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NBA Finals Game Five: It’s now or never for Durant and the Warriors

Toronto Raptors @ Golden State Warriors
Game 5 – Tuesday June 11, 02:00
Live on Sky Sports Main Event, Arena

Durant finally back on court

The more conspiratorially-minded around the NBA have been speculating that perhaps Kevin Durant, a likely free agent this summer, isn’t all that worried about missing the entire Finals series. After all, if he risks more serious damage to his injured calf while trying to rescue the Warriors from Toronto’s onslaught he’ll be putting his future earnings and potential championship runs in, say, New York on the line.

There’s an appealing logic to it, and Steve Kerr’s mixed messages about his star scorer’s health has certainly fed the more imaginative watchers of the league’s contractual shenanigans, but the fact that KD is expected to line out tonight for a do-or-die game five suggests that self-interest isn’t the only motivating factor in his actions since going down against Houston in the Conference Semi-finals.

Versus Portland, the Warriors barely missed a beat without the former MVP, but the Raptors’ ferocious defensive effort, led by Kawhi Leonard playing like one of the all-time greats, hasn’t bent as easily to the will of the old-school GSW line-up minus their high-profile free agent signing from the summer of 2016.

In truth, the Warriors are fortunate this series wasn’t over in four. Toronto screwed up in game two on their own court, allowing the defending champs to stay in a game that could’ve been out-of-sight around the half, and the Warriors pieced together a comeback win that would’ve smashed the confidence of previous Raptors teams and all won the title for the Dubs there and then.

But that was before Kawhi came north.

Leonard’s steel shines

Instead, they’ve gone on the road and won both games in the Oracle Arena – Friday’s victory could be the last Warriors game ever played in the famous old building if things go to plan in Oakland tonight – capitalising on the health struggles of their celebrated opponents.

Klay Thompson led the scoring in the game two win, but it came at the cost of his hamstring. He’s missed time along with Durant, Andre Iguodala’s playing hurt, and DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t look right after forcing his way back to a semblance of game fitness.

Even Kevon Looney, whose season was supposedly over last week thanks to a collarbone complaint, was rushed back for game four after a second opinion was sought. That shows how desperate Steve Kerr and his staff are for numbers.

But it’s not all been about injuries. Sure, this team with Durant fit is as close to unbeatable as a team can be, but the Raptors have taken on the steely persona of the man they traded their top-scorer for last summer.

Many were sceptical about the wisdom of the move for Kawhi Leonard. After all, he can still up-sticks and leave for LA or anywhere else when his contract expires this summer, but Masai Ujiri’s gamble will have to be judged as a success, whatever happens in the remainder of this series.

He has electrified the Torontonian fanbase and provided Canada with its most likely major league champion from the US’s top sports league since the Blue Jays and Canadiens took the MLB and NHL honours in 1993.

Leading by example

The 27-year-old was recruited to toughen up a team with talent but that couldn’t win when it mattered. Noted for his ice-cool presence on the court, Leonard’s will to win has shone through in recent months and has clearly made an impression on teammates.

While he had to pull out Michael Jordan-like heroics in previous rounds, in this series and against the Bucks in the Conference Finals, others have stepped up, inspired by their new leader. In game four, it was Serge Ibaka’s turn to show he’d been galvanised by the Leonard effect as he scored 20 points from the bench and shot 9-of-12 from the field in the 105-92 victory.

Pascal Siakam, another taking his game up a level this season, had 19 to continue his strong postseason. Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry, two veterans who may have thought their chances of a ring were fading, have contributed hugely too, while Fred VanVleet went crazy from three-point range to catch and then close out the Bucks.

Can they find another performance tonight to seal a first ever championship for the Raptors?

History against the Warriors

Durant is officially listed as questionable, meaning that he’ll likely be available to play, but how much is the big question. Golden State has every reason to push him as much as they can because he likely won’t be there next season and the Raptors have shown they can cope with everything else the Warriors have thrown at them so far.

The odds are hugely against the champions now, but they have to believe they can turn around the 3-1 deficit. For one thing, they’ve first-hand experience of it happening in 2016’s final series, the only time in Finals history that a team has lost from this position. And if they can sneak back across the border still alive, KD should be better in game six, at least assuming he doesn’t aggravate the complaint. Home court is in their favour for that game too. We’d see then if the Raptors really have taken on Leonard’s will to win.

Because of that, I’m not writing off the Warriors despite the record of teams in this spot. If they can grind out a win tonight the series is still alive, and stagefright could afflict the challengers when it comes to taking the final step.

However, Toronto have been strong at home in the playoffs, covering eight of 12 times against the spread and winning nine games straight up. The Warriors injury woes have dominated headlines, but Kawhi has been playing limp through recent weeks, OG Anunoby has missed the postseason, and each player will have aches and pains at this stage of the season.

I’d be inclined to look at the Raptors -1.5 tonight because this is their best chance to end the series and they know it. Where previous teams would’ve wilted under that pressure, this one has a previous Finals MVP and he should push them over the line at [1.96].

On the total, this has been a tough series to call reliably, but things are clarified tonight because it’s win or go home for Golden State. Their best form of defence is attack and their best hope is to turn this into a shootout. They should try to shoot early and often and that means over on 213.5 at 10/11 looks reasonable.

There’s been a pretty strong correlation throughout the playoffs between the Raptors winning and Marc Gasol playing well. The former Grizzlies stalwart posted 20 and 17 points in Toronto’s first two wins in this series, and had nine in the third on Friday night. The line for him has been set at 9.5 in game five and I’d fancy the over if Toronto are to go on and lift the trophy.

Source: US Sports