OPINION: Kevin Durant has spent his entire NBA career as the dispensable superstar. He can change that, beginning Monday (Tuesday NZ time). He can change that for all time.
But there is only one way.
Durant, reportedly medically cleared to finally return from his calf injury and rejoin the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 in Toronto, must be the difference. The oxygen. He must heroically rescue his team from a 3-1 series hole – something done only once before in Finals history – and carry it to a third consecutive championship.
As a parting gift for likely leaving in free agency in a month, Durant must save Golden State’s dynasty.
Nothing less will do.
What is Durant’s value? To the Warriors, and in free agency. That is the question in play the rest of these Finals.
Durant is elite. A perennial All-Star. A former league MVP. Hall of Fame-bound.
But he has never been what he has a chance to prove himself as right now:
He was great for Oklahoma City but never good enough to lift the Thunder to a championship in eight seasons, only coming close once, in a Finals loss to Miami in 2012.
His leaving was a concession. A white flag. He couldn’t do this himself. (Not even with Russell Westbrook.). He needed help. Needed someone to make him a champion, not the other way around.
Did Golden State need Durant to become what they have?
They won a title before he got there. Then had the single-best regular season in league history before he got there.
Now, as Golden State steamed into the Finals with Durant absent, sidelined since May 8, there was audacious talk that the Warriors somehow might be a better team without Durant. It was quantifiable, the team’s record much better with Steph Curry but no Durant than with Durant but no Steph.
That can all change starting on Tuesday. The whole narrative on Durant can flip.
He can be the essential can’t-win-without-him cog for the first time in his career.
He can reaffirm that he (not Kawhi Leonard) is still the grandest prize in coming free agency.
He can erase the questions of commitment and heart that arose in news reports of teammates thinking he might have played in Game 4 amid the rumbling of increasing agitation over his absence.
He must return to lead three consecutive Warriors wins now.
Anything less and he will leave Golden State the way he did Oklahoma City, a dispensable superstar not feeling a lot of love on the way out.