By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) – The Golden State Warriors have not missed a beat since Kevin Durant’s injury but suggestions that his legacy will be tarnished if they win this year’s NBA championship without him are absurd, television pundits said on Tuesday.
Durant was the best player in the post-season when he went down with a calf injury but the two-time defending champion Warriors have played much looser without him over a 6-0 run to reach the NBA Finals, where they face the Toronto Raptors.
Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, who are part of the ABC/ESPN broadcast team for the NBA Finals that start on Thursday in Toronto, dismissed the idea that Durant’s legacy would suffer should the Warriors triumph without him.
“I think we are in a time and place where we are absolutely dying to pick people apart and to negate their greatness,” former NBA coach Van Gundy said in a conference call on Tuesday.
“Durant’s great. I don’t know if he’s going to play in this series, if they are going to win or lose, but there is no doubt to me that he is great.
“Do they play a little different, with a little bit more movement when he’s not there? Yes. That gives them their best chance to win when he is not there.”
Before Durant was injured during Game Five of the Western Conference semi-finals nearly three weeks ago, he was in the midst of yet another dominant post-season run, averaging 34.2 points per game in 11 contests.
While most NBA teams would likely crumble if their top player was out of the lineup, the Warriors have proven to be an exception to that rule, which former NBA coach and player Jackson said should not be a strike against Durant.
“The guy is an all-time great, absolutely all-time great basketball player,” said Jackson. “There is no nitpicking. They can win it, they might win it, they might lose, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to his greatness.”
The Warriors were already an offensive juggernaut before Durant joined the team, having won a championship in 2015 and then going on a record-setting 73-9 run the next season before squandering a 3-1 NBA Finals lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Less than a month later Durant, in search of an elusive NBA championship, joined the Warriors and bolstered a lineup that already included Stephen Curry, who at the time was the league’s two-time reigning MVP, and sharpshooter Klay Thompson.
The Warriors beat the Cavaliers in the next two NBA Finals and Durant was named MVP of the championship series both years, but the standout forward will not play in Game One this time around and his status beyond that is unclear.
Van Gundy said that even though the Warriors are rolling along and playing solid basketball without Durant that does not mean they are better off should he be sidelined throughout the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
“He wasn’t part of the group that lost to the Cavs, he was the one that beat them twice,” said Van Gundy. “So I am not really sure why we are trying to, as a basketball community, nitpick him instead of just saying the guy is a great, great player. Great. All-time great.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)