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The Warriors’ Durant Gamble Backfired — And Helped Save Their Season

TORONTO — For an NBA Finals that has felt odd all along, Monday’s Game 5 probably takes the cake as the weirdest contest yet.

The Raptors mounted a double-digit comeback and, on the strength of an absolutely furious scoring run by Kawhi Leonard, looked like they had pulled ahead for good with only a few minutes left. Toronto, leading the series 3-1, seemed to have the championship within its grasp. Then the Splash Brothers happened, forcing Toronto staffers to keep the Champagne on ice — and NBA executives to keep the Larry O’Brien Trophy in its case a little longer.

And, of course, the backdrop for all of this was the high-profile return — and then deflating exit — of Warriors superstar Kevin Durant, who left the game in the second period with what the team would later describe as an Achilles injury, one that figures to keep him out for considerable time.

As such, the night was filled with mixed emotions from the Golden State side. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson hit huge, dynasty-preserving shots on the road in the last two and a half minutes. Yet the players understandably sounded a somber note afterward because of Durant.

In a way that will get overlooked, though, Durant’s brief showing — ill-advised and costly as it might have been, especially in hindsight — played an outsized role in saving the Warriors’ season.

From ABC News:

Warriors win but may lose star player again for Game 6

On the surface, that may seem absurd, given that he played just 12 minutes before getting hurt, and that Curry and Thompson’s late-game heroics were necessary to put the club over the top. But look at it this way: The Warriors’ bench has been getting absolutely mauled by Toronto’s backups in this series — something that was crystal clear in Game 3, when Golden State was even thinner than usual because of Thompson’s hamstring injury that kept him out of the lineup that night. The group isn’t blessed with much shooting at all, or much shot creation for that matter. Coach Steve Kerr has used an array of players and lineup combinations — Alfonzo McKinnie, Quinn Cook and even Jonas Jerebko at times, all of whom entered Game 5 shooting well under 40 percent for the series — in hopes of keeping up. It clearly hasn’t worked well.

But having Durant back in the lineup (and center Kevon Looney, who also left the game after reaggravating an injury of his own) was helpful for a pair of reasons. First, it allowed the Warriors to start the game with their best, most fluid lineup. Secondly, it allowed Kerr to avoid going so deep into his bench for minutes. Durant hit three triples, scored 11 points and finished a +6 in those 12 minutes. Contrast that production with the performance of McKinnie and Cook in Game 4, when they combined for 1-for-9 shooting and -10 plus-minus in 15 minutes of work.

Without Durant’s brief contribution to help keep the Warriors afloat — Golden State’s 6-point advantage after the first quarter was tied for their best period to start a game this series — the team might not have been in a strong enough position to pull the game out. Hell, even with KD’s help, Leonard almost single-handedly began the ring-fitting process for the Raptors in the fourth quarter, hitting four consecutive jumpers and scoring 10 points in less than two minutes. The flurry put Toronto up six, 103-97, with less than three and a half minutes to play and electrified the Canadian crowd, which was waiting to be showered with confetti from rafters.

But the celebration wouldn’t happen, at least not on this night. And while much of that stems from the world’s two best jump-shooters stepping up when it counted most, it’s fair to question whether Raptors coach Nick Nurse helped aid the momentum shift over the final three minutes. Nurse, who had been brilliant all postseason (and again found success by springing a rarely used hybrid-zone defense1 on the Warriors), surprisingly called timeout in the midst of Toronto’s 12-2 run.

The choice was a curious one, particularly because the Warriors almost couldn’t call timeout, despite their fairly obvious need to stop the bleeding. Golden State had only one stoppage remaining at that stage, so Kerr likely felt that he couldn’t afford to use the team’s last breather that early, just in case he’d need one to draw up a play at the very end of the game.

Nurse later explained that when he called the timeout with 3:05 left, he wanted to get his own players some rest. But whatever the rationale, from that point to the end of the game, the Warriors outscored Toronto 9-2, with all 9 points coming off triples from Curry and Thompson.

With a little more buzzer-beating magic, Toronto could have secured a title on the game’s last play. But the Warriors blitzed Leonard with a second defender, Andre Iguodala, forcing Kawhi to relinquish the ball to Fred VanVleet, who then found Kyle Lowry in the corner. Lowry fired what looked like a dud that hit the side of the backboard, but a photo later indicated what really happened: Draymond Green just barely tipped the attempt, knocking it off course. Game 5 ended with the Warriors still breathing, 106-105, Golden State.

In a way, you knew that if the Warriors staved off elimination, especially in nail-biting fashion, Curry, Thompson and Green would all make plays to keep their hopes for a three-peat alive. That idea almost certainly holds true as the series, now 3-2 Toronto, heads back to Oakland for Game 6 as well.

But for all the craziness that took place in Game 5, make no mistake: Durant’s brief appearance — despite its enormous cost to himself, the Warriors and the NBA as a whole — was a season-saver, too.

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  1. This time, it was a triangle-and-two, a strategy that focuses far more heavily on two offensive players while defending the three lesser threats with zone coverage. In Game 2, Nurse successfully used a box-and-one — an alignment that loads up on a single offensive threat — against Curry after Thompson was forced to leave the contest with an injury.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.