The moment the Golden State Warriors have been waiting for is finally here. After being sidelined with a right calf strain for a month, reports indicate that Kevin Durant is expected to make his return in Game 5 of the Finals.
His return can't come soon enough for the Warriors, who trail 3-1 in the NBA Finals and have been badly outmatched thus far against the Toronto Raptors.
Given the historic levels he was playing at prior to his injury in Game 5 of the Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets, Durant has the chance to single-handedly swing the series in Golden State's favour if he's able to return at 100%.
Here's how Durant ultimately impacts the series in Game 5 and beyond.
Taking the pressure off Curry and Thompson
In signing Durant and, to a lesser extent, DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors sacrificed a lot of depth. It's not much of a problem when they are at full strength, but when they aren't, it puts a ton of pressure on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to carry the team in scoring.
That should be obvious based on how the Raptors have defended Curry and Thompson so far in this series. They're face-guarding Thompson off-ball to limit his open shots while helping off of Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Alfonzo McKinnie and whoever else is surrounding them to ensure Curry sees multiple defenders whenever he looks to score.
Toronto's strategy becomes much more difficult to implement with Durant in the lineup for obvious reasons - with an average of 34.2 points per game in these playoffs, he can take advantage of teams loading up on Curry and Thompson in ways Livingston, Iguodala and McKinnie can't.
Just as important as the amount of points Durant scores is the way in which he gets them. Not only is he an excellent spot-up shooter, he is one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in league history. He's generating almost a third of his offence in isolation and in the post, doing so at a rate of nearly a point per possession.
While many - myself included - have criticized Durant for his iso-heavy tendencies at times during Golden State's run, he is the ultimate bailout, giving the Warriors someone they can go to late in a shot clock whenever a possession grinds to a halt.
As a 7-footer with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, there isn't much any defender can do to stop him from getting his shot off.
The Warriors have still scored at a high rate without Durant in these playoffs, but they go from being elite offensively to practically unguardable when he's on the court. According to NBA.com, Golden State is averaging 117.4 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup compared to 110.6 with him on the bench.
It was a similar, albeit more extreme, case in the regular season - they averaged 14.8 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
The Warriors are quite simply a different beast with Durant.
Adding to Kawhi and Siakam's workload
The Raptors who will be impacted the most by Durant's return are Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, as they will likely split responsibility of guarding the 10-time All-Star for the remainder of the series.
According to NBA.com, Siakam defended Durant the most in the regular season, though he played two games against the Warriors compared to only one for Leonard. That one game for Leonard was an overtime thriller, in which he scored 37 points to Durant's 51.
Here's how they both fared when guarding Durant in those games:
The issue for the Raptors is Siakam and Leonard are also their primary creators on offence. They've been able to hide them to a certain extent through four games - Siakam and Leonard have alternated between defending two inconsistent shooters in Iguodala and Green - but they'll now have to chase Durant around for 30-40 minutes per game.
It could be particularly taxing for Leonard. Dating back to the start of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, he has been limited at times by some sort of leg injury. It didn't prevent him from slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Durant will test him in ways The Greek Freak couldn't.
A huge part of Golden State's success over the last five years have been their small ball lineups. What began as the "Death Lineup" of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Green has evolved into the "Hamptons Five," with Durant taking the place of Barnes.
The reason those lineups are unique is that they feature five players who can space the floor and handle the ball in addition to having the ability to guard multiple positions.
Without Durant, the Warriors didn't have player who could fill in for him. The other options were basically Livingston, McKinnie, Quinn Cook and Jonas Jerebko. Livingston is a solid defender and capable scorer, but he's never been a 3-point shooter. McKinnie is a versatile defender, but he's neither a consistent 3-point shooter nor much of a creator. Cook and Jerebko are knockdown shooters, but they both lack the physical tools to guard out of their position - size in Cook's case and speed in Jerebko's.
The result? Five forgettable minutes with Green at centre in these Finals. The Warriors have had to instead play one of Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and Andrew Bogut next to him at all times.
Despite not having Durant for the last eight games, the "Hamptons Five" lineup is still Golden State's most used in these playoffs, having logged 163 minutes together. The Warriors have only outscored opponents by 1.7 points per 100 possessions with Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Green on the floor - down from 23.9 last postseason - but the five of them have a chance to completely change the series with their two-way play.
It'll at the very least force Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to make some tough lineup decisions, whether it's by sticking with what got Toronto here, going small with Siakam at centre or going big with Ibaka and Gasol in the frontcourt.
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