For a little while Monday night, it looked like the triumphant return of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors’ lineup was going to help them extend the NBA Finals at least one more game.
Then it looked like Kawhi Leonard was going to help put the Warriors out of their misery and give the Toronto Raptors their first NBA title.
But in the end, it was the play of three Warriors that have been key throughout the team’s run of five straight NBA Finals appearances that made the difference in a 106-105 Golden State victory that pushed this series to a sixth game.
Down by six with 3:28 to play following Leonard’s three-pointer, the Warriors went on a closing 9-2 run, punctuated with Klay Thompson’s three-pointer with :57.6 left to give Golden State the lead for good. Stephen Curry had the game-tying three just 25 seconds earlier, and Draymond Green had the assist on Thompson’s three and got a piece of Kyle Lowry’s game-winning three-point attempt as the buzzer sounded.
The return of Durant to the starting lineup seemed to be the story of this game, as he came out firing, hitting a trio of three-pointers in the first quarter as Golden State jumped out to a 34-28 lead after 12 minutes.
But the second quarter showed how fragile a comeback from injury can be, as Durant planted his foot making an offensive move on Serge Ibaka and immediately pulled up and sat on the ground, grabbing at the same area around his right calf that had kept him out of the postseason for a month.
Reports after the game indicated that the Warriors fear that Durant may have torn his Achilles, but even if he didn’t, it’s unlikely he’ll be on the floor with Golden State for the rest of this series.
The obvious confidence boost that the rest of the Warriors got from having Durant on the floor suddenly looked gone. But they continued to lead the game, actually increasing their lead to as many as 11 points behind the play of DeMarcus Cousins, who went from being a starter with Durant out to being the third center off the bench in this game.
Cousins came into the game following Durant’s injury and immediately paid dividends, scoring seven straight points. Golden State continued to lead the game until the fourth quarter when Leonard started to take over.
Trailing by five with just over eight minutes to play, the Raptors went on a 16-5 run, with Leonard scoring the last 12 of those points to give Toronto’s its six-point lead.
The Raptors pulled within one on a goaltending call on Cousins with 29.9 seconds to play, then got the ball back when Cousins was called for an offensive foul with just 15.7 seconds to play.
Leonard gave the ball up when double-teamed and it swung around the perimeter to Lowry, whose potential title-winning jumper was partially blocked by Green.
It sets up another game at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Thursday, with the Warriors planning to be without Durant and possibly Kevon Looney, who aggravated his injury to upper body cartilage that kept him out of Game 3 of the series.
It will be another effort driven by the offense of Curry and Thompson, who finished with 31 and 26 points, respectively, in this contest. Green was close to another triple-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, while Cousins finished with 14 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench.
For Toronto, it will be another shot at a title at a venue at which they’re 2-0 in this series. The Raptors had another balanced offensive effort in Game 5, with Leonard leading the way with 26 to go with 12 rebounds and six assists. Lowry had 18 points, and Marc Gasol chipped in 17.
Can the Warriors survive again to force a Game 7? It’s hard to imagine they can continue to win without Durant, but, as first coined by former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”