The Warriors’ old regime is proving to be its same self two games into the playoffs without an injured Kevin Durant. Days after sending the Houston Rockets packing, the Warriors crushed the Portland Trail Blazers, 116-94.
Steph Curry was everything with the reins handed to him, and only him, once again. He scored 36 points with nine threes on 15 tries, hitting clutch shot after clutch, off-balance shot. He was his quintessential self, as were Klay Thompson (26 points) and Draymond Green (12 points, 10 rebounds, five assists.)
If there was a time for the back-to-back defending champion Golden State Warriors to crash and burn, it was with two minutes to play in the third quarter of a pivotal Game 5 against the Houston Rockets. But they didn’t let up then, either.
After giving up 17 points of a once 20-point lead, the scene at Oracle turned darker. Kevin Durant pulled up for a two-point shot over the outstretched arms of Iman Shumpert, then reached down at the back of his leg while galloping down the floor. He suffered a non-contact injury the team is calling a calf strain, and didn’t return.
So many NBA ramifications — tonight, these playoffs, this summer and far beyond — ride on whether this scary Kevin Durant injury is what many fear pic.twitter.com/ZYFDnaUkXX
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 9, 2019
Durant’s injury could’ve been the final dagger. There was more than a quarter’s worth of basketball left to play in a game that could’ve pushed the Warriors to the brink of not only series elimination, but dynasty extinction. The best player of these entire playoffs was gone.
Suddenly, though, Stephen Curry (finally) became himself again. In the minutes with Durant on the floor, Curry shot 4-of-14 for nine points. In the 14 minutes of game time after, he shot 5-of-9 for 16 points as Golden State went on to secure a 104-99 win and 3-2 series lead.
Two nights later, the Durant-less Warriors finished the job in dramatic fashion, beating the Rockets, 118-113, in Game 6 to win the series. The old guard turned back the clock in beautiful fashion. Andre Iguodala drained five threes and finished with 17 points in 37 minutes. Shaun Livingston dropped 11 points in 13 minutes. Klay Thompson drained shot after shot in the first half, a la his legendary Game 6 performance against Oklahoma City in 2016.
And then there was Curry. In the first half of Game 6, he had zero points. Zero. He looked like he didn’t know how to play basketball.
He ended with 33 points, all in the second half, including this Vintage Steph dagger.
This is what legends do, of course, and Curry is a legend despite his uneven postseason to date. But his sudden burst to save the series almost seemed cynically scripted, as if it was written by every Warriors fan who’s ever criticized Durant and longed for the days of the 2015 Golden State core to return.
Before we dig deep, it’s crucial to point out that none of what unfolded in Games 5 or 6 of the Western Conference semis prove the Warriors don’t need Durant or are better off without him. If Durant weren’t a Warrior, there’s no guarantee the team even makes it this deep into the postseason. If he should want back in to Golden State for another go at it, he should be welcomed back with open arms.
But what the Warriors’ performance did show is that the old, once-beloved Warriors — the one where Curry and Thompson were the Splash Brothers and Draymond Green fueled all the fire — still exists, and can still be lethal. In the time since Durant left with his injury in Game 5, Golden State sunk 12 of the 23 shots it took to secure the win. From the 6:31 mark of the fourth quarter of Game 6 on, Curry outscored the Rockets by himself, 18-16.
That remaining group will be tested over the next round, or maybe even longer. Durant is expected to miss the beginning of the Western Conference Finals at a minimum. With the quad tear injury to DeMarcus Cousins last round, Golden State is already short-staffed. With so much money spread thinly across its top five players, the Warriors inexperienced bench is being exposed.
That means success or failure will fall on the shoulders of Curry, Thompson, Green, and Iguodala all over again, but with a fraction of the reinforcements and the gravity of older age. This run will be a lot different than three years ago, and arguably means even more.
There was legitimate doubt to whether that Death Lineup core would ever be enough again, even with Durant. With James Harden playing at even higher level than a season ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo transcending the league, and Kawhi Leonard fully healthy on a team built for him, the thought was the rest of the league had caught up. Throughout the entire season, as Durant’s departure from the franchise felt inevitable, we’ve debated if the remainder of the 2016 73-win core could carry championship weight again without him. Three years and two all-stars ago, opinions wouldn’t have been this varied.
So far, it sure looks like they can. But the rest of these playoffs will be the ultimate test for a Durant-less scenario we didn’t think possible until 2019-20. Maybe it’ll merely be the perfect Free Agency Needs cheat sheet for the Warriors’ front office as the team collapses spectacularly. Or, maybe it’ll cast another spell of doom over a league that was just starting to taste the Warriors’ first signs of vulnerability in years.
In the small sample size, Curry and the old Warriors passed their first test. But in context of this series and beyond, the answer by Golden State, and Durant himself, could flip NBA life upside down.