Just before the Golden State Warriors managed only 86 points on 20 percent three-point shooting in their loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, Kevin Durant was non-committal about his return from a Grade 2 MCL sprain that could sideline him until the playoffs.
“I’m not even thinking about that right now,” said Durant, Golden State’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker, according to USA Today’s Sam Amick. “But whenever my body tells me I’ll be ready to play then I’ll be ready to play.”
Durant’s injury timeline may not be on his mind, but it is certainly on the Warriors’, whose offensive production has taken a dramatic nosedive without their prized free agent signing.
Golden State (52-12) has lost three of its five games since Durant got hurt two minutes into a Feb. 28 loss to Washington. Already twice in March, the Warriors have been held below 90 points. That had happened just seven times since the 2014-15 season, including their Game 7 loss to Cleveland in last year’s NBA Finals.
On Wednesday, they mustered just 12 fourth-quarter points in a 99-86 loss to a Celtics team with the third-worst defensive rating in the final period this season.
“Our fans were leaving,” said Stephen Curry. “We didn’t give them anything to cheer about."
That’s because teams have one fewer problem to worry about.
With a healthy Durant averaging 25.3 points per game, the Warriors thrived at a league-best 114.3 points per 100 possessions, according to data from NBA.com. But that number has dropped more than 10 points to just 103.7 in the five games since Durant got hurt, a number that would rank 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, in-between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons.
The reason: Defenses can key in on two amazing scorers (Curry and Klay Thompson) instead of three.
There are a lot of Celtics around the Splash Brothers. pic.twitter.com/CRUHlzrg9S— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) March 9, 2017
The Warriors offense is predicated on ball and player movement, but without the proper spacing, Steve Kerr’s offense hasn’t sustained itself. You see it in Houston — flank James Harden with three shooters and a big man, and he’ll tear his man apart or hit the open man.
Without Durant, though, Curry and Thompson are the only deadeye shooters, and teams have adjusted accordingly. They’re loading up the Splash Brothers while sagging off Draymond Green — a 32 percent three-point shooter — and playing his sight lines instead.
As a result, Golden State is averaging five fewer assists per game since Durant’s injury. Thompson, who shot 49 percent from the field in February, has been reduced to a 35 percent scorer without Durant on the floor.
And the Warriors have yet to find an answer because, well, they don’t have one.
What doesn’t help is Stephen Curry’s uncharacteristically cold shooting lately.
Surprisingly, Curry has gotten more open looks without Durant on the floor. His inability to hit those shots, however, has hurt the Warriors offensive as of late.
Before Durant’s injury, the reigning MVP shot uncontested jumpers at a 68.2 effective field-goal percentage (an advanced stat that takes into account the value of the three-point shot in shooting percentages). But in the five games since Durant went down, that number has dropped nearly 25 points to just 43.5 percent.
Curry is shooting just 17-of-67, or 25 percent, from three-point range in that same span. This is (or isn’t) the same player who has led the NBA in three-pointers made in each of the past two seasons.
We should have expected a drop-off
Kevin Durant is an MVP. He hasn’t averaged fewer than 25 points per game since his rookie season. The Warriors fully ingratiated him into their game plan, wrapped their schemes on both ends around him, and watched their team take off as favorites to win a championship this year.
That all went out the window with his injury.
The Warriors don’t have the depth to make up Durant’s production. Signing Matt Barnes merely added another body to play at the forward spot. Andre Iguodala is still a versatile sixth man, but at 33-years-old, he’s averaging just 6.8 points per game this season.
Moreover, Patrick McCaw, Durant’s replacement in the starting lineup, is a second-round rookie.
The Warriors weren’t going to be the same team without Durant, that much was certain. Golden State still has three All-Stars between Curry, Green, and Thompson, but defenses have keyed in on their two best scorers. The league’s reigning MVP hasn’t played like one, and the Warriors just don’t have the depth that helped them secure the best record in NBA history last season because they sacrificed it to land Durant over the summer.
But the drop-off is still dramatic
Golden State is now just 1.5 games away from falling below the San Antonio Spurs in the conference standings. That drop-off is the difference between a playoff first round against one of several below-.500 teams or facing either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Memphis Grizzlies.
So while Kevin Durant may not be worried about his injury return date, he should be. Because if he can’t get back on the floor come April, this Warriors team has a much harder path to the NBA Finals.
And cementing his legacy through championships was the reason he left Oklahoma City for Oakland in the first place.