Alfonzo McKinnie

Will Kevin Durant’s return be enough for Golden State?

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After missing a month’s worth of games with a strained calf, Kevin Durant is finally going to step on the court in these NBA Finals, playing in Game 5.

Golden State needs him.

It is the only card the Warriors have left to play in a series where they trail 3-1, have been outplayed in 10 of the 12 quarters, and near the end of Game 4 (and in the locker room afterward) looked like a beaten team.

Durant back on the court is an important turn in this series. It certainly fuels Golden State’s dream of turning the 3-1 tables in the Finals and writing their own historic comeback saga.

It also will be too little, too late.

There are a few questions about Durant’s return, but the biggest one is what Durant will be out there?

It’s impossible to say how he will move and feel, but missing a month of basketball and then getting dropped into the middle of a high-level NBA Finals will be a jolt to the system. Before the injury we talked about how Durant and Kawhi Leonard were the two dominant forces of the playoffs, he was playing that well. Durant averaged 34.2 points per game, shooting 55.9 percent from three (with a ridiculous 66.5 true shooting percentage), plus had 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. It’s not fair to expect that Durant to suddenly reappear this series, for his game to be that sharp and his conditioning to be at its peak.

Durant also is one of the games great scorers, he’s going to come in and still get buckets. It’s what he does. Durant is who the Warriors have needed in the halfcourt against a stifling Raptors’ defense that has kept the Warriors below a point per possession in halfcourt offense in Toronto’s three wins. Durant, the walking mismatch, is the guy Golden State leans on to get buckets in the halfcourt and they will revert to that again.

It’s not just that Durant plays, it’s whose minutes he takes away. Durant on the court means Alfonzo McKinnie is not. Durant on the court means the return of the Hamptons’ Five lineup that is the Warriors’ best — don’t be surprised if Kerr starts it and plays it 20ish minutes in this game — and that means DeMarcus Cousins (who was awful in the past two games) and Andrew Bogut are on the bench.

Durant on the court also messes with Toronto’s defensive matchups. Leonard will have the primary responsibility on KD, but that means he can’t be switching on to Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, Leonard can’t be in the same help positions. Golden State’s backcourt should have a little more room to operate.

Durant’s return changes the series… but probably not enough.

The Warriors are down 3-1 in this series because the Toronto Raptors are very good, and right now playing with incredible confidence. That is not changing. Toronto is still long, still athletic, can still defend, still has shooters all over the floor, and still has Leonard. It’s a high IQ team that will test Durant from the start (don’t be shocked if the Raptors drag Durant into some early pick-and-roll defenses just to test how he moves).

Durant’s return doesn’t change the fact Thompson, Cousins, Kevon Looney, and Andre Iguodala are all playing through various injuries and ailments.

The math also just doesn’t support the Warriors, as NBC’s own Dan Feldman noted on Twitter.

Even with Feldman’s very generous odds, it means the Warriors would have a 44.1 percent chance of winning the series. Less than half the time. The reality is far, far less than that.

Still, the “Durant as Warriors’ savior” belief is out there because the Warriors organization fed it. If Golden State had been honest from the start and called it a Grade 2 calf strain — something that takes 4-6 weeks to heal (if this were the regular season Durant would not be out there Monday night) — we would all have expected him to return around this time and had the appropriate expectations for what he could or could not do.

Instead, the Warriors called it mild, kept flying him around with the team, kept hope alive in the locker room and in the fan base. It just hung out there, and eventually created resentment and frustration. The question of how committed to the Warriors Durant has crept into the conversation. Golden State didn’t play this card until now, when its back is against the wall, when there was true desperation. All of those pent up feelings are on the organization, not KD.

Durant is back Monday night and this series will get more interesting. The Warriors are closer to their peak. We get to see the Warriors we expected.

But doing that now, down 3-1, seems a too-late gesture against a Raptors team playing like champions.

 

Warriors’ latest identity: Steph and Depth

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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.

Steph

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:

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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.

Depth

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:

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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.

Andre Iguodala out for Game 4 against Portland with sore calf

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Andre Iguodala was limited in Game 3 in Portland, playing just 18 minutes Saturday night, none after he was taken out with 7:49 left in the third quarter. An MRI on his left calf Sunday came back clean, but he was questionable with leg tightness, officially. Call it a sore calf if you prefer.

Up 3-0 in the series, there was no reason to risk something worse in Game 4, so Iguodala is out, coach Steve Kerr announced pregame.

Alfonzo McKinnie will start in place of Iguodala.

Iguodala joins Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins on the Warriors bench for Game 4.

If there is a Game 5, it will be Wednesday night in the Bay Area.

With the NBA Finals not starting until May 30 — a week from this Thursday — the Warriors have plenty of time to rest and get their starters healed before taking on a serious challenger from the East (whether that is Milwaukee or Toronto). The Warriors have used their depth against Portland to help keep minutes down for their starters and Kerr will lean on that bench to close out the series in the next couple of games.

Cavaliers reportedly sign Warriors’ restricted free agent Patrick McCaw to offer sheet

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Patrick McCaw got his wish.

The young wing thought he deserved a more substantial role (and more money) in Golden State, despite the fact his shooting regressed last season, plus he missed time with a broken wrist and a scary late-season fall. The Warriors had an offer sheet on the table for the restricted free agent, but they also have Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, plus Andre Iguodala and Alfonzo McKinnie behind them, minutes were going to be limited. McCaw wanted out, and on the advice of his father — that always goes well — he has held out.

Cleveland is going to give him a chance, giving McCaw a two-year, $6 million offer sheet, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by multiple others.

The Warriors have said previously they would match an offer, but that’s always what teams say trying to scare away bidders.

But will they? First off, this would cost the Warriors a lot of money because they are in the tax.

McCaw made it clear he doesn’t want to be a Warrior. Also, this would take up the Warriors 15th roster spot, something they want to keep open for flexibility, maybe to add another center (DeMarcus Cousins likely returns in January, but that remains an unknown).

McCaw averaged 4 points a game in nearly 17 minutes a night last season, shooting 23.8 percent from three and a true shooting percentage of 47.7 (well below the league average) and a PER of 7.6, the kind of number that suggests time in the G-League is due.

Maybe he looks better with a little more run in Cleveland (a struggling team looking for young players), but he has a lot of work to do. If he even gets there.

Russell Westbrook’s triple-double hands Warriors fourth straight loss

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Russell Westbrook recorded his first triple-double of the season as Oklahoma City defeated the Golden State Warriors 123-95 Wednesday night in a game in which Thunder rookie Hamidou Diallo was carted off on a stretcher with 7:17 left with an apparent left leg injury.

Diallo’s left leg was stabilized as he was wheeled away to applause from the Oracle Arena crowd. The team it turns out not too serious.

Westbrook began 1 for 6, then hit stride, finishing with 11 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds. It was his second game back since missing five with a sprained left ankle, then another when he welcomed twin daughters Saturday night.

Paul George had 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists and Steven Adams contributed 20 points and 11 rebounds as the Thunder sent the two-time defending NBA champions to their first four-game skid in nearly six years.

Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson scored 27 points apiece with Durant grabbing a season-best 14 rebounds for the Warriors, who were again playing without All-Star starters Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, as well as key reserve Alfonzo McKinnie.

Clearly in pain, Diallo moved himself off the court and was under basket for several minutes.

In a loss Monday at Sacramento, Diallo became the first Thunder rookie ever to go at least 7 for 7 from the floor. He made both his 3-point tries on the way to 18 points.

Westbrook’s 3-pointer 4:17 before halftime put the Thunder ahead 50-37.

The Warriors, who held off the Thunder 108-100 in their season opener Oct. 16 and had won the last three matchups, trailed 60-46 at halftime with just 11 assists to 10 turnovers but opened the third with a 13-2 run to get within 62-59.

While Golden State dropped 10 of its final 17 games last season, the Warriors hadn’t endured a four-game losing streak during the regular season since dropping four in a row from Feb. 26-March 2, 2013. They also lost six straight just before that in February `13.

OKC’s Terrance Ferguson returned from a two-game absence as he welcomed a baby, then went down at the 5:41 mark of the first with a sprained left ankle and didn’t return.