Sorting Through a Complicated Night in Toronto

First, a disclaimer. This column may turn out to be more of a public therapy session than a cogent piece of basketball analysis. Like many fans, I am still processing the events of Game 5, trying to make some sense out of what feels like a seminal moment for the NBA. There remain a lot of unknowns surrounding the interior condition of the Warriors organization and how the decision was made to allow Kevin Durant to play in a game his body was not equipped to handle, and we may not get answers about it for a while, if at all. One thing I know for sure: no one who passionately follows the NBA is ever going to forget June 10th, 2019, and we haven’t even begun to feel the ripple effects of it yet. Game 5 was the modern NBA in full bloom, for better and (obviously) worse.

After what transpired, it feels almost macabre to talk about the game itself, but there is still a series going on, one which, by the way, just got a hell of a lot more interesting. Whether they were galvanized by the KD injury and subsequent reaction or they’re just really good at basketball, the Warriors played one of the best games of their entire dynasty in a bonkers environment, and absolutely deserved to win. They shot 20-of-42 from three and got 57 combined points from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Nine times out of ten, if Golden State gets both of those things, they win by at least two touchdowns. But Toronto would not go away. Kawhi Leonard went full Terminator mode down the stretch, calmly draining all manner of ridiculous shots to keep the score tight. Pascal Siakam and Danny Green combined to go 0-for-8 from deep, and most of those shots couldn’t have been more wide open, yet they persisted. The Raptors were outscored by 36 points from beyond the arc and yet still had a decent look at the buzzer to win the title. [Credit to Draymond Green for his work on the fateful last possession. He was put on this Earth to be the help defender in that exact situation, and he did a great job shaking loose of Marc Gasol and closing out to Kyle Lowry at the right moment, then getting into his air space to contest the final shot without fouling. His passing was also outstanding throughout the game.] The Raps have to feel as though they played well enough to win that game despite Golden State’s three-point onslaught, so I’m sure Nick Nurse isn’t ready to hit the panic button just yet, even as the series now shifts back to Oakland for Game Six and the Warriors remain capable of mind-meld shit like this under maximum pressure:

In a just world, the narrative from Game 5 would be “Wow, what an instant classic! Isn’t it great we get to keep watching these two exceptional, perfectly matched teams square off in front of their passionate, classy fan bases?” Alas. As a person who takes the sanctity of the game of basketball very seriously, it’s frustrating to watch the beauty these two teams are able to create on the court together be subsumed by all the ugly trappings of modern sport happening around them. Injuries are a part of the game, and they impact the championship picture in some form or fashion nearly every year. But as Switch would say, “Not like this. Not like this.”

Where to even begin with the Durant situation? There are so many levels to this injury, and they’re all depressing as hell. As much as KD has spent the last three years wearing the black hat for the league and as prickly as he can often be, it’s impossible not to feel for him as a human being. He was set to be among the most coveted free agents in history. He didn’t have to rush back to play for a Golden State franchise from whom he appears to feel increasingly alienated. No matter how much flack he has received for “taking the easy way out” and choosing a team of stars, Durant is a true competitor. Always has been. His team finally, truly needed him, and he wanted to be there to help them under the most dire circumstances, in whatever way he could. He doesn’t “owe” the Warriors anything, including trying to gut his way through an injury which had a high likelihood of turning catastrophic.

But he is also a sensitive guy. We know he pays attention to the way he is perceived by fans and media, and through that lens, there was basically no way for him to win in this series. If he isn’t ready and plays anyway, he risks the worst-case scenario, AKA exactly what happened. If he doesn’t play, the perception in many circles would be he quit on the team, that he was sitting purely out of spite. He will be a more sympathetic figure now — both because he played at all and because he got injured — but man, talk about your Pyrrhic P.R. victories. We don’t know whether KD felt compelled to play in part because of this outside conversation, or whether the organization knew he wasn’t ready and cleared him to play anyway, or some combination thereof.

It’s easy to place responsibility at the feet of the Warriors’ staff, regardless of how unproductive the blame game is. The perception will be they willingly placed Durant in harm’s way because he is probably leaving anyway, so there was no organizational downside to risking his health. This almost certainly isn’t what really happened, for a couple reasons. First, everyone who spoke publicly, including President of Basketball Operations Bob Myers, seemed genuinely devastated by the injury. I find it hard to believe it was all for show. Second, while teams don’t generally take the long view when they’re only a few wins from a title, it would be insanely shortsighted for a franchise to play fast and loose with the health of a generational superstar under any circumstances. Everything comes out eventually, so when the damning report surfaced, it would be a scarlet letter for them in terms of attracting star talent in the future. No way the “light years ahead” organization is that foolish, and if they are, they’ll deserve every bit of the eternal clowning they receive for it.

Beyond the narratives, as a fan of the game, it just sucks. People are entitled to their opinions of Durant and his career choices, but this much is inarguable: Kevin Durant is, at minimum, one of the best 15-20 basketball players to ever walk the Earth. The next time he steps on an NBA court, he’ll be at least 31 years old and coming off the most devastating injury possible. We don’t know how much, but his greatness will be diminished in some tangible way, and that qualifies as a loss for the sport. The league is in an amazing spot talent-wise, but it still needs all the great players it can get, and it just feels capricious and unfair when one of them is felled by injury. To whom much is given, much is tested, and Durant has endured many tests, both on and off the court. He’ll be back, and he’ll still be a productive player a couple years from now, but his all-time-level greatness is probably gone forever. No matter how you feel about the guy, that’s a bummer.

Also a bummer: the whole kerfuffle about the fan reaction in Toronto at the time of the injury. I don’t want to spend too much energy on this because it’s already being picked apart and hot take’d to death by every media outlet imaginable, but it needs to be addressed. As a fan of any team, when the star player on the opposition gets hurt, it is perfectly natural for your mind to almost immediately go to the “this helps my team win” place. There’s nothing wrong with it. This person might even lean over and talk about it in hushed tones with the person sitting next to him. Fine. And it’s easy for the mob mentality to take over in these scenarios, especially when the emotion is already cranked up to 11 anyway. I get how this set of circumstances led to that outcome, but it in no way excuses the behavior.

The bottom line is, anyone who would actively cheer for an injury, particularly to an all-timer like Durant, is an asshole, full stop. And this isn’t to say all Canadians are assholes, or all Toronto natives are assholes, or all Raptors fans are assholes. Far from it. As anyone who ever leaves his/her house and interfaces with the outside world knows: it’s full of assholes! Put twenty thousand people of any kind from any city in one place, and you’re going to have a few thousand assholes. It’s just math. Of course this isn’t a great look for Toronto, and perhaps their tortured fan base has been put up on too much of a pedestal relative to other franchises until now, but it’s all representative of the culture surrounding modern sports and not indicative of some inherent character flaw in every Toronto fan for which they must be condemned. Fans, media, and even owners act like assholes sometimes, and the only thing we can do is call them out for being assholes so maybe next time, some other asshole will think twice about doing whatever asshole thing he was about to do.

The thing that bothers me most is this: all those assholes paid huge money for the tickets to the game, AND THEY DON’T EVEN LIKE BASKETBALL. No one who has any knowledge of the game or any appreciation for it would ever react in that way. The idea that a group of people who are ostensibly fans of basketball (and not just the laundry they happen to support) would dance on the grave of one of history’s greatest players — to his face, in one of the worst moments of his entire life, no less — is ludicrous to me. Fandom makes people do crazy things –the word is literally a contraction of “fanatic,” after all — but I have no time for assholes who don’t even care about my sport detracting from it with their nonsense. Spend your loonies and toonies on something else, you rich posers.

The ripple effects of the injury are going to be far-reaching. For one, the NBA will take a hard look at the way it polices fan behavior going forward. [There have been a number of incidents this year alone, including the Kyle Lowry/idiot Warriors’ owner fracas in Game 3, so it’s probably not something the league will be able to sweep under the rug, nor should they.] But the outrage over the Toronto fans will die down eventually. The lasting impact will be on the upcoming free agency period and how it changes the competitive balance of the league, as well as how teams manage the health of their stars in the future, even late in the playoffs.

First and foremost, there are the effects on KD’s future, outside of just what kind of player he will be when he comes back. If he’s not going to play at all next year, and will likely be compromised to some extent even in ’20-’21 (as the history of such an injury suggests he will be), are a bunch of teams really going to line up to throw a four-year max deal his way? It sounds crazy because we’re talking about Kevin Freaking Durant here, but are there organizations ready and willing to light almost $80 million (of both real currency and cap space) on fire over the next two years in order to get whatever is left of him at age 33? As fast as things move in the modern NBA, isn’t that borderline delusional? [On second thought, the Knicks would definitely do exactly that, so maybe I need to reconsider.]

The other door here is one we would have never considered before this injury. The talk is always about how KD is about to be a free agent, but it glosses over one suddenly critical fact: Durant has a player option in his contract for next season at $31.5 million. The fact the injury happened right before he has to decide whether or not to exercise the option could turn out to be extremely serendipitous for both Durant AND whichever team he actually wants to go to next, while being semi-disastrous for Golden State. While it would seem like an aggressively dick move, and would probably burn all of the goodwill he has suddenly come into in the wake of the injury, KD could simply opt into the final year of the contract and collect his $31.5 million while he rehabs, then go into free agency next summer with quite a bit less uncertainty surrounding his condition. If he is in fact the petty sniper some people want to believe he is (I’m not accusing him; this is purely for the sake of argument), then he would get the added “benefit” of crippling Golden State’s cap space and forcing them deeper into the luxury tax to keep Klay Thompson around. [Klay will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the rumors have long swirled he will not take anything resembling a hometown discount to remain with the Warriors. Nor should he.] It would be an incredibly strange situation because he would ostensibly be part of the team for another year, but he wouldn’t be playing and they wouldn’t really want him around. He’d basically get locked under the organizational staircase like a basketball Harry Potter. It’s so truly bizarre I have a hard time imagining it come to pass, even if there is a certain logic to it. [It’s been reported the injury probably won’t prevent several teams from offering him a long-term deal, regardless of how insane it would be, and even if they didn’t, the Warriors could always short-circuit the player option by offering KD a long-term deal at a raise and then using him as a trade chip later on. Point is, someone is about to take a giant gamble on KD, a statement which would have made exactly zero sense two days ago.]

Beyond Durant, the effects cascade down to all the other stars who could be on the move in the next few weeks. Kyrie Irving’s “two max slots” conspiring suddenly feels like a lot less of a slam dunk, and Anthony Davis might be making some major revisions to his list of preferred trade destinations. [There is a universe where any of the Knicks, Nets, or Clippers could have made a play for KD, Davis, AND another big money free agent this summer, but the calculus surrounding it changes significantly now, especially if they aren’t certain Davis is anything more than a rental.] Both Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker — the prospective “second max guys” in many of these hypotheticals — may be a bit more skittish about leaving a truckload of money on the table to follow KD somewhere, thereby giving their incumbent teams an advantage in re-signing them, should they want to. There had even been speculation the best chance Toronto would have to keep Kawhi Leonard would be to sign him to a Durant-esque “1-and-1” contract, but if Kawhi’s processor doesn’t recalculate the cost/benefit of such a course of action after watching firsthand as KD snapped his Achilles’ like a rubber band three weeks before the big payday, then perhaps he isn’t the advanced cyborg we take him for.

We will cross all these bridges when we come to them. For now, there are only two games left to decide a champion and the fate of a dynasty. Where do the events of Game Five leave us? The remaining Warriors have dedicated the rest of the series to KD, and perhaps his absence will once again galvanize the team, as it appeared to when they won their next five games after he went down against Houston. [Durant is Golden State’s version of Kenny. “Oh my God — they killed Kevin! You bastards!”] It’s equally likely they rode a wave of “fuck you” adrenaline to a superhuman victory in Game 5, and the reality of their situation will come crashing down on them in Game Six. There’s no way to know which way it will go, but it’s been beaten into our heads over the years never to underestimate the heart of a champion, and it proved true in Game Five, so maybe we should afford Golden State the benefit of the doubt.

If Toronto were composed of a less even-keeled set of personalities, I might subscribe to the notion they missed their chance to grab a title at home in Game Five and now they’ll be on tilt. I don’t suspect there will be any panic in them. We know Kawhi and the defense will show up. The only unknown is which of the other guys, if any, will have the testicular fortitude to step up and deliver the kill shot to slay the giant. In other words:

OK, I think I’ve worked my way through to acceptance. Bring on Game Six!

Top Photo Credit: Claus Andersen/Getty Images

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