With his Golden State Warriors in the midst of their worst slump since he became their head coach, Steve Kerr noted that his team’s issues—its struggles without its most important player, in-house drama—weren’t anything special. (Well, maybe that’s not entirely true.)
“This is the real NBA,” Kerr told reporters. “We haven’t been in the real NBA the last few years. We’ve been in this dream. And so now we’re faced [with] real adversity and we got to get out of it ourselves.”
With Stephen Curry sidelined since the second half of a November 8 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Warriors have struggled to generate and convert good looks, just barely ranking above the bottom third of the league in points scored per possession over their past 11 games. And with Draymond Green out for nine of the past 11 games due to a team suspension and a sprained toe on his right foot, Golden State has conceded buckets at the NBA’s ninth-worst rate. In the Real NBA, it’s a truth that stagnant offense and unfocused defense will lead to losses, no matter how charmed your life used to be.
On Monday, it looked like the Warriors were about to get a refresher course in that lesson courtesy of an improved Magic team that passes, cuts, and creates open shots. Orlando steamrolled its way to an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter in front of a restless crowd at Oracle Arena. But then, another truth reasserted itself: Kevin Durant’s pretty freaking good.
With Golden State struggling in the early going—due in part to Durant’s own woes, as he missed nine of his first 14 shots while the Magic built their lead—the two-time Finals MVP committed to the grind. With Klay Thompson and Steph understudy Quinn Cook a combined 6-for-22 from the field with six minutes left in the third, Durant worked his way into the teeth of the Orlando defense, determined to make things work on his own.
The results weren’t always smooth; Durant came up well short on a couple of 3-point tries. But persistent pushing produced tangible offense—26 points on 21 shots, six assists versus two turnovers—and kept the Warriors within hailing distance, even as Nikola Vucevic mauled the Dubs inside and Terrence Ross torched them from beyond the arc.
And then, Magic forward Aaron Gordon—a 6-foot-9, 220-pound super-athlete with a 7-foot wingspan who had made Durant work hard for everything—had to exit the game with lower back tightness, leaving Orlando with nobody who could even hope to guard Durant. KD smelled blood and went to work, alternately blowing past Jonathan Isaac to get all the way to the cup against a backtracking Vucevic or pulling up for rhythm jumpers over the second-year forward; Golden State scored 26 points on the 20 possessions on which Isaac had the KD assignment, according to NBA.com/Stats matchup data.
After scoring 26 points in his first 26 minutes of floor time, Durant scored 23 in his final 14. He lifted the Warriors out of their 18-point hole, coming through with a pair of monster baskets in the closing minutes—a slithery drive for a layup plus the foul with 1:19 to go, and a cold-blooded straight-on 3-point dagger in Isaac’s mug with 21 seconds left—to finish off a 116-110 Golden State win. He had help, most notably in the form of a 19-point fourth quarter from Thompson, but it was Durant’s insistence—49 points on 16-for-33 shooting with nine assists in 40 minutes—that delivered a win on a night when the Warriors, once again, looked wobbly.
Professional scoring can look like pure efficiency in action, a seamless transfer of the ball from the hand to the inside of the rim; this is the kind of offensive virtuosity in which Durant, one of the greatest scorers we will ever see, typically deals. Sometimes, though, scoring requires a hard hat and the sweat of labor. During the Warriors’ bounce-back three-game winning streak, Durant has worked his way into 35 free throw attempts, and he’s missed only two.
“It’s huge,” Kerr told reporters after Monday’s win. “It’s one of the things with Kevin, I remember coaching against him all those years, when he gets to the foul line, there’s nothing you can do.”
All those fouls drawn don’t make for a stirring highlight package, but they mean a lot to a team that doesn’t currently have many pathways to effective point production. Thompson might be an offense unto himself off the ball, but he’s a finisher, not a creator, and Cook’s a caretaker more comfortable firing away than facilitating. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston both move the ball and avoid mistakes, but neither one is collapsing defenses off the bounce to create the kind of havoc that opens doors for other scorers. Without Curry around to put the fear of God into opposing defenses or Green on hand to thread every needle, the Warriors’ best bet is letting a preternaturally gifted player do things the hard way.
The road’s been rocky, but with Durant dominating the ball—and starting to once again look like a difference-making defender, with 10 blocks and four steals in the past four games—Golden State has gotten through its early-season rough patch. Curry might be back as soon as Thursday, in time for what would be a whale of a heavyweight fight against Kawhi Leonard and the East-leading Toronto Raptors, and if he’s back to 100 percent after a few weeks in street clothes, the Warriors will soon return to their years-long lucid dream. What the past three games have reminded us, though, is that if they ever find themselves stuck in the Real NBA again, they should hope that they still have Kevin Durant on their side.