NBA Finals 2019: Don’t let Kevin Durant’s potential return fool you, the Warriors’ fate still rests on Steph Curry’s shoulders

With the Golden State Warriors on the brink of elimination trailing 3-1 to the Toronto Raptors, Kevin Durant practiced Sunday and is listed as questionable for Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night. It’s the most optimistic update we’ve gotten since Durant went down in Game 5 of the conference semifinals more than a month ago. The Raptors have completely controlled this series and now have a 91-percent chance of winning the title, but nobody’s counting the Warriors out if KD returns. 

That said, it’s a mistake to think that Durant — who at the very least will be less than 100 percent and likely rusty, out of rhythm and in poor conditioning from so much time off — can just plop back into the lineup and magically turn Golden State back into a super-team. Fact is, they were 6-4 in the playoffs in the 10 games he played, and they were on the brink of going down 3-2 to the Rockets. And that was full-strength Durant. 

Which is to say: this is still on Steph Curry’s shoulders. 

The load will be lighter with Durant in the fold, no question. But perhaps the biggest mistake the Warriors, and Curry himself, made in Game 4 was thinking the return of Klay Thompson was enough to send Curry back to his usual, egalitarian, largely off-ball role. This could’ve been the influence of Steve Kerr, who simply will not budge from his stance that the Warriors are better off when everyone’s involved, even if that often reduces one of the greatest scorers of all-time to a decoy while lesser playmakers determine the Warriors’ fate. 

This also could’ve been Curry being overly generous. 

If not downright passive. Complacent. Tired. 

And just flat out not good enough. 

Either way, it can’t happen again. Not with the title, and perhaps the end of a dynasty, on the line. If you’re the Warriors, you can’t go down with Klay Thompson post-ups and Boogie Cousins pushing the ball on the break. You can’t think six passes are better than no passes when those six passes lead to an Andre Iguodala 3-pointer. Give Curry the ball. Trust that he’ll make the right play. If he’s an all-time great player, this is his time. He has to be better than he was in Game 4, but the Warriors also have to prioritize putting him in position to do so. 

The Raptors are making it tough, no doubt. They’re blitzing pick and rolls. They’re sometimes sending a second defender even when Curry’s isolating. They’re putting Kawhi Leonard on Draymond Green so he can switch onto Curry on ball screens. But were they not doing these things in Game 3 when, outside of Curry, there were no other scoring threats to worry about? Curry put 47 on Toronto in that game and it was all about his mindset. He knew he had to score, or at least be the one to create the majority of the offense. He was aggressive from the jump. 

Here are four of the Warriors’ first five Game 3 possessions:

That is Stephen Curry at his best. Pedal to the floor. Hunting his shot. Letting everything else trickle down from there. This was a very clear and concerted game plan to establish Curry above all else, to make getting him going the top priority. Ultimately, Curry has a license to do whatever he wants on the court. He has to take ownership of his involvement, and tangible impact, as well. And his teammates shouldn’t need an explicit instruction from the coach to understand Curry is their best current player who gives them their best shot. 

In Game 4, none of these things happened. Kerr didn’t run frequent plays for Curry, or even just put the ball in his hands in position to dictate his usage; too often it’s other guys bringing the ball up the court. Curry, for his part, was often too passive hanging out off the ball, and when he eventually got it and moved it as part of the offense, he didn’t make it a point to move as hard as he usually does to get it back. And finally, his teammates tried to do too much — understanding this is also part of what makes Golden State great — rather than curbing the freedom Kerr affords his whole team in the interest of giving their best current player the ball. 

After we saw Curry come out gunning in Game 3, this was the first possession of Game 4.

Again, this is the first possession of the game, coming off a 47-point effort, and Curry doesn’t even touch the ball. He doesn’t come off a screen. He doesn’t do anything. He stands on the weak side and watches utterly inferior ball handlers fumble their way into a turnover. Then on the second possession, it happens again. On this next clip, look how free Curry is running up the left sideline when DeMarcus Cousins, instead, opts to keep the ball and make the play himself.

Now we have the Warriors’ third possession, again in transition after getting a rebound on a missed three.

That’s three possessions to start what most people considered to be a must-win game, and Curry didn’t touch the ball once. All told, Curry touched the ball 84 times in Game 4. That was his lowest total of the series, in the most important game, and a far cry from the 102 touches he got in Game 3. 

Here’s another early Game 4 possession in which the Warriors run their offense through Klay Thompson in the post, get nothing out of it, and ultimately have to settle for an Andre Iguodala contested mid-range jumper with Curry, once again, failing to touch the ball even one time. 

The Warriors played through Thompson in the post quite a lot in the early part of Game 4. It worked in the sense that he scored a handful of baskets, and he was even (for whatever reason) drawing double teams and making plays out of them. But again, the cost of this is Curry’s involvement. If you’re the Warriors, you have to go into these games thinking you need 115 points to beat a Raptors team you haven’t proven you have the defense to stop. A couple of Klay turnarounds don’t add up in the end. Curry is the only player that can get the offense going at that rate. 

By the time the second half rolled around in Game 4, Toronto was all over Curry. They blitzed him hard. They swarmed him off the ball. Perhaps those coverages are less effective if he gets cooking to start. When that happens, there isn’t a defense in the world that can contain him. But when he’s not in rhythm via the offense, and not pressing the gas himself, that’s when he becomes the Curry that looks like he has to force shots to get going against defenders he can’t consistently beat. 

Again, Curry doesn’t have to shoot the ball every time. Kerr’s inclusive offense has been an all-time great for the duration of this five-year run. He knows what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it. But what works in the long run doesn’t always work in the short term, and right now, Golden State has to think short term. One possession at a time. What gives us the best chance to score on THIS possession? That answer is almost always putting the ball in Curry’s hands and letting him create, whether for himself or others. 

There has been a lot of talk about the Raptors putting Kawhi on Draymond Green so that when Curry and Green run pick and roll, it’s Kawhi who switches onto Curry. This is a very logical defensive solution meant to prevent the Warriors from running one of their most potent plays, but it’s not like Curry still can’t make plays. Here Golden State runs a Green-Curry pick and roll and Curry crosses Leonard up for a layup:

Kawhi is one of the best defenders in the world, yes. But if Toronto thought Kawhi was enough on his own to consistently stop Curry, they wouldn’t send a second defender STILL at damn near half court, which the Warriors can then use to get the easy buckets that are coming so few and far between in this series.  

There is also the option of running pick and roll with a partner other than Green, as the Warriors do here with Andrew Bogut as Green spaces to the weak side, dragging Leonard out of the play. Curry rejects the screen and gets a lane to the rim to draw a foul:

The one common denominator in all thee plays is that it’s Curry bringing the ball up. Curry making the decisions, forcing the defense to react to him rather than the other way around. Steve Kerr is resolute on his belief that any team that runs the same thing over and over is making it easy on the defense, which can then, theoretically, adjust and settle in. James Harden and the Rockets make no secret of how they’re going to attack, and over time, that approach has come up short in the playoffs. 

So the Warriors will continue with their diversity, and when and if Durant returns, they will surely prioritize his offense and rhythm to some degree. But this is do-or-die time. And if you’re going to die, don’t you want it to be with the ball in the hands of the guy who gave this whole dynasty life in the first place?

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