OAKLAND, Calif. — From turmoil to titans in the span of 10 days.
It’s January and not June, so it’s still premature to say the Golden State Warriors are going to stick the landing on the massive leap they’re seeking to make from talented group to title team.
But in the span of a little more than a week, they seem to have moved from turmoil to titans.
The Warriors’ 126-91 rout on Monday of the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers came just 10 days after Golden State imploded on this same home court in an overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. That loss featured Draymond Green’s barking at Kevin Durant to make sure Durant knew in that moment just how much he was looking like a misfit with Warriors culture.
Credit Golden State for the progress it’s made since that game—and the progress made since its Christmas meltdown in Cleveland, another loss marred by late-game offensive uncertainty.
As much as Steve Kerr mostly puts a happy face on it, because the Warriors’ chemistry is so good and his guys’ intentions remain pure, Kerr and his assistant coaches have had countless meetings fretting how far their star-driven squad is from developing the team-based style Kerr believes in.
The issue boils down to their not wanting to be more like Durant and their insistence Durant become more like them.
The advanced stats show Durant’s 41.7 true shooting percentage in clutch situations (last five minutes, score within five points) is the worst on the team, which is all the more reason to push back against his individual ego.
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A matchup against Durant’s former Oklahoma City team Wednesday will be a further reminder of how far the Warriors want Durant to get from his former self, that isolation-offense torchbearer who never won a title.
“Strength in Numbers” is the credo of this Warriors team. And while it is a phrase that has been trademarked for sale on T-shirts and all manner of memorabilia, it is also a philosophy rooted in belief.
Yes, Golden State can boast a two-man game between Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, who together make this the first time two former MVPs have begun a season as teammates clearly in their primes, not yet 29 years old. But this Warriors team, with this assemblage of talent, works on the premise that they are most effective when they utilize their entire roster, when they play as a team.
Kerr believes in moving the ball and maximizing role players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to make everyone a part of something, even when others might worry about getting Klay Thompson enough shots or Green enough touches.
With Durant in town now, though, the Warriors have been doing what they can to make space for him—especially Curry, whose usage rate has dropped (32.6 to 28.9) even more than Durant’s (30.6 to 27.6) from last season. Curry has also dialed way back on his pull-up three-point parties (shooting 1.7 fewer threes a game this season) and has posted his lowest assist totals in five years.
Isolation plays for Livingston, Curry and Iguodala have had a certain place in Golden State’s offense for years, but Durant has gotten more isolations than any of them this season. (Durant also has the highest scoring frequency on them: 50 percent.)
But the Warriors of late have begun to push back, prideful in their beautiful, sharing-is-caring offense and determined never to be so simplistic as to run their playbook through Durant.
That’s why the Durant-opts-for-isolation-offense issue against Memphis was no mere hiccup. His attempt to take the older, shorter Zach Randolph in the closing minutes against Memphis was a big deal. It was—apologies for the vulgarity—the equivalent of basketball vomit to the refined palate of Kerr’s Warriors.
You saw the disgust in Curry’s depressed body language at the time that Durant dismissed him, and you heard it in Green’s ongoing admonishment of Durant after he settled for the jumper over Randolph.
It was inevitable that they would have to stiff-arm Durant’s deep-rooted isolation habits in an open manner at some point, and they probably will have to again and again, to be honest. But that’s the growth the Warriors want—Durant included. Isn’t that why he left Oklahoma City for Oakland?
So Durant listened to Green’s complaints and acknowledged he probably should’ve used Curry’s screen when it was offered as a sure way to draw defensive help and imbalance. But Green intuited a teaching point and didn’t want to let it pass without maximizing the lesson.
That’s why he kept after Durant in an oblique way after the game, telling reporters he was “actually happy we lost today, because there are some things that we need to correct in order to win a championship.” That’s a deep concern of Golden State’s coaches, and the gratification Green takes in the concept of teamwork is one he presses as an unofficial coach with this group.
The Warriors have been slow to learn to play the complete team game their coaches want with Durant, because they keep getting away with missteps when it comes to the final scoreboard.
Against the Grizzlies, however, the Warriors didn’t escape the fact Durant missed his final five shots of the game. If he’d made some of them and they won, he might’ve missed the lesson—and the Warriors might’ve missed out on the progress.
Two days after the Memphis loss, it appeared the Warriors had moved forward—quickly—with an 11-point win in Sacramento.
But let’s take a closer look at it, again from the coaching perspective.
The game plan was to double-team DeMarcus Cousins from the baseline, but when—on the first play of the game—Zaza Pachulia shaded Cousins inside with the expectation that double-team help was coming from the baseline…and Cousins just turned and dunked, Kerr called a timeout.
Though no one publicly pointed the finger at him, Klay Thompson was the culprit, off in his own world instead of locked in on the game plan and ready to help Pachulia. More important than the missed assignment was the opportunity it gave Kerr to offer another loud teaching point about working together.
And Green loved it, which was clear in his smile as he walked off the court for Kerr’s ridiculously early timeout.
Green was so determined to learn the lesson from Thompson’s opening miscue that on the next Kings possession, Green double-teamed from that baseline spot so early in support of Pachulia that Rudy Gay got an open corner three. At least it was a mistake of commission, as Green’s mistakes almost always are.
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Durant has seen a passion like Green’s before, but as inspirational as Russell Westbrook’s passion can be, there’s a difference in the fire that emanates from Green and Westbrook. Westbrook’s is a more narrow-eyed fury that naturally produces fear in his target, and maybe Durant and Westbrook let their respect for each other prevent them from digging deeper than a few harsh words. Green emanates positivity. Even when he lectured Durant against Memphis, the conversation ended with hand slaps.
The two have become fast friends.
Curry is far less the feuding type than Green, but the Warriors have also taken steps to ensure Curry regains some standing in the offense before there is any sort of power struggle.
Strong sentiment exists within the league that Durant got his license for the first half of the season, and Curry will get his for the second. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue noted Monday how the Warriors have shifted since Christmas from a Durant focus to again having Curry throw the first strikes in the half court.
“They’re making a concerted effort to make sure the ball is in his hands, and Durant is playing more on the second side—and getting it if Steph doesn’t have anything,” Lue said. “But on a night-to-night basis, that could change. It’s like our Big Three. If one person has it going, then we’re going to ride those guys. If we have to go to another guy, we will. They’re basically playing the same way. It starts with Steph, and if he doesn’t have it going, they go with Durant or Klay.”
The Durant integration hasn’t exactly been some chemical implosion, so most NBA insiders believe the Warriors will get where they want to go—or at least reasonably close. It’s impossible to miss the Warriors’ league-best 35-6 record.
Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton, a Warriors assistant from 2014 to ’16, said there have been occasions when he sees the ball and player movement with Durant included in it and is wowed beyond words.
“I’m like…” Walton said before leaving his mouth agape, straightening himself up, nodding and applauding.
LeBron James got a longer glimpse of the Warriors’ preferred style than he wanted Monday. On one especially remarkable transition play, Green threw a perfect hit-ahead pass for Durant to sail in and dunk—and at the same time Durant was rushing in toward the paint, Curry was slipping out to the three-point arc in their unanswerable physics experiment for opposing defenders.
K.D. #NBAVine #DubNation https://t.co/b73VlajDQs
— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2017
James wanted to make the point also that these great Golden State scorers are not just scorers in the half court. They can and do enjoy setting up each other, which means they can thrive the way Kerr wants to play.
“They have got so many different options, so many guys who can not only create for themselves, but they do a great job of having guys who can create for others,” James said. “It always keeps your defense off balance.”
But one Western Conference scout said Durant is so preprogrammed to hold the ball late in games that it might require Kerr to be heavier-handed in keeping the ball away from Durant.
“I almost think the Warriors gave Durant the ball so much early this season to show him that he didn’t help the other guys that much,” he said. “The good thing is that he is a killer catch-and-shoot guy if he’ll do it.”
Those who know Durant well believe he will do whatever it takes, same as he’s trying now to learn what from his individual offense doesn’t translate with the Warriors.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” said retired guard and former Knicks coach Derek Fisher, who played alongside and became a trusted confidante of Durant in Oklahoma City. “I think the biggest adjustment is mentally, though. He’s already made that decision that he wants to be part of what they’re doing. That’s why he went to play with Golden State. So he has made the biggest adjustment that is needed to be made in that situation.
“The rest of it is just timing. The more games they play together, the more confident he’ll become at just blindly trusting the system and what the coaches are trying to get him to do up there. But it’s scary to think that he and they could actually be better than what they are now.”
Fisher also pointed out how much Durant is contributing on defense, because he has more energy available. “He’s blocking shots and rebounding at a much higher level than what I have seen before,” Fisher added.
That might well be the direction things continue to go for the Warriors as Durant realizes that what these Warriors need, and allow, for him is to be a weak-side rim protector at times and just an excellent individual defender overall.
“I try to think defense first every game,” Durant said. “Sometimes I’ve got to pull myself back and just worry about the defensive end because offensively I can do that pretty well. But defensively I’ve been just trying to stay locked in every game, no matter what.”
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“It’s about sacrifice,” Lue said. “And I think Coach Kerr is doing a great job of preaching that. I think their team understands that with Steph, Klay and Draymond … when you add a piece like Kevin Durant, who is one of the top three players in the NBA, it’s going to take sacrifice.”
Truthfully, Golden State has enough talent that it may win a championship without truly reaching its happy place in teamwork. Remember, the Durant way was good enough with Westbrook to have a 3-1 lead on the history-making Warriors last season.
It’s no coincidence, though, why those Western Conference Finals didn’t end in Durant’s favor: The isolation-heavy Thunder scored all of five points in the final 5:09 of Game 6 at home to blow a seven-point lead and their best chance to clinch the series.
The Warriors have looked a little like that late in some of their losses this season—and even in some of their victories.
Even that late-game screen-and-roll with Curry and Durant that Kerr wanted against Memphis is something of a star-driven cop-out that Kerr has tried to avoid, as potent as it is. It’s better than isolation, but it’s not proliferating true team offense, either.
Kerr is a disciple of both Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, and Kerr did the Pop thing with that quick timeout that night in Sacramento. He’s doing the Phil thing by mostly saving the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll for later.
Jackson would hold back the devastating Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal pick-and-roll for late-game, must-score situations—and the plays would be more effective because opponents had become conditioned to defending a team-based offense in the triangle all game long. Years before that, Jackson would spring Michael Jordan free from the triangle late in games, as Kerr the player learned well on the court with him.
There is a time and place for superstar takeover, but Kerr wants the Warriors to play predominantly as a team, not a collection of superstars. The shaky fourth quarters and the 1-5 record against the Cavaliers, Spurs, Grizzlies and Rockets have at least gotten the Warriors’ attention to the teamwork deficit.
It’s hard to sound the alarm bells with a three-game lead in the Western Conference considering how the team has agreed to pull back on the energy-draining, and ultimately disappointing, effort of last season. But make no mistake, the Warriors have begun to work on this Durant integration in a more active way than in the first three months of the season.
They can look back at last season and marvel at all the ground the Cavaliers covered in the final months after losing by 34 to the Warriors on Martin Luther King Day.
Maybe it is the Warriors who make that tremendous progress this season…after beating the Cavaliers by 35 on this MLK Day.
The assessment inside Golden State’s coaching offices may remain that this team is far from where it needs to be.
But these Warriors also realize it’s January now.
And June is coming.
Advanced stats via NBA.com or Basketball-Refernece.com unless otherwise noted. Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.