When you picture the dynastic Golden State Warriors, what, or who, do you see first? Is it Steph Curry, firebombing from the logo like he’s shooting free throws? Perhaps it’s Klay Thompson, needing as much total time with the ball to put up 60 points as it takes to brew a half-decent cup of coffee.
Maybe it is Draymond Green, capably switching across everybody in the arena, refs included, and defending against them all with varying degrees of success. It could be Andre Iguodala, matching the world’s best players on both ends and directing traffic in transition, or Steve Kerr, arms draped over chairs adjacent to the one he’s in, like curtains breezily welcoming sunlight into the room.
I have a suspicion that the first inclination may not be to envision Kevin Durant receiving the ball somewhere between the elbow and shoulder and cooking in isolation, the way he used to in Oklahoma City. You already have those OKC memories, after all. Yet Durant going down with a strained calf in the third quarter of Golden State’s 104-99 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 5 on Wednesday night may yet have the most impact of anything that has happened thus far in the playoffs.
The fallout was immediate: first, the fear that Durant had torn his Achilles, like fellow Warriors DeMarcus Cousins, and Kobe Bryant in 2013, before him, and then, when that subsided, the fear that his absence would ruin Golden State in what most figured would be their most vulnerable series. Above all, though, what stood out was that many (most?) fans were upset about not being able to watch Durant for some period of time, which seems to have been the first time that was pervasive since he spurned the Thunder in 2016 to join Golden State.
To be fair, Durant has been incredible in these playoffs: 34.2 points and 4.9 assists, both playoff career-highs, to go along with 5.2 rebounds per game on 65.5 true shooting percentage. Everyone, teammate and observer alike, would feel Durant’s absence immediately.
While the focus has been, and will clearly be, on what the Warriors are missing, what we should be directing our attention toward is the opportunity this opens. Most NBA fans fell in love with the Golden State’s go-go style sometime between 2013 and 2015 or so, coinciding with the blossoming of the Splash Brothers and the eventual emergence of Green as a do-everything defensive stalwart.
What that engendered was a brand of basketball the world had never seen, one in which pull-up transition 3s became the exciting norm, sprinkled amongst passing sequences ending in inexplicably wide-open dunks. Kerr seemed to have inherited the easiest job in the world by the time the Warriors won the title in 2015 over a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers squad.
Twitter alerts and flurries of texts heralded a Steph game, or Klay heating up in the third quarter. They won a league-record 73 games in 2016 behind the first unanimous MVP campaign in NBA history from Curry. The numbers 3 and 1, in that order, are constantly here to remind you how that season, no matter how mind-melting it was, ended, but it was never not fun to watch Golden State.
When Durant signed with the Warriors that summer, it seemed like an overload, a true embarrassment of riches in that everyone would have to explain why they felt they needed to be there when everyone around them was, too. The two titles that have followed were all but perfunctory, given the amount of All-Stars and Hall of Fame-level talent in its prime that Golden State possessed.
As a result, it has never quite felt like the Warriors of the pre-KD era. I don’t mean to demean Durant for making a personal decision that, at the time, he felt was best for him — I defended it at the time, however begrudgingly as a fan. But the Warriors with Durant have never been as comfortably sublime to watch as prior editions, and it always felt like the Warriors invited the most popular person in school to the party, even if none of them was especially friendly with him.
After Durant went out, Curry was marvelous, scoring 16 of his 25 points on 5-for-9 shooting, including 2-for-3 from beyond the 3-point line. Curry sometimes receives unfair criticism for his playoff performances, but this was far and away the best quarter and change that he’d played this year. Thompson, too, was great, and it seems like he is due for one of those quarters, one in which he forgets that the word “miss” is in the English language, soon.
Draymond Green is his own force and always has been, for better and for worse. He is as liable to pick fights with members of his own team or with, again, the officials as he is with his actual opponents. But he has shown a different energy of late, and no matter how he feels about Durant personally, he will aim to use outsider doubt to his advantage.
Make no mistake: Kevin Durant has been perhaps the best player in the NBA in these playoffs. For however long he is out, the Warriors will miss his two-way production, peaking right as he was establishing himself as the best player in the world.
But Golden State already had a distinct identity without him. The Warriors face an uphill battle against their latest, greatest rivals, but with a 3-2 lead already in hand, it is by no means impossible to imagine them in yet another Finals. In the face of divisive opinions about how they should play, the Warriors, and especially their all-world backcourt, have a chance to prove everybody right, that they never needed Kevin Durant in the first place.