At the start of the NBA Finals, it was fashionable to point out that the Warriors had been 31-1 over the last three seasons when Stephen Curry was in the lineup and Kevin Durant was not.
Funny, but you don’t hear anyone throwing around those facts now. The only number that truly matters is 1-3 — the record of the two-time defending champions after four games of the championship series without Durant.
Tonight at Scotiabank Arena, the Raptors will attempt to close out the series and bring Toronto its first NBA title, and the city’s first major championship of any kind since the Blue Jays went back-to-back in the World Series in 1992-93.
No one is suggesting any longer that the Warriors might be better without Durant, who was the MVP of the previous two Finals. Instead, desperate Golden State fans are hoping Durant can make a heroic, Willis Reed-type return to the lineup and lead his team to victory in the last three games.
But Durant is not expected to play in Game 5 and there’s a good chance he won’t play at all in the Finals. Here’s what ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said after watching KD practice on Saturday: “Durant just isn't ready. His body's not ready. The trainers don't believe it, he doesn't believe it, he tried to do some stuff in practice yesterday, it didn't work.”
Still, there will be people clamoring for Durant to give it a shot, despite the calf injury. Even at 80%, they’re better with him on the floor, right? What happened to the notion that the Warriors were more fun and efficient without him, that the ball flowed more freely among the rest of the guys?
It was a fool’s argument all along, as any savvy basketball follow knew. Taking away the game’s best pure scorer, a 6-foot-9 forward with a near-unstoppable mid-range jump shot, has severely compromised the Warriors’ attack and allowed Toronto to shade its defense toward the perimeter.
The Raptors were fifth in the NBA in field-goal defense in the regular season at 44.9%. The Warriors are shooting 43.5% in the series. Curry is shooting 42%. He’s hitting 35.7% of his 3-pointers, good for most shooters but well below his career average of 43.6% on threes. Draymond Green is sinking 18% of his 3-pointers.
Gee, it sure seems they miss Durant. They also miss his defense. He was the leading shot-blocker in the 2017 and ’18 Finals. He can guard multiple positions and is effective running out at 3-point shooters. With Durant gone, it’s been far too easy for the Raptors to get open shots from deep.
Defense is easy to overlook when evaluating players. That’s why the Sabres overpaid so drastically for Jeff Skinner, a top goal-scorer but weak defensive player. If he’s worth $72 million over eight years, imagine what his price tag might have been if he were a reliable two-way performer.
It’s also why Toronto's Kawhi Leonard hasn’t gotten his full due as a superstar over the years. The league’s MVP voters slobber over offensive studs, like James Harden and Russell Westbrook. But in the big games, it becomes clear that Leonard’s defense separates him from the game’s one-dimensional stars.
Leonard is an elite offensive player, too. He is one of a small list of stars in NBA history whose shooting percentage has gone up in the playoffs. He’s at his best in a crisis, too. After the Raptors’ seven losses in this year’s playoffs, Leonard is averaging 35.2 points in the next game.
In Game 4, Leonard had 36 points, 12 rebounds and four steals. Amazingly, he didn’t have a turnover in Toronto’s 105-92 victory. Golden State had owned the third period this postseason. Leonard had 17 points in the third as the Raptors dominated the Warriors, 37-21, to seize control of the game and series.
It’s never wise to count out Golden State. But they’re in deep now. Only one of the 34 teams to go ahead three games to one in the Finals has failed to win the title. That was the Warriors team that lost to LeBron James and the Cavs three years ago. Remember? That’s why they went out and signed Durant.
We’ll never know what would have happened if Durant had been healthy for the Finals. If Toronto wins, it will always be accompanied by an asterisk in some people’s minds. But Toronto doesn’t have to apologize for beating a crippled opponent. That’s sports. Injuries are part of it.
Did the Warriors need to apologize for winning that first title over the Cavs in 2015 when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were hurt? There’s no asterisk next to the Cavs’ title the next year because Green was suspended for Game 5.
Injuries are often a factor. LA great Magic Johnson was hurt in the final two games when the Bad Boy Pistons won their first title in 1989. The Lakers had won the previous year’s Finals thanks to a serious ankle injury to Isiah Thomas.
In the end, all that matters is which team’s name is on the trophy. Toronto is one win from its first title, and Leonard is one win away from his second NBA Finals MVP award. There’s only one player who truly matched up to Leonard, and now it looks like he might not play at all.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.