HOUSTON — At one point during TNT’s telecast of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, a clip was shown of Warriors Coach Steve Kerr talking to Kevin Durant about his own playing days.
“When [Michael Jordan] was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game and he kept trying to score. And he was scoring, but we weren’t getting anything going. Phil Jackson said, ‘Who’s open?’ He said, ‘John Paxson.’
“I want you to trust your teammates early, early. What you’re doing is, you’re getting to the rim, and then you’re trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy. And then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, okay?”
It was a less-than-30-second snapshot of the way Kerr views basketball. A disciple of both Jackson and Gregg Popovich, two of the three greatest coaches the sport has ever seen, Kerr believes in selflessness, in teamwork, in sharing the ball with the open man, in passing and moving and getting everyone involved.
So imagine how Kerr feels after watching his team send its offense careening into a ditch repeatedly throughout this series. The result? The Golden State Warriors — the team with four in-their-prime Hall of Famers on the roster — are within a game of going home for the summer without the repeat title they seemed destined to win after losing, 98-94, on Thursday night.
The Warriors all said the right things after the game. Kerr said he liked the team’s ball movement. Draymond Green said Golden State “figured something out” on the offensive end. Stephen Curry harped on the team’s 16 turnovers — which has always been Golden State’s Achilles’ heel during its run the past four seasons.
But there’s a reason the original tweet that TNT’s account put out about Durant talking to Kerr was deleted. Somewhere, with someone, it struck a nerve.
Here’s the truth about the position the Warriors find themselves in as they head back to the Bay Area for Game 6 on Saturday night: They are in it because they’ve lost their way. It’s not because Andre Iguodala is injured, although his presence has been sorely missed. It’s not because the Rockets are playing incandescent offense; they shot 37 percent in this game and went 13 for 43 from three-point range.
The Warriors have fallen into the trap the Rockets laid for them: They’re going isolation-heavy with Durant against whatever mismatch he can get, and getting away from the pass-happy offense that has torn the league to shreds since Kerr arrived in the Bay Area four years ago this month.
So, where has that gone? It has been lost in a sea of Kevin Durant isolations and post-ups. This isn’t all on Durant, either; Kerr liked some of the mismatches Durant got, and he’s obviously one of the great isolation scorers in the sport. And, frankly, after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Warriors went so hard after Durant in free agency specifically to have him available to bail them out of situations like this.
But instead of being used as a last resort, he has become the whole offense far too often in this series.
Durant took 22 shots and had no assists in Game 5. In three games in Houston, Durant has a single assist, which came in Golden State’s Game 1 victory. In the other game Golden State won in this series, Game 3 in Oakland, Durant had six of them.
That’s not a coincidence. Nor is the fact that Golden State’s offense has bogged down in the fourth quarters of Games 4 and 5. A main reason for that is Durant shot a combined 1 for 9 in them.
“They’re switching a lot when I get in the post now,” Durant said. “I can feel them bringing a guy over, so I just got to make the right play.”
For the Warriors, the right play involves moving the ball. Durant and his teammates simply haven’t done enough of that.
And, for that, Houston deserves a massive amount of credit. The Rockets have been incredibly impressive in this series, showing far more grit and determination than many gave them credit for having. That includes gutting out both Games 4 and 5 of this series with second-half surges into the lead — something most wouldn’t have counted on them being able to do against this Warriors team.
But a large part of why that strategy is working is because Durant is allowing himself to be lulled into it. For the first nine years of his career, Durant played in this fashion. Old habits die hard.
And this is the first time these Warriors have been tested since Durant arrived in Golden State two summers ago. Last year, Golden State went 16-1 in the playoffs, one of the most dominant postseason runs of all-time.
Before Game 5, Kerr declared that, despite the Warriors essentially being on cruise control for the past 18 months or so — only to be jolted out of that state by blowing a 10-point lead in Game 4 at home — he thought his players would rise to the occasion.
“I think you just — when you go through the playoffs like our core group has, at this point you kind of feel like you’ve seen it all,” Kerr said. Last year was obviously the exception rather than the rule, and very few teams in NBA history can go through the playoffs with one loss.
“But I do know from my own experience in the NBA, this is how the playoffs go. It’s supposed to feel hard. It’s supposed to feel difficult. Stuff happens. You get injuries, suspensions, things happen, and you just have to play through everything.”
The Warriors have had a little bit of everything. They’re in their fourth year playing 100 games a season, a grueling run for any franchise. They have Klay Thompson playing through a knee injury, and Iguodala has sat out the past two games with one. The rest of the roster is unbalanced. They are up against the most formidable opponent they’ve seen since Durant arrived — albeit one that, because of Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in the final minute of Game 5, may be compromised for the remainder of this series.
But Kerr also left out one key element: This core group has not been through everything together. Yes, that counts for most of the Warriors — himself, Curry, Green, Thompson, Iguodala, Shaun Livingston. But it doesn’t count for Durant — not with this team, not playing this way.
As the past two games have gone down to the wire, Durant has gone back to his old ways, and the Warriors have allowed him to do it. Doing so has short-circuited their offense, and robbed Golden State of what made it special to begin with.
To win this series, that needs to change now. As Kerr said, that trust in the team from everyone, beginning with Durant, needs to return. If it doesn’t, what was supposed to be a coronation, a second straight title and the third in four years, will instead result in an exit from the postseason the Warriors never saw coming.
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