How Kevin Durant's Injury Made Golden State Great Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this could be how you build a bad guy.
By Matt Foley
When Game 2 of the NBA Finals tips off tonight at 8 p.m. EST, Golden State forward Kevin Durant will look to build upon his epic Game 1. The sharpshooter dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 1, posting 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a 113–91 Warrior win. OZY originally ran this story on April 10, 2017, assessing how Durant’s six-week midseason absence affected his team.
A half hour after limping off the court, Kevin Durant sat in a hospital, crying. The former MVP thought his debut season in Golden State was finished in February, cut short by an errant flying 7-footer.
Halfway through the season, Durant was finally settled in the Bay Area. He was leading the team in scoring (25.3 per game) and rebounding (8.2), and even had sort of made peace with Russell Westbrook via the All-Star Game alley-oop heard round the world. But on February 28, teammate Zaza Pachulia tumbled into one of Durant’s $27 million knees. Luckily for Pachulia, the Warriors and basketball in general, “broken tibia” was a misdiagnosis. Durant returned to the court on Saturday, and while Golden State is certainly better for it, the question remains: Did his injury save the Warriors’ season?
In late-game situations … Durant has asserted his alpha status — sometimes to his teammates’ chagrin.
The stats don’t lie: With KD on the floor, Golden State is more efficient (116.9 points per game versus 109.2), shoots at a higher percentage and owns a higher winning percentage (84.7 versus 75.0). Sometimes, though, fans, analysts and players cast those numbers aside. Sometimes, the eyeball test suffices. Still the NBA’s favorite, the Warriors are less dominant than in years past. As a ball-dominant scorer, Durant has inadvertently — albeit slightly — changed the Dubs’ style of play. Steph Curry and Draymond Green — Golden State’s most vital cogs — have been most affected. Durant is no ball hog, but his world-class talent commands that the ball runs through him. This means fewer shots in rhythm for Curry and fewer opportunities for Green to distribute in the paint. In late-game situations, when the ball would have flowed freely to an open shooter or stayed with Curry, Durant has asserted his alpha status — sometimes to his teammates’ chagrin.
Warriors' Kevin Durant calls for ball on crucial late possession, Stephen Curry relents, Draymond Green reacts w/ frustration pic.twitter.com/VROJSAZ0cZ
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) January 7, 2017
Green’s defense and rebounding are invaluable, but no player enjoys devaluation. So it’s no surprise that Green has ramped up his questionable motivation tactics as self-appointed team psychologist.
Draymond ain't happy with KD pic.twitter.com/bc97cDJaZg
— Full Court Prez (@fullcourtprez) January 7, 2017
With Durant out, Curry returned to form, and the Warriors have racked up 13 straight wins. Perhaps more importantly, a tangible feeling of league-wide “Warriors fatigue” receded. Durant’s addition made Golden State villains — a new “superteam” that impartial hoop fans could love to hate. The Warriors were cute in 2013 when Curry was the baby-face leader of a shoot-first upstart. They epitomized a “hoop junkie” endorphin rush in 2015, lighting up the league en route to an NBA title via an upset of LeBron James’ Cavaliers. But last season, as they raced to break the record for regular-season wins held by Michael Jordan and the 1996 Chicago Bulls, Green repeatedly kicked opponents in the valuables, and the Warriors gained some haters. Durant’s move from rival Oklahoma City opened up the floodgates. Fans love an underdog; the Warriors are unequivocally not that.
But a funny thing has happened these past five weeks: With Durant out, anti-Warrior rumblings have dissipated. It’s as if the basketball community is enjoying a blast from the past. Curry has regained the swagger and flash that have eluded him for much of this season. His 3-point shooting has improved too: It was up to 47 percent during the recent 13-game winning streak. Now, entering the playoffs, Golden State is locked and loaded. Hating Golden State will have to wait until next season.
“Clearly, they’ve been unbelievable the last three seasons,” J.J. Redick tells OZY. For four years, the Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard has been trying to upend the Dubs in the Western Conference. This year, Redick believes it just might happen. “The Spurs have been great over that same time and are again this year. I really believe that a few teams could take [Golden State] out. We’re one of them.”
This season, more than any of the past three years, the Warriors are vulnerable. To what degree may depend on Durant’s health and how well he continues to assimilate. Durant, to his credit, scored 16 points and added 10 rebounds in his return on April 8. The lanky forward doesn’t seem concerned about the heat. “At some point, I had to step into the fire,” he told The Mercury News.. “It doesn’t matter if it was the 80th game or the playoffs. It’s basketball at the end of the day.”