With the Golden State Warriors currently riding a 13-game winning streak, it’s fair to wonder, as it was last summer, how much better they can be with Kevin Durant. Unlike last summer though, we now have plenty of empirical evidence that makes the answer to that question abundantly clear.
Durant, who has been sidelined by a knee injury for the past 19 games since suffering a left MCL sprain on February 28, will make his return tonight against New Orleans (tip-off: 06:30+1), one week ahead of the start of the playoffs.
Depending on how coach Steve Kerr chooses to handle Durant, the Warriors could get three games under their belt with the former MVP back on the floor before the entering the postseason.
It may not be enough time to fully assimilate Durant to the point Golden State are firing on all cylinders again like they were before he went down, but it at least starts the process before the games truly begin to matter.
In the two weeks after Durant was hurt, the Warriors weren’t exactly in a free-fall, but they did drop five of seven games and showed concerning signs as to how they could manage in his absence.
Since then, however, Golden State have looked akin to the juggernaut of the past two years that didn’t need a fourth All-Star to dominate. They’ve reeled off 13 straight victories, including an impressive three-game stretch that featured two wins over Houston and another against San Antonio.
Surprisingly, the Warriors’ defence has somehow improved sans Durant. While it shouldn’t be the case when you lose a long, rangy and versatile defender from your lineup, Golden State’s defensive rating has dropped from 101.3 points surrendered per 100 possessions before Durant’s injury, to 100.5 after. Over that span, the Warriors rank first in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at 43.1, while ranking fifth in 3-point percentage allowed at 32.2.
What hasn’t been surprising in the wake of Durant’s injury though, has been the return of Stephen Curry as an alpha scorer.
The two-time reigning MVP is averaging two full points more since February 28, while shooting slightly higher percentages from the field and 3-pointers on more volume. Instead of willingly deferring to Durant and slotting as the second option, the injury has forced Curry to assume more responsibility and he’s thrived as he did over the past two seasons.
Even with Durant coming back, Curry’s play of late should allow Golden State to function with even more balance going forward.
But for as well as have the Warriors have done without Durant, it still hasn’t been near the peak of their world-beating form when he’s been available.
They weren’t on a pace to match or better their record 73 wins from last season, but judging by the point differential between this year’s team with Durant and last year’s historic squad, the Warriors are better now.
With Durant healthy, Golden State have outscored opponents by 12.8 points, a rate that would be the best in history and top the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 12.3.
A better question would be if the Warriors can win the title without Durant because it’s obvious they’re the clear favourites with him. A lot depends on how quickly they can get back in sync, but if and when they do, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating them.
As far as regular season games go, tonight’s meeting between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers holds more weight than usual.
Both teams are tied atop the Eastern Conference with a 50-27 record and with four games left after this one, it’s obvious this encounter could potentially determine the top seed.
Cleveland enter with the season series in their favour, having won two of the previous three clashes. If they can assert their will at TD Garden and come away with another win, they’ll have the luxury of the tiebreaker if both squads finish with the same record. Boston, meanwhile, can even the series and force conference record to come into play if neither team finishes ahead of the other.
But aside from the tangible, there is reason for both teams to play well and come out on top.
It’s not a bold statement to say the Celtics need this one more. A victory now may not mean anything come May, but Boston, who are never short on self-confidence, would at least prove to themselves they can hang with their biggest nemesis in a playoff series. Punching the bully in the mouth could be beneficial if these teams see each other again in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s not to say Cleveland couldn’t use a win. LeBron James may not believe so, as he said leading up to the game: “I’m not one to get caught up in regular season big games. I’ve been to six straight Finals; I’m the last person to ask.” But as much reason as James has to focus on the bigger picture, the Cavaliers are in a fragile position. They suffered double-digit losses last month and their defence didn’t just look leaky, it looked completely broken.
If Cleveland are planning to flip the switch, they might as well make sure the light still works in Boston.
Whether Kevin Durant returns for the end of the regular season or the beginning of the playoffs, the Golden State Warriors will have some adjusting to do.
That’s not to say the team will not be more dominant when Durant returns, but Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will have to sacrifice some shots which might interfere with their rhythm on offence once again.
If Durant returns on schedule, he will have three regular season games to adjust to his normal workload and prepare for the playoffs. During his 17-game absence due to an injury to his left knee, the Warriors have weathered the storm and performed well once Curry assumed his position being the first option on offence.
The Warriors have been on a 12-game winning streak, with Curry averaging 26.3 points, 8.0 assists and 49.1 per cent shooting from the field. The team has been 4.4 points better defensively since Durant’s injury and have beaten quality teams on the road.
Golden State is primed for a return to the NBA Finals and with Durant back, the team will be favored to come out of the Western Conference. The San Antonio Spurs seem to be the only team that will be able to offer some resistance on the road to the finals.
The empirical evidence suggests that Durant will affect the team’s flow on offense, but that will not keep the Warriors from dominating the West in the playoffs, as their talent and star power will eventually prevail over ball-sharing and offensive schemes.
The Warriors seem to be on a collision course with the Cleveland Cavaliers and are eager to rectify last year’s collapse in the NBA finals.