also had a game-high 11 rebounds. He hit a turnaround 3-pointer with 8 seconds left to send the game into overtime. The defender on that shot was Kawhi Leonard.
Two weeks later, the teams met again for a second and final time in the regular season, at Golden State. Despite the return of Curry, it was a poor game for the Warriors, who lost, 113-93. Curry was just 3 for 12. But Durant played big again, scoring 30 points on 13-for-22 shooting.
So while the Warriors could still lose despite an offensive explosion from Durant, he would be a defensive boon for the Warriors. Although Draymond Green is thought of as the Warriors’ defense man, Durant has climbed to near his level and has been talked about as a defensive player of the year candidate this season.
Golden State’s defense in the absence of Durant has not been stellar, and the Raptors are scoring 115.8 points per 100 possessions, not a figure you would expect against an elite team.
Durant’s offense should help Curry as well; so far in the series the Raptors have had the luxury of sending extra defenders to wear him down physically.
Despite his great efforts in the teams’ two matchups this season, it’s hard to generalize that Durant is some kind of uniquely lethal Raptor-killer.
In 20 games against Toronto in his career, mostly while playing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant averaged 27.7 points, not far from his career average of 27.0.
No matter who the opponent, Durant adds a crucial element to the Warriors, of course. He makes up a three-man scoring unit with Curry and Klay Thompson, contributes a sizable number of rebounds and assists, and has a deft touch from 3. Upon returning, Durant would be expected to guard Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ main scorer.
In 13 games when facing a team with Leonard, whether the Spurs or the Raptors, he averaged 27.5 points. In 19 playoff games, mostly Thunder-Spurs matchups, that figure goes up to 28.3.
Those KD-KL games were evenly matched. Leonard leads 7-6 in the regular season, but Durant has an 11-8 playoff edge.
Durant’s return, combined with Green’s versatility, would give the Warriors the flexibility to go with smaller lineups, and avoid giving so much time to the 34-year-old 7-footer Andrew Bogut, whose 10 minutes in Game 4 and 21 in Game 3 contributed a total of 6 points.
Will Durant be rusty after missing nine games?
Since joining the Warriors he has mostly performed well after layoffs, scoring in the 20s, 30s or even 40s. But two seasons ago, he came back a little slowly after his longest layoff, 19 games with a knee and leg injury.
In 30-plus minutes of playing time, he scored only 16 points in each of his first two games back, shooting 6-15 in the first against the Pelicans in April 2017. By the third game he was back to top form, but by then the Warriors may well be on summer break.
Even with the return of Durant, the Warriors are looking at the daunting task of winning three straight games to retain their title, with two of those in Toronto. The only team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in a finals was the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, when they rallied to beat Golden State.
For the next season, the Warriors acquired Durant. There were those who said Golden State had made themselves shoo-ins for the title, and indeed they won two straight championships. Now Durant’s return seems to be their only faint hope of making it three.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Hoffman
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