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The Warriors Need Kevin Durant, Now More Than Ever

A week ago, there was talk that KD was extra to Golden State’s requirements. But Game 1 of the NBA Finals was a stark reminder that while this team was built on the Splash Brothers, it needs KD’s half-court scoring genius to unlock a defense like Toronto’s.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It should be impossible for the following two statements to be true:

  1. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are two of the greatest shooters ever.
  2. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson play on a team without enough shooting.

Yet here we are. Game 1 of the NBA Finals is over. The Toronto Raptors won 118-109, exposing the Golden State Warriors’ lack of shooting in the half court. Without Kevin Durant, for whom the Warriors rightfully dumped all their depth nearly three years ago, Golden State’s lack of shooting depth becomes problematic against teams with length and defensive intelligence. The Raptors are long. And the Raptors are defensively intelligent.

Toronto held the Warriors to only 0.84 points per play in the half court, per Cleaning the Glass. The tanking Knicks weren’t even that bad this season. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse unleashed a simple defensive strategy: pressure Steph, smother Klay, and help off everyone else to contain drives. Here’s what the Warriors faced all game in the half court:

Marc Gasol, who had a vintage defensive performance, trapped the Curry pick-and-roll while Pascal Siakam helped off Draymond Green. On the weak side, Kawhi Leonard sagged off Andre Iguodala to stop the rolling Jordan Bell. Danny Green didn’t step away from Thompson, and why would you? The Raptors didn’t make dumb mistakes.

Curry had four arms waving in his face all game, deterring his shot attempts, forcing turnovers, and clogging passing lanes. The Warriors scored only one point per possession on pick-and-rolls run by Curry in Game 1, per Synergy. That’s good, but it pales in comparison to his 1.24 points per possession before the Finals. Steph got swarmed whether he was running pick-and-roll or not. Klay received similar treatment.

In the above play, Thompson received the dribble handoff from Kevon Looney, and eventually managed to get by Siakam. But look who was there waiting: Kawhi (who pretended like Draymond wasn’t even on the court) and Kyle Lowry (who left Iguodala open). When Curry and Thompson saw open teammates, they also saw average or even bad shooters like Iguodala and Green, or DeMarcus Cousins and Jonas Jerebko. The Raptors will let those guys shoot it all night. It doesn’t take a coaching genius to come up with this game plan. It just requires players to execute.

Toronto couldn’t have executed much better defensively. The Raptors need to clean up on the defensive boards to allow fewer second-chance opportunities, and there were a few missed rotations here and there. But for the most part, their defense was a source of half-court misery for the Warriors. Golden State lost by only nine, but a lot of its points came off broken plays and transition opportunities. The Warriors would have had more success in the half court had they taken smarter shots—Green and Livingston took too many contested midrange jumpers early in the clock. It’s also puzzling that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr didn’t try spamming the Curry-Green pick-and-roll with lineups featuring Green at center and Thompson and Iguodala on the wing.

In Game 2, the Warriors will be better in the half court, but it’s hard to fix all these issues unless Durant returns. Kawhi was allowed to play free safety all night. Look at the below image of Thompson driving, facing a clogged lane, and looking to pass out to Iguodala.

Were Durant active, he would take Thompson’s place as the playmaker, which in turn would make Thompson the guy lurking beyond the arc. That forces the defender to make a tough choice: help off to stop the drive and deter the lob to Looney, or stay home? It’s easy when it’s Iguodala: Let it fly, Iggy!

Even if Durant removed dribbling from his offensive repertoire, he’d be more impactful on offense than Jerebko or Cousins or Bell, a trio that combined for 27 minutes in Game 1. Every choice gets more difficult for the Raptors if Durant returns. Leonard would have to stalk Durant, which would change how much the Raptors could focus on Curry and Thompson, which would mean more looks for the future Hall of Fame backcourt duo.

Curry still had 34 points on 18 shots on Thursday night, with five assists and five rebounds. Thompson had 21 points on 17 shots. And they can clean up some of their transition defense issues, but one reason Toronto was on the break was due to turnovers caused by a lack of spacing.

This is a sloppy pass by Curry. Passing the ball into the arms of two defenders is a bad idea. But that’s what pressure does to you. It causes poor decisions, especially when Curry is the only player on the roster who can generate offense for himself and others.

It’s easy to say: It’s one game. The Warriors destroyed the Blazers, and beat the Rockets twice without Durant. They’ll adjust and be fine just like three of the past four years. Maybe. But the Raptors aren’t the Blazers or the Rockets. Gasol is a smarter defender than Clint Capela, and he’s far better than all three of Portland’s bigs. The Grit and Grind God played Game 1 like it was his Defensive Player of the Year campaign all over again. Chris Vernon called me on the phone, crying tears of joy, because it gave him flashbacks to a happier time in Memphis (this definitely happened, I’m definitely not kidding). Lowry and Fred VanVleet are much stronger perimeter defenders than Portland’s defensively suspect backcourt. Leonard, Siakam, and Green are among the best, if not the best, wing defenders in the game. Since Game 3 of the Bucks series, the Raptors defense is playing connected. It’s the best they’ve defended all year—in a season when they ranked fifth in defensive rating. The Rockets may have been built to beat the Warriors, and the Blazers may have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But the Raptors have Kawhi. The Raptors have depth. The Raptors are the best team Golden State has faced this postseason, which makes the challenge of scoring and minimizing turnovers in the half court that much greater. And it makes Durant’s possible return that much more important.

Three years have gone by, two Finals MVPs have been won, and Durant still gets heat for bouncing Oklahoma City for Golden State, especially recently, as Golden State rattled off six wins in a row after he went down. The story could change now, though. The Warriors weren’t heavy favorites going into the series, and looked vulnerable in Game 1.

The stage is now set for Durant to make a triumphant return, if he’s able. Could he save the team? Will he be remembered as the player who made the difference for a three-peat? No matter the result, and no matter his decision this summer, there would be no better close to this chapter of Durant’s career. Kerr used 11 players in Game 1; he was searching for someone who could make up for Durant’s absence. Nothing worked. Durant might be coming to the end of his time with this team, but they’ve never needed him more than now.