OAKLAND – It would be an oh-so-convenient headline but also incredibly flippant to suggest that the Golden State Warriors are suddenly better now that their strongest individual part is on injury-enforced hiatus.
No team in its right mind would want Kevin Durant, arguably the game’s most destructive force, watching from the sidelines. Yet in the week that has elapsed since Durant landed awkwardly and the postseason seemed to be thrown into immediate flux, something has happened.
Or should we say hasn’t happened? From that point forward, Golden State stopped looking like they might be in danger of losing to the Houston Rockets. They stopped sputtering on offense. They stopped being over-reliant on seven (or sometimes eight) men. They stopped being hesitant. And Steph Curry started looking like his old self and the Warriors more like champions than they have all season.
Stephen Curry scored a game-high 36 points in Game 1. (Photo: Cary Edmondson, USA TODAY Sports)
They’ve done it out of necessity. Shorn of the luxury of Durant’s ability to marshal offensive opportunities at will, the Warriors have simply gone back to how things were done before he came along. Speedy ball-movement, seeking an open man. Vigorous intensity.
“It was a nice flow,” Curry said after his team’s 116-94 Game 1 victory in their Western Conference finals clash with the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. “We were moving the ball, too. Just trying to create great shots. It worked out for us tonight. It is fun. It is when we are at our best in terms of everybody feeling like they are a threat on the floor. It puts so much pressure on the defense. You see the morale. Everybody’s shoulders were up. There were smiles, just aggressiveness all over the floor.”
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They were pretty decent before Durant came, you might remember, winning one NBA championship and losing another only through a combination of exhaustion at racking up a 73-9 record, a LeBron James swat and a Kyrie Irving dagger.
It was when the Splash Brothers of Curry and Klay Thompson truly splashed, three-pointers raining from the roof of Oracle Arena, when everything was conducted at breakneck speed.
That’s what happened in Game 1. Unless Portland finds a solution, the Warriors will be content to give Durant’s right calf injury every bit of precious rest that it needs.
The Warriors try to play with speed when Durant is around, but, like Curry says, having a player of his quality offers the ultimate “safety valve.” Players are less likely to let fly a rapid and impulsive long-range shot when Durant’s looming figure and implied capacity to score is in their peripheral vision.
It is a small sample size, but maybe we are now seeing the Curry of old, just days removed from when the question was being posed as to what was wrong with him. Having played second fiddle, purely because of the weight of Durant’s excellence all season – and in the last two NBA Finals – he is suddenly unleashed once more.
It's been like his mind was suddenly uncluttered. Perhaps Durant provides him with too many options. During the first three quarters against Portland, Curry had a simple philosophy: use his feet quickness to find open space, and let it fly. He did, sinking nine threes (seven of them uncontested).
“It is good to see Steph have a game like that, obviously when we need him most,” said Draymond Green. “That is really big for us and I expect him to continue to play that way. You try to feed off the momentum of the last game and carry it over. He came out of the gate aggressive.
"Also understanding that Kevin is out and he is going to be even more important in our offense. He came out with that mindset and got it rolling.”
Blazers coach Terry Stotts was frustrated and it is hard to blame him. He looked bristled when quizzed about how to stop Curry. He’ll surely try something else next. There is no certainty it will work.
Durant will be back soon enough and when it happens he will be welcomed back by the Warriors, despite how the Warriors performed in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Rockets and Game 1 vs. the Blazers. He carried the team through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
If anything, this just makes his return even more daunting for whoever has aspirations of stopping the Golden State party. Without Durant, isolation plays are rare and it increases the pace of everything. When he’s back, we can assume that his minutes may carry some restriction, and the speed of play during the times he’s benched may start to look more like things have in his absence.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are cruising through adversity as a result of being forced to rediscover their joyous spirit. Durant has been their most valuable piece all season long, and having to cope without him seems to have supercharged their drive towards a third straight title.
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