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NBA Playoffs 2019: In Kevin Durant’s absence, Warriors face toughest challenge they’ve ever had

Steve Kerr looked as proud as he has been in years on Wednesday, merrily cursing from the podium after the Golden State Warriors took a 3-2 lead in their series against the Houston Rockets. “Our guys are f—ing giants,” Kerr told reporters, a nod to Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. This genre of victory was catnip for Kerr, the coach who made “strength in numbers” into a team mantra after including it in a Marv Albert-narrated video that kicked off his first training camp. Kevin Durant strained his calf with 14 minutes left and the Warriors up by three points. They hung on for a 104-99 victory, a result of Stephen Curry‘s playmaking and some less obvious contributions, like Kevon Looney‘s offensive rebounding and Jonas Jerebko‘s fourth-quarter 3.

Kerr said it reminded him of the days before Durant came to Golden State, saying Curry is “fully capable” of taking on more offensive responsibility when needed. Indeed, it was thrilling to watch the two-time MVP rise to the occasion, especially because he had been having a rough shooting night before Durant’s injury. With Durant reportedly out for Games 6 and 7, part of me is excited to see Curry gunslinging. The pre-Durant Warriors remain one of my all-time favorite teams stylistically, and nothing compares to the experience of watching Curry take over a game with parking-lot 3s.

As Kerr called his team giants, though, I kept thinking about how difficult it would be to sustain what Golden State did at the end of Game 5. Curry had to play the entire second half, and Klay Thompson never went back to the bench after subbing in for Durant. Draymond Green was all over the place in the best way, Looney played by far his most productive game of the series and Golden State eked out a win by making just a few more shots than Houston did down the stretch. After Durant’s exit, the Warriors scored 133.3 points per 100 possessions and the Rockets scored 125.9 points per 100 possessions. 

Another offensive performance like that, with a Curry-led attack, would be electrifying. It would also, however, be a massive shift from what we’ve seen in this matchup. Since last year’s seven-game series, Golden State’s offensive rating has been significantly worse without Durant:

  • Games 1-4 of this series: Durant on the court, 113.0 in 180 minutes; off the court, 105.0 in 17 minutes
  • 2018-19 regular season: Durant on the court, 115.2 in 110 minutes; off the court, 105.3 in 87 minutes
  • 2017-18 conference finals: Durant on the court, 110.4 in 274 minutes; off the court, 103.8 in 62 minutes

There is a line of thinking that losing Durant and all his isolation-based scoring will help the Warriors find themselves. I do not buy it. The most optimistic I can be about this situation is that it removes a security blanket. Without Durant, it becomes imperative that they push the pace, value possessions and make smart decisions. Kerr is always on his team about making crisp cuts, being patient and competing for 50-50 balls. They did all that after Durant went out, and he shouldn’t have to remind them of how important that stuff is now. His absence, however, does not mean that Golden State can snap its collective fingers and play “beautiful basketball,” at least not against this team. 

Houston’s defense is designed to take the Warriors out of their offense. The Rockets switch most off-ball screens and use their physicality to their advantage. Durant, who can create efficient shots out of thin air, served as the best possible antidote to this. His isolations were a product of Houston’s approach, not a roadblock to Golden State finding a free-flowing offensive utopia. And even if you believe that the Warriors would be just as dangerous with the roster they had before Durant, consider that they don’t get to replace him with Harrison Barnes and their bench has consisted of Looney, Shaun Livingston, Alfonzo McKinnie and (sometimes) Jerebko. 

“It’s a completely different bench and roster,” Andrew Bogut told The Athletic’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss. “Half the roster’s different.”

In theory, I would love to see Curry and Harden have a duel on Friday, with each superstar taking 30-plus shots and running endless pick-and-rolls. Such a fight would not be fair, however, because of the drastically different environments they play in. The Rockets built a roster to optimize Harden’s playmaking, so he plays next to only shooters and big men who can roll to the rim. Golden State’s front office prioritized passing and playmaking, and Kerr’s system is designed to make the most of those skills.

This is not to say that Curry cannot overcome an imperfect ecosystem that features two other All-Stars, a couple of heady veterans and a young big who plays like a vet. Kerr was correct to say he is fully capable of shouldering a bigger load, and a classic STEPH! game is the Warriors’ best hope of closing out the series. It would be crazy, though, to think that the loss of Durant will not affect their spacing. Houston has no problem ignoring Andre Iguodala, Green, Livingston and Looney on the perimeter, and surely three of those guys will be in the starting lineup. As much as I love Curry’s pull-up jumpers, in this series it has sometimes felt like he is attempting those shots not because he’s hunting them, but because he sees a bunch of defenders waiting to help if he drives. Playing unreliable shooters in the playoffs can have ugly consequences:

Anyone who has a cursory interest in basketball can picture Curry bailing out a bad possession by making an impossible-looking shot. He cannot, however, be expected to do that on command. The Rockets are better than anybody putting Golden State in uncomfortable positions like this:  

Thompson had an awesome start on Wednesday and hit an important jumper over Harden midway through the fourth quarter. He has mostly struggled in this series, however, and creating against a set defense is not his greatest strength:

If the Warriors are going to prevail without Durant, they have to make up for his scoring. They will need Thompson to make some shots in one-on-one situations and be aggressive taking 3s off the dribble. They will probably need Jerebko to keep the defense honest, and they will need to hunt 3s more than they normally do, hoping that some of the other guys make a few. A transcendent Curry night would help, too, as would some cold shooting from the Rockets and some easy points in transition. Even with Durant in the lineup, though, this was as close a series as an NBA fan could hope for. Now they face the toughest challenge they’ve ever had. They’re lucky they have two tries.