- The Warriors are just as dominant as ever with Kevin Durant sitting on the sidelines. Stephen Curry's vintage performance is key to their impressive play and 3–0 Western Conference finals lead.
Even without the services of Kevin Durant, the Warriors are on a collision course with the NBA Finals for a fifth year in a row. After an upset win in Houston in Game 6 of the conference semis, Golden State has taken a commanding 3–0 lead on the Blazers in the West Finals, the last two wins of which have been of the comeback variety. Stephen Curry is routinely putting up performances reminiscent of his MVP season, reminding any remaining doubters how unique of a superstar he is.
The case for Curry’s greatness when Durant is playing—at least how I see it—lies in the little things. The way he moves off the ball. The attention his shooting demands from the defense. Curry still isn’t Golden State’s best player with KD on the floor, but he makes everyone’s life easier with his presence. With Durant gone, and the Warriors older and less deep than the 73-win team of 2016, Golden State’s massive margin for error has been wiped out, and Curry has shown he’s more than capable of taking back the burden of being the team’s best option.
In the conference finals, Steph is averaging 36.3 points through the first three games. That’s easily his highest average in a round during this postseason, and his best mark in a playoff series since the 2017 conference finals, when he last averaged over 30 points per game in a single series. Entering the NBA’s final four, I wondered if one of Kawhi, KD, or Giannis could cement himself as the best player in the league. Curry can’t make that claim after three games of play, but it’s worth noting that he’s outplayed both Leonard and The Greek Freak so far through the conference finals, and he’s the only one who owns a 3-0 lead.
It’s startling how Steph’s numbers have improved without KD, both in terms of volume and efficiency. He’s shooting nearly six more times per game, and nearly four more threes a night. Without Durant in these playoffs, Curry’s effective field-goal percentage has improved from 54.8% to 59.9%, and he’s connecting at a higher rate from both inside and outside the three-point line. Before the Game 6 against the Rockets, Steph was averaging 76.5 touches per game, with 0.31 points per touch. Since Durant went out, he’s averaged 85.0 touches per game with 0.42 points per touch.
Durant’s absence has also led to the return of perhaps the most important play of this decade: The Steph-Draymond Green pick-and-roll. A staple of the pre-KD Warriors, it’s a crutch Kerr doesn’t rely on when Durant is in the lineup, especially when he could just run a Curry-Durant pick-and-roll instead. Contending teams were once obsessed with creating lineups that could guard the Steph-Dray play. The Blazers seemingly forgot about this at the start of the conference finals, letting Enes Kanter get cooked by Curry before adjusting the next two games, though still not finding a great answer. (The Rockets were also burned by Curry and Green down the stretch of Game 6.)
Much like how Golden State tosses the ball to KD on the lower block when it needs a bucket in a tight game, Kerr dials up the Curry-Green pick-and-roll when he needs to mount a furious comeback or put a game away in the fourth. That two-man action is devastating (because it often leads to either a Curry three or Draymond running into the paint with space), and it’s Curry’s way of putting his signature on any given game. Either let him light you up from the outside, or give him the attention required and he lets his teammates play four-on-three. That simple play distills what makes Curry and the Warriors so uniquely dominant, and it’s prominent return in the absence of Durant is the most obvious sign that Curry is still capable of being the best player on a championship-caliber team.
That last part is where things will get interesting for the Warriors. The Dubs will want Durant back no matter what happens this postseason. There are some questions moving forward, though. Could Curry really pull off a Finals run without KD? What would that mean for his legacy? On the flipside, is there any way the Warriors losing could convince Durant to say? And through a long-term lens, is Curry’s current play a sign that Golden State could still be title favorites post-Durant? What’s this team’s ceiling without KD?
Obviously, many events have to play out before any of those questions can be answered. And some of them never will be. The idea that it’s not even crazy to broach some of those topics (then again, you may think I’m crazy) is a testament to how dominant Curry has been these last four games. Ultimately, the sample size is too small to draw any hard conclusions—even if this brief stretch is reminiscent of the team that won 73 out of 82 games. The most important takeaway is that on any given night Curry can still be the best player in the NBA, and certainly the best player on the best team. It’s a title he hasn’t had to carry for much of the last three years, but it’s one he still wears well when his team needs him the most.