The Warriors don’t necessarily need Kevin Durant.
That’s how good they are.
Golden State is better with him, of course. He might be the NBA’s best player. He’s an elite scorer and very good defender when engaged. He provides so much margin for error.
But the Warriors might still might beat Toronto in the NBA Finals without Durant. They swept the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals without Durant, and many called him a necessity to beating Portland. The level of competition increases significantly to the Raptors, but Golden State might still be superior.
The Warriors are still loaded with talent – Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala. That was the core of a team that won the 2015 title then won 73 games and reached the Finals the following year.
Golden State’s remaining players are also so smart and versatile. They’ve shown a malleability that allows them to match up with opponents of varying styles, which is highly important as teams advance through the playoffs.
The latest iteration – crystalized against Portland with Durant sidelined – carries many traits the Warriors hold in high regard. Against Toronto, they could continue to lean on the identity I call Steph & Depth.
In 2015, Curry won Most Valuable Player. In 2016, he finished fourth in Most Improved Player voting. The first former MVP to get multiple MIP votes, he of course repeated as MVP. There was no telling where his rise would end.
Then, Durant signed in Golden State.
Curry remained a superstar, but he suppressed his game to give Durant room to operate. The plan worked well, the Warriors winning the last two championships. But neither player has fully maximized his ability. Durant has adjusted by experimenting with new aspects of his game. Curry has been quieter.
But Golden State fully unleashed Curry against the Trail Blazers. He ran pick-and-rolls and plenty of off-ball action. His scoring was the center of the attack.
Curry’s 36.5 points per game in the Western Conference finals were the most by a player on a series-winning team since Shaquille O’Neal scored 38.0 points per game against the Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals.
Here are the players with the highest-scoring winning series since the NBA adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1984:
Curry has always been Golden State’s most beloved player during this era. Fans embrace him. Teammates connect with him. It’s a common reason Durant is widely predicted to leave in free agency this summer.
The Warriors’ offense features more ball and player movement with Durant sidelined. The scheme keeps defenses off guard more frequently. But it’s not a truly egalitarian plan. It revolves around Curry, and everyone seems happy to continue playing through him.
Opponents allow Curry to torch them only so long. Eventually, if Curry’s shot is falling, they defend him more aggressively.
That’s why Draymond Green’s playmaking is so important. He can set a screen and, if Curry gets blitzed, thrive in 4-on-3 situations. Green is the connector between a Curry-dominant offense and one that gets everyone else good looks.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr loves his “strength in numbers” motto, and he backed it against the Trail Blazers.
Curry, Green and Thompson started every game. When Andre Iguodala got hurt, Alfonzo McKinnie started. Andrew Bogut, Damian Jones and Jordan Bell each started at center.
All in all, the Warriors started eight different players and won four games. That’s never been done on record (since 1984).
In fact, no team on record has started so many different players in the first four games of a playoff series and won even three games. The only team on record to sweep a series with even seven different starters was Golden State, which did so against the Spurs in the 2017 conference finals.
Here’s each team in every playoff series since 1984, sorted by number of starters and wins in the first four games. The size of the dot corresponds to the number of times that combination occurred. Golden State’s unprecedented combination last round – eight starters, four wins – is circled:
Several marginal Warriors got valuable experience against Portland. Kerr tends to look for reasons to play as many players as possible. At a time many teams would tighten their rotation, it’s not Golden State’s preference.
Durant could return during the Finals. The Raptors’ defense could prevent Curry from going off. Toronto could play well enough, especially by attacking weak links, to force Kerr to lean on only his best players.
What worked against the Trail Blazers won’t necessarily continue.
But it seems the Warriors found an identity that suits them. Here’s betting they’ll open the Finals trying to maintain it.
If it doesn’t work, they’ll adjust. They have the talent and basketball intelligence to do so.
That’s what makes them so good.