- The Warriors aren't better without Kevin Durant, but they sure are more interesting. As the NBA's best player continues to sit, Golden State's run to a fourth title in five years continues to pick up intrigue.
With Kevin Durant sidelined for the past nine days of the NBA playoffs, the Warriors have been spectacular. That story began when Steph Curry took control of the fourth quarter in Game 5 against the Rockets, it continued when Curry and the entire team put together an all-time performance to win Game 6, and after Thursday's 114–111 comeback win at Oracle, the Durant-less Warriors now find themselves up 2–0 on the Blazers in the Western Conference finals.
A team that's become infamous for careless errors and complacency has reminded the whole world that they've always been mentally tougher than anyone. The ball is moving and their secondary passing is lethal again. The bench has come back to life. Curry has been phenomenal. Klay Thompson has looked like an All-NBA sidekick. Andre Iguodala has reminded everyone why he should be a Hall of Famer. Draymond Green, 25 pounds lighter than he was this winter, looks like the best defensive player on the planet.
Each time they've been tested over the past week, the Warriors have responded as impressively as anyone could have imagined. It's been kind of thrilling to watch. This is a proud, veteran team that still looks smarter, tougher, and better than the whole damn league. The drama of the past week—particularly against the Rockets, but also against a Blazers team that was up 15 points halfway through Game 2—has underscored the greatness of players who have been the cornerstones of this dynasty all along.
All of the above may seem self-evident to anyone who's actaully watched these games, but sometimes it's important to state the obvious. The "core four" Warriors are in the middle of a run that is really, really special. Another obvious note: While the numbers of everyone on the roster have improved and players like Curry and Klay suddenly look rejuvenated, this team isn't actually "better" without Kevin Durant.
I'm not sure whether anyone credible actually believes the "better without KD" takes, so we don't need to engage the argument too much. Durant is probably the best player in the league and he's definitely the most reliable halfcourt scorer on the planet. Take him off the court and the Warriors have less firepower, less depth, less defensive versatility, and significantly less room for error. Once he was sidelined last week, this team went from clear title favorites to something like a 50-50 shot against Houston. The same would be true if they advance to the Finals to play the Bucks without Durant. In short: "Better without KD" is the type of idea that gets floated by crackpot radio callers and should not be taken seriously by literally anyone else.
However... The uptick in ball movement is a real thing, as is the rejuvenation of Steph. He had 20 points in the second half of Game 5 vs. the Rockets and 33 second-half points in Game 6. Against the Blazers, he opened the series with 36 points, five rebounds and five assists. Thursday night he followed with 38, eight rebounds and eight assists. As the team runs everything through Curry instead of leaning on Durant's unstoppable halfcourt scoring, Curry looks revolutionary again. The ball movement and screens required to free Golden State's shooters opens up the floor for the whole team.
There could be a separate conversation about the entertainment value of all this. To me, the current version of the Warriors offense is inarguably more to fun to watch. Likewise, while Durant's presence in Golden State has mostly removed the drama from the past two postseasons and earned eye-rolls around the sports world, now it's all getting interesting again. This is how the playoffs are supposed to feel. When great players are genuinely tested, the result is performances like Game 6 against the Rockets and nights that basketball fans will remember for the next 25 years. That Warriors win in Houston was right up there with Game 6 in Oklahoma City as one of the most incredible performances of this entire era.
If Durant returns sometime soon, you might think that we're about to revert to the drama-free status quo. Sure, his calf injury is "more serious" than initially expected according to Steve Kerr, but that could just as easily be code for "we're going to be careful because we're not worried about the Blazers." The Finals don't begin for another two weeks. It's hard to imagine Durant will miss that series entirely.
Yet what I love about this Golden State run is that regardless of what happens from here, none of it will be drama-free. If Durant returns in the Finals, the Warriors will have to abandon some of what’s worked recently and shift their focus to integrating him on the fly. On that front: yes, they are clearly better with Durant, but the chemistry has always been a little more complicated than it seems like it should be. Balancing Durant's touches with the ball movement elsewhere is tough to calibrate; if KD isn't 100%, the calculus gets even trickier.
Meanwhile, if Milwaukee can handle Toronto, the Bucks are every bit as dangerous as the Rockets were. Where Golden State could throw Iguodala and Klay at James Harden, there's no good answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo, there are shooters everywhere else on the floor, and the Milwaukee defense is worlds better than anything the Warriors saw from Cleveland over the past two years in the Finals. There's no way the Bucks would be favored, and they shouldn't be—but they have the tools to make a Finals matchup more competitive than anyone expects.
The Warriors have looked unstoppable since July '16, but as great as the run has been, this era has rarely engendered the kind of reverence that usually comes with a dynasty. They seem to alternate between looking frustrated and underwhelming or so dominant that all these games feel unfair and inevitable. Outside the Bay, they've left many fans cold. Durant, individually, has never seemed to find the recognition he's expected on the heels of two titles and two Finals MVP awards. It's why most around the NBA expect him to leave this summer, ending the current era as we know it.
So these are the stakes at the end. If Golden State were to lose in the Finals, particularly if KD returns and chemistry gets complicated, we may remember this era for what it has always felt like: something that was never quite as cool or thrilling as it could have been. And a Finals upset really shouldn't be out of the question. The same way that Klay's 39 points against OKC in 2016 were later overshadowed by a 2016 Finals loss, it's entirely possible that Curry's heroics against Houston are later overshadowed by a shocking Finals loss to a Bucks team that is bigger, younger, deeper, and faster. It's an ending that would feel appropriate after an era that has been undeniably great and consistently impossible to contextualize.
Either that, or the Warriors are about to win a fourth title in five years. They will survive without Durant thanks to legendary performances from everyone else, they'll make the sacrifices necessary to integrate KD, they'll face a serious test in the Finals, they'll survive and they'll all go down in history as one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen. That ending would be appropriate, too.