Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are having one of the best tandem Finals performances in NBA history. Through two monstrous wins, they’re both averaging at least 30 points per game — something that no one’s done throughout an entire Finals since Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in 1962. It seems like their greatest enemy in pulling off the feat might not be the Cavaliers, but the fact that they’re likely to sit out the fourth quarter of games in which the Warriors have a large lead. There is still a lot of Finals left — sources tell me the Warriors actually blew a 3–1 lead last year to the very same Cavaliers — but the first two games have been as easy as deciding to add Kevin Durant to your basketball team.
Yet something feels weird about calling Curry and Durant a dynamic duo. When I picture this season’s Warriors, I don’t see a dramatic billboard with the two superstars side by side. I see last season’s Warriors with a .jpeg of Durant copy-pasted on top of it.
There’s less interplay between the two stars than we’d expect. Last season in Oklahoma City, 35.4 percent of Russell Westbrook’s passes were to Durant, accounting for 3.2 assists per game, and 47.5 percent of the passes Durant received were from Westbrook. This year, 16.1 percent of Curry’s passes were to Durant, accounting for 1.3 assists per game, and only 25.3 percent of the passes Durant receives were from Curry. Curry passed 13.8 times per game to Draymond Green and just 8.4 times per game to Durant; Durant had more assists to Klay Thompson than to Curry. Part of this is because the Thunder had only two good players, but it also reflects that Durant and Curry don’t need each other to succeed. While playing Westbrook and Durant off one another was OKC’s best hope at maximizing their talents, Curry and Durant just exist as two extremely talented players who happen to be on the floor at the same time.
The NBA’s most mysterious play this year has been the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll. Our Kevin O’Connor predicted it would be one of the most important plays in this season’s playoffs, and ESPN’s Zach Lowe called it the NBA’s "looming nightmare." It just seems so obvious. We’re seven decades into the NBA’s existence, and we’ve never come up with any strategy more effective than having one offensive player screen for a moving ball handler. It’s an ever-flowing cascade of offense; every time a defense commits to defending the PNR one way, offenses adapt with new wrinkles and complexities. And Curry and Durant seemed like the perfect pairing — Curry a virtuosic ball handler with speed-bag dribbling, visionary passing, and a jumper that launches in milliseconds; Durant a 7-foot scoring stud the likes of which have rarely been seen. They are both so versatile that a pick-and-roll between the two of them should be unstoppable.
And yet they haven’t used it. In December Curry publicly vented about the lack of pick-and-rolls, and Durant admitted that, yeah, he’d like it if Curry ran some PNR sometimes. Steve Kerr practically bragged about the team’s tendency for finishing last in the pick-and-roll in this Ethan Sherwood Strauss article, which notes that the Curry-and-Durant play wasn’t even particularly effective when it was used.
O’Connor has written about how the Warriors were possibly saving variations on the play to keep it off the Cavs’ radar, and it’s possible that’s what happened. Golden State used it several times against the Jazz as a method of attacking Rudy Gobert, and the team has run it a few times in the Finals; by my count, three of Curry’s 21 assists in the series have been to Durant out of the pick-and-roll, including this play. But it’s possible that the sudden emergence of the PNR has less to do with subterfuge and more to do with the emergence of pick-and-roll lover Mike Brown as the team’s interim coach due to Steve Kerr’s back issues, which Brown and Kerr both confirmed somewhat to Lowe. Regardless, the play has become an urban legend, a story coaches tell their rookies on camping trips to keep them from wandering off too far into the woods.
Curry and Durant make each other’s lives easier; a defense can’t swarm one superstar when there’s another one hanging out. But it feels like there’s nothing specific about the way either player enhances the game of the other player. Curry can have a great night, and Durant can have a great night — or both can have great nights, as has happened in both games of the Finals — and neither performance really feels connected to the other. Their success does not require the two working together: The Warriors went on a 13-game win streak during Durant’s injury, and one imagines they likely would also be in the Finals if they’d never acquired him.
It’s not that there’s discord between the two players — but there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful chemistry, positive or negative, between the two. Strauss wrote exceptionally about the complicated power dynamic of adding a second, perhaps greater star to a team that already had one of the most impressive players in the sport’s history. He summarized the personal relationship between the two as "just fine," a statement that’s fascinating because of how uninteresting it is. There’s perhaps a tinge of awkwardness about the fact that Durant is one of the faces of Nike and Curry is the global face of Under Armour, but it’s an awkwardness they’ve accepted.
Who is the face of these Warriors? I think most would argue Durant is the better player. I’d pick Curry, although I’m willing to accept that I’m wrong. It doesn’t seem to matter.
Something that’s often said about great historical teams is that the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. That’s not necessarily the case with the Warriors. Golden State realized that the sum of its parts would be greater than everyone else’s whole, no magic math required. It’s like watching a U.S. Olympic team — everybody just plays basketball.
This is off-putting to some fans. We’re not unused to the idea of teams that stockpile superstars and become significantly better than the rest of the league — hell, we worship them. But we like those stars to have a meaningful backstory. The Bulls drafted Jordan, then they acquired Pippen through a draft-night trade, and their games developed alongside each other. Like Durant and Westbrook, who were growing up together in a flat state where they had no other friends.
The addition of Durant seems inorganic, like the way we build teams in video games. The Warriors were the best team, Durant was an available superstar, and a once-in-a-CBA combination of team-friendly contracts and a massive bump to the NBA’s salary cap allowed the Warriors to add him. He didn’t fit a team need — does a team that can win 73 games have any needs? — he was just the next-best player that they could acquire. He showed no remorse for leaving his old team.
We can criticize the way the team was formed. We can gripe about the fact that the team is too good. But being "too good" is not a problem for an NBA team. This is what they’re supposed to try to accomplish — and we mercilessly mock them for falling short, as we did with Durant in OKC and Curry after last season’s blown 3–1 lead in the NBA Finals. We told each player that not winning a championship was unacceptable; we can’t gripe now that they’ve chosen to win a championship in a way we’re not historically used to seeing. Their job is to chase excellence, and right now they’re sprinting past excellence to the finish line of one of the greatest seasons in the history of any sport.
There is something magnificent about watching the two players excel, simultaneously, each having the type of Finals performance we’d talk about for decades if the other one wasn’t there.
Curry and Durant do not need each other to be great. But they’re capable of being great in the same room as one another, and that’s all that matters.