There was something familiar, almost nostalgic, about the Warriors’ offense in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, after Kevin Durant limped off the court with a frightening-looking non-contact leg injury.
Stephen Curry had the ball in his hands, running some pick-and-roll out high and using his gravity — the fear of his shot — to pull defenders to him and stretch out the defense. Behind that players were cutting, setting back screens, there was a whir of constant movement and energy. The floor opened up, the ball flew around, guys were getting and hitting shots, including Curry, who had 12 points and was 2-of-3 from three in the fourth quarter.
Golden State looked more like the 2015-16 version of themselves — the pre-Durant version that was every fan’s second favorite team to watch because of the style and joy with which they played.
That blueprint of success still hung on the walls in Oracle — and it worked, the Warriors won a tight game down the stretch Wednesday, beating the Rockets 104-99 to take a 3-2 series lead.
Now they need to win one of their next two games without Durant — who will be re-evaluated in a week due to a right calf strain — to advance to the Western Conference Finals. It will mean a bigger burden for the Warriors core four from the previous era — Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala — but blueprint on how to do that is still ingrained in this Warriors team.
“I think we obviously turn to Steph to generate most of our offense down the stretch,” coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s not like we’ve gone completely away from that over the years. It’s just that with Kevin we have the ultimate weapon. So we’ve sort of mixed in different styles and different offensive starting points for our team over the last few years. We’ve had different rotations. We’ve had different ways to attack.
“But the one good thing here is that we do have experience from before Kevin was here with Steph, Klay, Draymond, Andre, Shaun, our core guys. So we’ve been successful. That’s not to say it’s the same. That was a few years ago. But we’re comfortable that we can be successful with that group.”
Kevin Durant has been the best player in these playoffs, cementing his status as the best player in the world right now. The two-time Finals MVP had averaged 34.2 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting overall in the playoffs, but since his “I’m Kevin Durant, you know who I am” pronouncement he has been an unstoppable force averaging 36.9 points per game while shooting 41.9 from three, not to mention the 5.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists a night.
For the Rockets, Durant being out feels like a reversal of fortune from a season ago when Houston was up 3-2 on these Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and Chris Paul went out with a hamstring injury. The Warriors won the final two games of that series and went on to win an NBA title. These Rockets are going to come out with a level of desperation in Game 6 Friday night, not only to keep their season alive but also sensing an opportunity.
However, those Rockets will now need to play defense against a different-looking Warriors team and style. They struggled to do that in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Warriors put up 32 points and got plenty of clean looks. With a couple days to watch film and adjust, will the Rockets be ready?
Because we know Golden State will be ready — this team has shown it plays its best when challenged. When backed into a corner.
The Warriors core — Curry, Thompson, Green, and Iguodala — are not as young as they were back in 2015, and they do not have the same depth around them, but they also do not have to sustain that 2015 level for an entire playoff run. They need to beat the Rockets in one of the next two games, then starting next Tuesday hold their own against either Denver or Portland. Within a couple of weeks, Durant should be back.
Green yelled “we don’t need you” at Durant during a very-public argument earlier this season.
That’s not true — to win a title this season, they will need him.
However, they can survive for two weeks and advance without him.
“The one thing I think everybody understood and understands as a whole is not one person is going to fill that role,” Green said. “We’re going to have to collectively do that. I think down the stretch, Jonas [Jerebko] hit a big three, I was able to hit a three, Klay hit a three. We really used each other.
“We really have to rely on each other to search and find great shots. We did that down the stretch. That was the difference in the game for us.”
It needs to be the difference in Games 6 and (potentially) 7. Kevon Looney came up big with Durant out, and he likely gets the call as the starter. Shaun Livingston has struggled this series but needs to find the fountain of youth for a couple of games. Iguodala needs to fight through and handle a heavier minutes load than he or Kerr would prefer.
But the Warriors know what is needed. They have the blueprint.
“[Durant has] been phenomenal. So it’s obviously a huge loss,” Kerr said. “But our team has a lot of confidence. They trust each other. They’ve won championships together. So we come out and we give it our best shot, and we try to mix and match some lineups and find some minutes and some contributions where we haven’t had them so far in this series. Guys will get opportunities who haven’t had an opportunity yet. It’ll be a little different.
“But no reason why we can’t go get a win.”