With two minutes left in the third, Kevin Durant rose up and hit a jumper to put the Warriors up three. But the Oracle crowd that had been blaring all night didn’t greet the moment with cheers — instead it fell silent.
Durant turned like something hit him in the ankle, despite nothing being there, and immediately limped to half court. It was the doomsday scenario for the Warriors who had already let a 20-point lead slip away.
Speculations ran wild on Twitter about Durant’s Achilles, but on the court the remaining Warriors fought and clawed their way to a 104-99 win Wednesday to take a 3-2 series lead.
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It seems ridiculous to call a homecourt win by the top-seeded Warriors gutsy, but this was, especially as the shadow of Durant’s injury enveloped the arena.
Steve Kerr said that the team drew on all their past experiences to deal with Durant’s injury:
“I think our guys, they’ve been here so many times, have been through these battles for the last five years. They got a lot of guts. They just pulled together and got it done. There’s no speech necessary. They knew what they had to do.”
While the team called it a right calf strain, a much rosier diagnosis than the speculated Achilles tear, Durant was ruled out for the rest of the game instantly, which still doesn’t bode well for his future in this series.
The last time he strained his calf, he missed a total of seven days, which would put him way outside the target date for this series.
Draymond Green said it’s just natural to watch that injury and it sap any momentum the team had:
“I think the reason you kind of lose your momentum as a team, and we didn’t really have any momentum, you’re much more worried about your teammate, the injury. I mean, that looked like it was way worse than a calf strain. You just kind of worry about that. That kind of takes over your mind. I think we did a great job of kind of fighting through that, doing whatever we needed to do to put ourselves in position to win the game.”
On the court, Durant was on his way to another huge game. He once again had to make up for Stephen Curry’s lackluster play. Durant had 22 points in 32 minutes and looked like he would need to put the team on his back with his isolation scoring with Curry continuing to struggle.
Curry said he’s going to have to step up, but they’re going to need everyone to help compensate what Durant brings:
“It’s tough to replace the output that KD has been doing this whole entire playoff run. What Jonas (Jerebko) was able to do when he came in, Zo is going to have an opportunity, what Kevon did for us in the minutes down the stretch in the fourth quarter were huge. Everybody is going to need to be ready. We’re going to have to just claw our way to one more win no matter what it takes.”
Curry went scoreless for the first 20 minutes of the game, and looked unusually passive, content to be a facilitator. While he eventually started attacking, the results still weren’t there and he struggled with his layups like he has all series.
But then Durant went out. And Curry came to life — just when the Warriors needed him most.
He poured in 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter to help fend off a hungry Rockets squad.
Klay Thompson said that’s exactly what the team expects from him, regardless of what his performance up until that point is:
“We trust the man. I think everybody in the world trusts him with the ball in his hands. His track record has proven it, he’s going to come up in the clutch. You saw how savvy he was with the O rebound, missed the floater long but stuck in the paint, two huge free throws from it. That’s just the kind of competitor he is. He’ll do anything to win.”
He got help from Thompson, who finally busted out of his own series-long slump, scoring 27 points. And his five 3’s are just one fewer than he had made in the last three games combined.
Almost every player in a Warriors uniform played better than their last few games, which isn’t that hard to do as they couldn’t get anything going in Houston.
It was apparent during those struggles that the one thing the Warriors needed to improve was effort. Effort on the glass, effort getting to loose balls and especially effort on the defensive end. And that change in energy was apparent from the jump.
Green made a concerted effort to be around the defensive glass all night and pulled down nine of his 12 in the first half alone. He also assisted on seven of the Warriors first 10 baskets, and finished with 11 assists to go with his eight points, before fouling out late in the fourth.
He was joined by Kevon Looney, who was impactful in his minutes off the bench after struggling to do anything in the previous two games. He had three offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone, creating a ton of second chance opportunities, something the Warriors haven’t had this series.
His nine rebounds and five points won’t blow anyone away, but the timeliness of those stats is what made his performance stick out, especially since he’ll be getting the bulk of time Durant misses.
Kerr made sure to single Looney out after the game:
“Kevon was the unsung hero tonight out there. He was tremendous. He made some huge plays for us, including that save in the corner near the end of the game when Klay ended up getting the lay-in to seal the game.”
What made him so important was that until tonight, it’s been the Rockets who have been feasting on the offensive glass, especially in their small ball lineup with P.J. Tucker at center.
The six-foot-six Tucker has consistently beat every Warrior to the glass and given the Rockets a ton of extra offensive possessions, which almost always ends with a momentum killing 3. They pulled in a combined 30 offensive rebounds the last two games; Wednesday, the Warriors held them to just one in the first half.
And yet, the Warriors once again couldn’t keep it up for a whole game.
It is a cycle that’s plagued Golden State this entire year, a glimpse of their locked-in, unbeatable team, and then an inability to keep their focus from waning. It has played out on the court seemingly every night at Oracle Arena like Groundhog’s Day.
The Rockets had four offensive rebounds in the first five minutes of the second half, after being held to just one in the first. The Warriors offense stagnated and they got beaten to every loose ball. Their 20-point lead shrank to a one-point deficit.
It felt like four different games in a span of 48-minutes, and that’s something Kerr felt, too:
“Such a weird game because we played so well in that second quarter. Probably should have gone in at half up 20 or more. Missed a bunch of shots at the end of the second quarter, open threes… All of a sudden they start the third quarter. It’s a game again. It felt like it was slipping away.
But a Curry flurry, timely 3’s from Thompson, Green and Jerebko, and the Warriors were able to break free of their vicious cycle — for now.
It’s now a matter of if they can stay out of it, but that’s been the question all year.
The Warriors will take the court again Friday in Houston, with hopes of closing out the series.