His locker looked well-worn, however. Because this is where he sat, and paced, as his teammates lost the first game of an NBA Finals for the first time in five seasons.
“I know it’s killing him not to be out there,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “He’s been very vocal in here. At halftime he was having a one-on-one talk with Stephen [Curry]. Giving him what he sees, his perspective. After the game, he was speaking up amongst the team. He had the floor.”
This is all Durant has been able to do since he injured his right calf more than three weeks ago in Golden State’s conference semifinals series against the Houston Rockets. Television cameras have caught him venturing out into the hallways to greet his teammates as they come in for halftime or exiting the arena. But except for those rare glimpses, Durant has been nearly invisible.
The Warriors looked so good without him in finishing off Houston and rolling over Portland that it became fashionable to talk about how they could win without him. How differently they play. The joy was back. Sharing (the ball) was caring, again. They looked like the Warriors of old, back when this dynastic run was still young and fresh — and maybe like the Warriors’ future, if Durant leaves as a free agent this summer.
A few brave souls might have even posited that Golden State might be better without him and cited the team’s 31-1 record (entering the Finals) when playing with Stephen Curry, but without Durant.
But only the most insufferable Twitter troll would stand on that ground after Thursday’s game. Because the Warriors absolutely need to get Durant back if they’re going to win this series.
Toronto’s defense reminded everyone why Durant has won the past two NBA Finals MVP awards. The Raptors are long, athletic and committed to disrupting Golden State’s flow on offense. When teams do that to Golden State, Durant becomes their “Get Out Of Jail Free” card.
“People don’t stop him,” Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser said. “He either misses or makes shots. But the defense usually has very little to do with it. He’s too good.”
The defense matters a whole lot when Durant isn’t out there, however.
“I think they’re actually a lot like our team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the Raptors. “They can switch and guard different positions. They’re tough and they get after you and play well together.”
The Warriors have been reminding anyone who would listen how much they needed Durant for the past three weeks. But it was hard to hear that as anything but courting their mercurial free-agent-to-be. If Durant was going to be home, hearing on social media how well the team was playing without him (and taking it personally enough to get into Twitter debates), he could at least keep reading quotes from his teammates and coaches saying how much they missed him.
But that concerted charm offensive wasn’t lip service. Privately, the Warriors had been concerned about their chances to beat Toronto or Milwaukee in the Finals if Durant wasn’t able to play. They knew they needed him as a failsafe on offense and maybe even more at the defensive end, given potential matchups with Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. That need is even more acute with Andre Iguodala battling a calf injury that had him noticeably wincing during Game 1.
While there’s some optimism Durant plays at some point in these Finals, his chances to play in Game 2 on Sunday seem quite dim. He only traveled with the team to Toronto to be around the team’s medical staff. But he hasn’t practiced yet or done much on-court work. His rehabilitation work has mostly been upper-body conditioning and some light lower-body work that’s not weight bearing.
If this were the regular season, one Warriors source said, Durant would probably be weeks away from returning to action as this type of calf injury can easily be reinjured.
But this isn’t the regular season, of course. It’s the Finals. Perhaps the last Finals this group of Warriors plays in together.
During a fourth-quarter timeout with 7:31 remaining and the Warriors down by 12, Kerr lit into his team with an expletive-laced message. The Warriors were on their way to giving up 24 fast-break points: “For the past five days, the one message we had was, ‘Get back on defense … This is the f—ing Finals. Get back on defense.'”
Being behind was nothing new for the Warriors. They had faced second-half deficits in three games in the Portland series. But as dominating as Golden State has been during this five-year run, their coach seems aware that they have never been more vulnerable.
That’s what happens as a superteam ages, of course. Injuries mount. Key players leave. Depth is harder and harder to build as the star players are rewarded with increasingly lavish contracts. That sense of fragility has hung over the team all season. It’s actually become something of a motivator as those who have lived through this run try to enjoy it as long as possible.
The one thing they all were hoping — depending on what Durant decides to do this summer — was to finish strong. And while the Warriors’ mantra has always been “strength in numbers,” they have always known they are strongest when Kevin Durant is on the court.