Moore: The Warriors Need Kevin Durant … Just Not in Game 6

Moore: The Warriors Need Kevin Durant … Just Not in Game 6 article feature image

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) walks off the court at the Toyota Center.

  • Kevin Durant will miss Game 6 (and Game 7 if necessary) of the Warriors-Rockets series with a strained right calf.
  • Matt Moore thinks that loss actually benefits the Warriors' offense against Houston in Game 6.

In 2019, you can bet the Golden State Warriors at +250 to win a closeout playoff game with a liberated Stephen Curry facing James Harden and Chris Paul.

What a time to be alive.

The Kevin Durant injury is unfortunate, as all injuries are, but at least it’s not an Achilles injury, praise the basketball gods. Losing Durant would be a bummer for him, the Warriors, the Finals, the game, everything. If Houston won a title in that scenario, it would come with an asterisk; same for Milwaukee.

The Warriors are under no circumstances better without Durant longterm.

He’s an all-time elite scorer who defends, passes, makes plays, and rebounds at a high level. He contains on the perimeter and helps down with steals and blocks. He has infinite range and gets to the rim at supersonic speed (apologies, Seattle). The Warriors’ talent is substantially less without him.

However, in this particular series, in this particular moment … this might actually benefit Golden State.

Houston came up with an approach that wasn’t some stroke of genius, it’s just that no one had been able to do it. They would grind the games down offensively with isolation basketball, slowing it to a crawl, and Harden would deliver along with a bevy of 3-point shooters to keep their offensive efficiency where it needed to be.

Defensively, they would switch everything, Taking away the Warriors’ space when coming around screens. It’s harder to hit Curry coming off a pin-down when the screener’s man is jumping out to cover Curry in the passing lane. You know how often players say “Just take what the defense gives you?”

The defense gives isolations. If you switch, you get one on one coverage. Now, the Rockets have mixed this in at times, but for the most part it’s one on one.

For whatever reason, the Warriors haven’t fought against this, continuing to try to challenge with back cuts off screens or post-ups passing to cutters.

Instead they’ve just given the ball to Kevin Durant and, well, this:

Durant has scored well on these ISO and post-up possessions — 55 points on 60 possessions, which is efficient for how tough those shots are. But there’s a drag effect where Durant becomes tired, and it takes away from the rest of the offense. Here are his ISO and post-up numbers by game.

  • Game 1: 18 ISO’s and Post-ups | 14 points, 4-of-11 shooting
  • Game 2: 13 ISO’s and Post-ups | 13 points, 6-of-12 shooting
  • Game 3: 18 ISO’s and Post-Ups (14 isolations) | 18 points, 6-of-16 shooting
  • Game 4: 7 ISO’s and Post-ups | 8 points, 4-of-6 shooting
  • Game 5: 6 ISO’s and Post-ups | 6 points, 3-of-6 shooting (missed fourth quarter with injury)

Note that the two most impressive Warriors victories came in Game 2 and 5, with fewer of those possessions. You can point to Game 4 where he had the second-fewest, but that was a product of the Dubs running pick-and-roll  instead letting Durant of attack his man one-on-one:

There’s also a cumulative exhaustion for Durant and by contrast, a disengagement from the Warriors. The Warriors passed just twice in the halfcourt offense on their first seven fourth quarter possessions in Game 3. Durant cooked everyone. But it takes the rest of the offense out of rhythm.

By necessity, this approach involves less passing.

In the regular season, the Warriors averaged 320 passes per game. In this series, that number is down to 278. Back in 2016, before Durant showed up, the Warriors averaged 315.5 passes per game. They’re just not moving the ball.

The offense seemed weird and restrictive last year, but Steve Kerr and Durant maintained that it was just a response to what the defense was giving, asserting that if Durant has one-on-one opportunities, he should take them repeatedly. They almost lost last year before Paul’s injury, and Houston started a comeback in Game 5 when Durant went down.

In the fourth quarter without Durant on Wednesday, the Warriors posted a 145.5 offensive rating. That’s the second highest offensive rating in a single quarter this series for Golden State, behind the third quarter of Game 3 (145.8).

There was a lot of this:

And this:

The numbers are just not what you would think in this series.

Now that’s just 32 minutes, so it’s incredibly small. But look at the differential and what it indicates. This has always been Curry’s team. The Warriors, at the peak of their powers, are not KD and the KD-ettes.

They are a superb-movement, share-the-rock, find-the-open-man-who-finds-the-next-open man, explosive offense unlike any we’ve ever seen. Durant raised their floor because with Durant you’re always going to get a steady diet of possessions where he is just better than the opponent.

But the Warriors have looked miserable in 20 games the past two years against this team, and they looked liberated and emotionally amped in that fourth. They knew they had to raise it with Durant out, for sure.

Depth will be a glaring issue. Only six players in this series have positive net ratings while on the floor for Golden State: Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Andre Iguodala, and Durant.

But they can’t worry about saving their legs anymore. If Kerr is going to play them heavy minutes, ever, it’s this potential elimination game on the road vs. Houston in Game 6. A win in Friday’s game and neither team in the other bracket can handle the Warriors even if they are tired.

All of those players with a negative net rating like Shaun Livingston, Alfonso McKinnie, and Jonas Jerebko? They all have positive net ratings with Curry on the floor and Durant on the bench. Curry and Green are +36 without Durant.

A lot of that, is just the fourth quarter of Game 5, but it’s notable. These samples can’t hold up a white paper, but they indicate a general sense.

The Rockets wanted this series to be a grind, where Durant was isolating for mid-range 2’s while Houston shot 3’s. With Durant out, it means a quicker pace, and more explosive offense from the Warriors with higher 3-point volume.

Will they be tired? For sure. But Harden vanished late in Game 5 even as they desperately needed a momentum-turning 3-pointer and CP3 just isn’t the same guy.

We’ve seen this before for Houston, in 2017 vs. the Spurs when Kawhi Leonard went down. You think the Warriors are tired? Houston’s entire approach — putting everything on Harden for nearly every possession — is exhausting and may be reaching the tipping point.

Last year, before he was hurt, Paul stepped up in Game 5 and led them before his hamstring gave out. He’s not there. Clint Capela was playable last year, he’s not this year. Houston doesn’t have another game changer.

Everyone is building this to be the most difficult moment of this dynasty’s run, and it’s not. The Thunder series, being down 3-1 in 2016 was. Durant makes the Warriors better because he’s an insurance policy. But the Warriors are great because of what their ceiling looks like.

This moment, against this team, might be the perfect situation for Golden State, especially when they’re a significant underdog.