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The Warriors Can Breathe Easier — For Now

The Rockets-Warriors series has provided a steady diet of haymakers from both sides over the past week and a half, with two of the NBA heavyweight clubs duking it out for supremacy again.

But the fight, and the future of the proverbial championship belt as a whole, seemingly hung in the balance late Wednesday when superstar Kevin Durant came up limping after hitting a jumper with just over two minutes left in the third quarter of Game 5 at Oracle Arena. The fact that he hadn’t been touched by anyone escalated fears even more: His reaction — to grab the back of his lower right leg — suggested that he might have severely injured his Achilles tendon. Durant walked gingerly to the locker room with Golden State clinging to a 3-point lead after holding a 20-point cushion just a quarter earlier. As he left, the basketball world wondered whether Golden State’s chances of adding on to its dynasty had exited with him.

The Warriors staved off that more existential question for at least a couple of nights, digging deep for a gutsy 104-99 win without Durant to take a 3-2 series lead over Houston. They also got a reprieve in the sense that Durant avoided an Achilles injury, which would have ended his postseason and possibly jeopardized his next season. Instead, the club deemed the injury a right calf strain; Durant is set for an MRI on Thursday to determine the severity of the injury — and how much time he may have to miss.

If Durant misses the rest of the series, at least some will compare his absence to that of Chris Paul a little less than a year ago, when the Rockets took a 3-2 lead but lost Paul to a hamstring strain for Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals. (Houston would drop each of those games, along with the series.) Yet losing Durant — the best player in the series, if not the world at this point — could have an even bigger impact, even though the Warriors have played without him before.

Consider that Golden State has outscored opponents by 79 points this postseason with Durant on the court and has been outscored by 14 points in the minutes he’s been sidelined. Before leaving Wednesday’s game, he had led the Warriors in scoring for eight consecutive contests. His 34.2 points per game this postseason rank second1 over the past 25 seasons, trailing only LeBron James’s 2009 playoff run, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

The Warriors’ reliance on Durant as of late left many of us wondering whether Stephen Curry and Golden State could step up and take out a tough opponent without Durant there. Both Curry and teammate Klay Thompson had struggled mightily with their jumpers earlier in the series, but Curry answered the bell, hitting 5 of 9 from the field for 16 points after KD’s injury, a vast improvement from the 9 points on 4-of-14 shooting he logged before Durant went down. (Thompson’s 27 points, after having 27 over the two prior games combined, were also huge — especially his bizarre turnover-turned-layup that sealed the game with four seconds left.)

On the other side of this, Houston is going to have a handful of regrets from Game 5 — usually a bellwether when it breaks 2-2 series ties, as 82 percent of Game 5 winners advance — if it fails to get past the Warriors yet again. In many ways, this felt like the Rockets’ chance to pounce.

In Game 4, P.J. Tucker terrorized Golden State by dominating the offensive glass. But on Wednesday, Kevon Looney seemed to come up with just about every key rebound, including five offensive boards. Meanwhile, Tucker was whistled for a particularly brutal out-of-bounds call with just under three minutes left in the game, when his heel was on the sideline just before he drained a shot that, had it not been waved off, would have cut Houston’s deficit to 2 points.

It didn’t help that, at just 3 of 14, Chris Paul had the worst shooting night of his playoff career.

And perhaps most noteworthy and mind-bogglingly: Houston’s James Harden, the reigning MVP and back-to-back league scoring champion, largely took a backseat, with just one shot attempt — a layup with 18 seconds left — over the final seven-plus minutes of action in the loss. The Rockets performed just fine offensively as a club despite that, scoring 18 points over that stretch. But it was still somewhat shocking to see Harden not even touch the ball on a number of fourth-quarter possessions. (He finished the period with just three shot attempts — down from the eight he’d averaged in fourth quarters in the first four games of the series.)

With Durant sidelined, Harden was free of the much longer, taller defender who had limited him over the course of the series.2 So to not see him take advantage, or even really try, was surprising, given that he finished 7 of 7 from inside the arc, and with an efficient 31 points on just 16 shots.

Still, much can and probably will change with a day or two of game-planning, especially if Durant is forced to miss time. The things that Harden and the Rockets didn’t attack in the moment during Game 5 could become points of emphasis in Game 6, while the Warriors figure to retool their thin rotation in hopes of mitigating Durant’s absence.

There’s plenty we still don’t know yet. But one thing is clear: With Game 5 in hand, the Warriors can at least breathe a sigh of relief for now, knowing their backs won’t be against the wall, on the road without Durant, in Game 6.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among players who’ve logged at least 10 games in a single postseason.

  2. Of the six Warrior defenders who have matched up with Harden at least 20 times on defense, Durant has held Harden to his second-lowest scoring average per 100 possessions (after Andre Iguodala) and forced him into more turnovers than any of his teammates have, while limiting his assist totals more than anyone, according to data from Second Spectrum.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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