At the 2:11 mark of the 3rd Quarter in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Golden State Warriors fans both in the arena and watching at home froze. Kevin Durant, possibly the most consistent and efficient player in the playoffs this year appeared to suffer a non-contact injury after knocking down his eighth shot of the night and was now out of the game. A later report indicated a calf strain injury instead of the achilles that some had speculated when he grabbed the back of his right leg just seconds after his make.
While losing Durant was a crushing blow to an already injured Golden State team, they remain a force to be reckoned with, still yielding a two-time MVP, a Finals MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year, and another guard who holds the record for most three-pointers in a game, set just earlier this season. With their leading scorer now out for the foreseeable future, the Warriors rallied back and defeated the Houston Rockets 104-99 and took a pivotal 3-2 advantage heading into Houston for Game 6.
Durant as the focal point
In the 2018-19 regular season, the Warriors clinched the #1 seed led by Stephen Curry’s 27.3 points per game (ppg) and Durant’s 26 ppg. Their nightly game plan relied heavily on screens, defensive switching, and they opened the season with arguably the best starting lineup in history. While the team deployed other All-Stars in Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, and Draymond Green on the same court, the Dubs heavily relied on their top scorers in Curry and Durant whenever they needed a bucket.
Much like other teams, Golden State would rely on their top players in critical situations while their teammates helped spread the floor and fill in when needed. This trend continued in the playoffs as head coach Steve Kerr began calling more plays for Durant, especially when Curry entered a shooting slump at an untimely time.
His regular season shooting dropped from 43.7% on three-pointers and 47.3% overall to 37.1% and 44.4%, respectively. With one star struggling, the shots instead went to Durant who averaged 3.1 more shots attempts per game and converted 55.9% on two-pointers, 41.6% on three-pointers, and 51.3% from the field overall. With the increased usage of Durant, he became the sole focal point of the offense and led the Dubs in points scored in nearly every game in the playoffs thus far. However, that all changed in Game 5.
Golden State pre-Durant
This wasn’t the first time the Warriors were playing without Durant. In the historical 2015-16 season, Golden State went 73-9 during the regular season, besting the 72-10 record set by the Bulls’ 1995-96 season that head coach, Steve Kerr, was part of. During that season, the Warriors began the year on a historic streak, winning their first 24 games and 28 straight dating back to last season. The Dubs were led by the now famous “Splash Bros” and a supporting cast that included the likes of Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes.
Fresh off a Finals victory over an injured Cleveland Cavaliers team led by LeBron James and an unlikely Finals MVP trophy for Andre Iguodala the previous season, the Warriors were emerging as the new team to beat in the West. Their backcourt of Curry and Thompson was only getting better, Green began emerging as a serviceable starter, and the addition of rotation players Kevon Looney and Ian Clark only made that Warriors that much more of a threat.
With Curry coming off a MVP season and the Warriors retaining most of their core players, the Dubs were expected to finish around their 2014-15 mark of 65-17 and most analysts slated them to have a similar run in the playoffs. Instead, Golden State led the league in both points per game and offensive rating, broke multiple records, and saw Curry become the first unanimous regular season MVP in NBA history, all while totalling 73 wins in the regular season.
That year, Curry led the league with 30.1 ppg, and became only the 8th member of the prestigious 50-40-90 club. In his own right, Thompson would earn his second career All-Star nod and finish second to Curry in three-pointers made in a year. Combined with Green setting career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, and consistent efforts throughout the season from the rest of the Warriors, Golden State found themselves locked in a rematch with the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
However, the team’s magical run stopped short when Cleveland pulled off the infamous 3-1 comeback against the Warriors and won the NBA Finals in Game 7 in Oracle Arena. Golden State fans had just witnessed their perfect season spoiled by one of the greatest comebacks in recent sports history. After coming so far and failing to live up to expectations, the Dubs began searching for answers and were yearning for a chance to return to the Finals and face off against the now healthy Cavaliers.
On July 4, 2016, the answer came in the form of Durant. A former MVP and one of the best scorers in the NBA, Durant announced he would leave the only team he ever knew and played for in the past nine seasons to join the Golden State Warriors. With this move, the Dubs became an overnight powerhouse, boasting three of the best shooters in the entire league on the same team, and become overwhelming favorites to recapture their title as NBA Champions.
At the time, Durant was heavily criticized of forming a super-team and embracing the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality in order to win a championship. The next two seasons, Durant and the Warriors have done just that, repeating as back-to-back champs and seeking a three-peat during the current 2018-19 season. However, last Wednesday’s game was a watershed and the Warriors will now have to continue winning without the help of Durant.
Moving on without Durant
For the time being, Golden State has made due without Durant, defeating the Rockets in Game 6 to clinch a spot in the Western Conference Finals and dealing a deciding 116-94 victory over the Trail Blazers on Tuesday night. In both these games, we’ve seen Curry and Thompson return to their 2015-16 selves. Against Houston, Curry and Thompson became the focal points of the offense, connecting for a combined 11 three-pointers and 60 points. The Rocket’s plan of constantly switching failed to thwart the Warriors who received plenty of help from their role players. Additionally, the Golden State bench easily outscored Houston’s to a tune of 33 to 17.
Game 1 against the Trail Blazers was a very similar tale as the Splash Brothers duo led the way with 62 points. Without Durant, Portland focused their attention on the Warriors backcourt, leading to defensive errors and multiple open layups for Golden State.
Essentially, they had began playing like they were in 2015-16. Curry and Thompson accounted for over half the shots, facilitated the offense, and almost outscored the Portland starting lineup by themselves. Golden State, much like their current opponents, are becoming a team heavily reliant on their guards and necessitated them to lead the team in scoring while their teammates acted as role players that would defend, rebound, and provide a bucket when needed.
While Game 1’s victory helped in securing a 1-0 lead and re-establishing the Warriors backcourt shooting, there is still work to be done.
Without Durant, Golden State is a dynamic team with one of the top backcourts in the game and great complimentary pieces. With Durant, the Warriors have become a dynasty and arguably one of the best teams in basketball history. Though there might not be an apparent need for Durant against Portland, should they advance, facing a potential MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo or decorated champion in Kawhi Leonard will certainly test the limit and current state of the Warriors team.