Barber: All eyes on Warriors' Kevin Durant, on and off the court

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OAKLAND — Moments after Kevin Durant hobbled off the Oracle Arena court in the third quarter of Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals on May 8, his long-time friend and fellow Washington DC native followed in his draft.

“That’s my best friend,” Warriors backup guard Quinn Cook said. “I saw a look on his face that I didn’t like, so I just wanted to go back and check on him.”

Cook rose from the bench and walked up the tunnel, away from the murmuring crowd, past the posters of current Warriors players and into the private sanctum that houses the team’s locker room, showers and training tables.

Center DeMarcus Cousins, another wounded Warrior, joined Cook in the examination room. They listened to Durant’s discussion with team doctors. The outside world would have to wait about 15 hours, until the Warriors received results from an MRI exam, to learn that Durant had strained his right calf, as opposed to tearing his right Achilles tendon. But doctors are pretty good at diagnosing that sort of thing by sight and feel. The Oakland staff was fairly certain Durant had suffered a lesser injury.

“Once I found out it wasn’t Achilles and it was a calf, for me it was a stress reliever,” Cook said.

He returned to the bench and spread the word among his teammates. Durant would not return to that game, or to that series. But he remains in play for the 2019 postseason. And because he is Kevin Durant, owner of a crazily long and limber frame and a virtually unstoppable array of scoring ability, he isn’t merely on the Warriors’ minds during the ongoing West finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. He is coloring the competition, and his teammates’ reactions, and the wider picture of the NBA, even as he scoots around on one good leg.

The first ripple effect Durant had on the Warriors, and the one examined most deeply so far, was to sharpen their focus. It was a logical outcome of losing the most dependable player on the team.

“Definitely, everybody has to step up,” Cook said. “We have to be sharper on defense and offense, knowing obviously that he’s the best player in the world. So we don’t have that luxury, just to give it to him and go get a bucket. We have to be crisper on offense, we have to move the ball, we have to set screens. We have to do more little stuff, because we don’t have K out there.”

The defending champions were gripping when Durant went down. The series was tied at two games apiece, the Warriors led by three points with a couple minutes left in the third quarter of Game 5 and they would play the next one in Houston. The situation was, if not dire, pretty serious.

In case you have been in a medically induced coma for the past week, I can report that the Warriors held on to win Game 5, eliminated the Rockets in a tense Game 6 last Friday and breezed past the Trail Blazers 116-94 in Game 1 of the conference finals Tuesday.

Before Durant’s injury, the Warriors’ average margin of victory in the playoffs (over the equivalent of 48 minutes of play) was 117-111. Since Durant’s injury, the Warriors’ average margin of victory has been 118-105.

I report this not to arm the charter members of the Warriors Would Be Better Without KD brigade, because they are wrong, but to point out that the team has banded together to produce some good basketball in Durant’s absence.

“I think when Kevin went down, that was the message in our film session the next day, was everybody be ready, we’re gonna play everybody,” coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday. “And I think guys were excited for their opportunities.”

It’s true that Golden State’s offense has returned to a freer-flowing style without Durant, the master of dribbling isolation. It’s also clear that the Warriors’ readiness and intensity — their limiting factors all season long — have improved.

And Durant hasn’t ghosted the team. Far from it. Cook said he was texting teammates during that Game 6 closeout in Houston, and has continued to offer input in film sessions and beyond. Durant was in the locker room for Game 1 on Tuesday night, getting treatment and interacting with teammates during their breaks.

“He’s a basketball junkie, he’s a basketball fiend,” Cook said. “He’s always thinking about the game. Like we all have a group chat. And a game will be on, and he’ll just put in a basketball observation to the whole team and just have us all talking about basketball. You know, we’re over at each other’s houses all the time, and that’s all we do is watch and talk about basketball. He’s invested and addicted to getting better, perfecting his craft.”

There’s another ripple from Durant’s hiatus. If his timid shuffle off the court on May 8 jolted the Warriors out of their complacency, I’m pretty sure the good news they received about his injury was a motivating mood lifter. These guys can beat Portland with or without No. 35. The NBA Finals will be a different story. Against Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo or Toronto and Kawhi Leonard, the Warriors will need a full complement of All-Stars.

If Durant were gone for the remainder of the postseason, the last chapter would look menacing. As it stands, the Warriors feel they just need to hold down the fort and win a few games until he returns.

The shadow cast by Durant is so long that it extends far beyond Oakland. The NBA held its draft lottery Tuesday, and the big news was that the New York Knicks, who had the worst record in the league this year, were tragically bumped down to overall pick No. 3. It took about 10 seconds for analysts to wonder aloud what that might mean for Durant and his looming decision in free agency.

But that’s a question for a later date. The big one right now is: When will Durant return to action for the Warriors? Kerr has said for several days that he will offer an update Thursday, before Game 2 against the Trail Blazers.

Wednesday, a reporter made the mistake of asking Kerr for Durant news.

“What day is it?” Kerr asked.

Wednesday, Coach.

“What’d we say?”

We hung our heads in shame.

“Update Thursday,” Kerr said. “So there’s no update on tomorrow’s update.”

Durant supposedly hasn’t even practiced since the injury. I’d be surprised if he made the trip to Portland for Games 3 and 4. But that’s just guesswork. What we know for sure is that the Warriors expect Durant to be back in uniform sometime soon, and that his teammates are buoyed by the proposition.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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