• Gus Saltonstall

NBA Finals X-Factor: Kevin Durant

For The Win - USA Today

Kevin Durant has already been ruled out for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night in Toronto. The team isn’t even sure if Durant will travel to Canada for either of the first two games, and he hasn’t even been cleared for any sort of on-court work.

The reigning Finals MVP hasn’t played in a game since going down with a “calf sprain” in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Houston Rockets. Speculation swirled immediately over the severity of the injury, with Durant’s motion mirroring the likes of Kobe Bryant after he ruptured his Achilles tendon. The speculation continued into whether or not the Golden State Warriors would be able to defeat the Rockets without their 7-foot superstar — let alone win a third consecutive championship.

The Warriors not only won the Game 5 contest in which Durant’s injury was sustained, but they’ve gone 5-0 since the incident. Sorry Portland. In fact, in the most recent stretch of games, the Warriors are 31-1 when Stephen Curry plays and Kevin Durant does not, according to Dieter Kurtenbach of the Mercury News.

The stat has propelled a number of sports media personalities and self-appointed Twitter experts to declare the Golden State Warriors actually better without Durant in the lineup.

For me, the Warriors success without Durant should not serve as a critique of KD, but instead as another testament to the greatness of this Warriors’ team.

It is easy to argue something along the lines of, “the Warriors move the ball better without Durant on the floor.” However, it is impossible to argue against the fact that the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Green was by far the best for Golden State in the 2018-19 season. The lineup sported a +32 differential when on the court together, with the next best lineup coming in at +18.7 (a lineup that also featured Durant.)

Yes the Golden State Warriors were obviously an incredible team before Kevin Durant joined their legions — winning a championship and posting the greatest regular season record of all time. However, it is not a coincidence that Durant has won two NBA Championships in his first two years with the Warriors, and is on track to win a third.

Thus, there is no way that Kevin Durant’s ability to play in the 2018-19 NBA Finals isn’t anything other than the biggest X-Factor in the series. The Warriors are the favorites to win it without him, but how could the inclusion of a league MVP, a two time champion, a man who has averaged over 25 points per game in 11 straight seasons — not have monumental impact on how these seven games get played out.

Without Durant the matchups are all different, there’s more pressure on the likes of Curry and Thompson to score the ball, and there’s less of a defensive force set out to stop Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry.

Additionally, and in some ways strangely more importantly, the participation of Kevin Durant in this year’s NBA Finals transcends the actual playing of the game and moves into the NBA landscape as a whole.

With Durant becoming a free agent this summer, how these next two weeks play out has to have some effect on the way Durant makes his choice. If Durant’s injury proves too serious for a return, and the Warriors are still able to win the championship – will the manifestation of Durant’s lack of necessity in the Warriors’ winning ways prove enough to move him onto to another organization.

Or what if the Warriors are able to win the first two games in Toronto without Durant, and then upon KD’s return in Game 3 blow the series to a surging Raptors team. This is obviously a massive hypothetical, and not one very likely to happen, but the ramifications from the possibility would most likely be a sports media and social media crucifixion unlike any ever seen.

Many important dynamics will play out in the 2018-19 Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors. None of them will however be as important as whether or not Kevin Durant suits back up for the Dubs.

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