Kevin Durant has spent his entire NBA career as the dispensable superstar. He could have changed that, beginning tonight. Could have changed that for all time.
But there was only one way.
Durant, finally back from his calf injury to rejoin the Golden State Warriors and start Game 5 of the Finals tonight in Toronto, had to be the difference. The oxygen. He had to heroically rescue his team from a 3-1 series hole — something done only once before in Finals history — and carry it to a third consecutive championship.
As a parting gift for likely leaving in free agency in a month, Durant had to save Golden State’s dynasty.
Nothing less would do.
Instead, the Warriors mostly did it without him. Again. Golden State stayed alive with a 106-105 victory in Toronto to force a Game 6, despite playing most of the game without the reinjured Durant.
What is Durant’s value? To the Warriors, and in free agency. That would be the question in play the rest of these Finals.
Durant is elite. A perennial all-star. A former league MVP. Hall of Fame-bound.
But he has never been what he had a chance to prove himself as Monday night and the rest of this series:
He started well, with 11 points in the first quarter on 3-for-3 shooting from 3-point range as Golden State built a four-point lead, before reinjuring his right leg with 9:45 to play in the first half and departing the game. He would not return. He face an MRI exam Tuesday but appeared highly unlikely to play again the these Finals, leaving his legacy dangling, and less than it might have been.
Durant was great for Oklahoma City but never good enough to lift the Thunder to a championship in eight seasons, only coming close once, in a Finals loss to Miami in 2012.
His leaving was a concession. A white flag. He couldn’t do this himself. (Not even with Russell Westbrook.). He needed help. Needed someone to make him a champion, not the other way around.
Did Golden State need Durant to become what they have?
They won a title before he got there. Then had the single-best regular season in league history before he got there.
Now, as Golden State steamed into the Finals with Durant absent, sidelined since May 8, there was audacious talk that the Warriors somehow might be a better team without Durant. It was quantifiable, the team’s record much better with Steph Curry but no Durant than with Durant but no Steph.
That could have all change starting Monday night. The whole narrative on Durant could have flipped.
He could have been the essential can’t-win-without-him cog for the first time in his career.
Could have reaffirmed that he (not Kawhi Leonard) is still the grandest prize in coming free agency.
Could have erased all the questions of commitment and heart that arose in news reports of teammates thinking he might have played in Game 4 amid the rumbling of increasing agitation over his absence.
He could have returned to lead three consecutive Warriors wins.
Anything less and he risked leaving Golden State the way he did Oklahoma City, a dispensable superstar not feeling a lot of love on the way out.