Thursday’s news that Kevin Durant will be re-evaluated in a week with a calf strain isn’t Golden State’s worst-case scenario, but it is pretty damn catastrophic. The Warriors will enter the Toyota Center in Houston on Friday night with what is charitably a seven-man lineup, a cast that does not include perhaps the best player in the league. Golden State was able to hold on for one quarter on its home court in Game 5 without Durant. Expecting the depleted crew to win on the road is foolish, and a Game 7 victory is now thoroughly in doubt. A three-peat that was once destined may be on life support.
There’s a tendency to downplay the Durant news. Golden State still boasts three Hall of Famers after all, including the greatest shooter in league history. Oracle Arena should be raucous in an expected Game 7 and James Harden’s career is littered with head-scratching postseason performances. Advancing to the conference finals is still well within reach, with the same core in place from Golden State’s 73-win campaign before Durant arrived in July 2016.
But drawing parallels between the pre-Durant Warriors and this year’s crew is like comparing Shaquille O'Neal to George Mikan. “Strength in Numbers” is now more of a punchline than a rallying cry. The tread is clear as day on Andre Iguodala’s and Shaun Livingston’s tires, and Steve Kerr will need quality minutes from Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie. Foul trouble plagued Draymond Green in Game 5. Similar struggles in Game 6 or 7 will force Golden State to dive deep into its pool of reserves. Any Jordan Bell minutes in an elimination game is far from ideal.
Durant’s absence erases nearly all margin for error in Golden State’s rotation. It also places the heaviest of burdens on the Splash Brothers, a load unseen since the duo’s first title. Are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson up to the task?
Thompson should be the least affected by Durant’s departure. He’ll continue to slither through screens and pop beyond the arc, letting it fly with little conscience. Perhaps a repeat of his Game 6 performance in Oklahoma City will arrive on Friday. Thompson should embrace his isolation chops when matched with a smaller defender, even with Chris Paul shoving him off his spot. The height advantage still allows for clean looks, and a few early triples could divert some attention off Curry.
We’ll may get our first glimpse at the next stage of Curry’s career in Games 6 and 7. A Durant departure in July would re-center Golden State’s attack on its Hall-of-Fame point guard, but will a stylistic return bring back peak-Steph? The fourth quarter on Wednesday night suggests so. Curry tallied 12 fourth-quarter points to close the contest against Houston in Game 5 in classic fashion. He shimmied his way past P.J. Tucker and shed his hesitancy from the first four games of the series. The West semifinals had previously been among the worst series of Curry’s career. He rewrote the narrative on Wednesday.
The Game 5 heroics may not be a preview of what’s to come, though. A one-quarter burst is far different than sustaining excellence for a full game. Curry will need to go toe-to-toe with Harden in the Lone Star State, yet recent performance suggests he’ll fall short in a shootout. More troubling than Curry’s shooting in the series is his speed and bounce off the dribble. Curry can’t seem to separate from really anyone on Houston’s roster. He’s been forced into off-balance layups and rainbow triples. Clint Capela even smothered the two-time MVP when picking him up on switches.
Every game in this second-round classic has been decided by single digits, even as Durant torched Houston for much of the series. Any notion of a talent discrepancy has been leveled out by the Rockets' toughness and shot-making, with Houston now entering Friday night as a heavy favorite to force a winner-take-all Game 7. We’re in-line for a collision course on Sunday in the house that Steph built. Harden now has a golden opportunity to steal the crown in enemy territory.