The Real NBA Playoffs Are About to Begin—and Kevin Durant Can End Them

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“Just find ways to get him in scoring positions,” Steph Curry said. “Sometimes, that’s not really hard to do—just throw it to him.” These were Curry’s thoughts on Kevin Durant after Game 4 in New Orleans, a game in which Durant had 38 points on 15–of–27 shooting. Durant did everything that day. He scored over Nikola Mirotic, he scored over Jrue Holiday, and eventually he even scored over Anthony Davis. He made the Warriors unbeatable. “You don’t really have to overthink things,” Curry added.

The problem with Warriors discussions is that it’s more fun to overthink things. This is why, at various points this year, you may have convinced yourself that Draymond Green’s body is breaking down. Or Andre Iguodala isn’t useful anymore. Or the bench isn’t what it used to be. Or Steve Kerr can’t get through to this team. Or Steph Curry isn’t 100% healthy. And when you really think about it, aren’t the Warriors more vulnerable than people realize?

Probably not. Durant added another 24 points on Tuesday night and, again, did pretty much whatever he wanted. So did his teammates. After sleepwalking through the second quarter, a three–point game at halftime became a 24–point Golden State lead six minutes into the third. That stretch was a helpful reminder that when the Warriors are paying attention, they are capable of dominating teams to a degree we’ve never really seen before. They exploit every mismatch on the floor. They beat you inside and out, from all five positions. And when all of this is happening in Oracle, the momentum builds with each three and eventually it becomes a tidal wave that simply swallows teams alive. Give or take one ill–timed Draymond Green suspension, this has been the playoff experience for the past four years. The Warriors are inevitable.

For the record, the rest of this year’s NBA has been wildly entertaining despite that fact. In just the past two months, the Sixers came out nowhere looking like the future of the league, captivating anyone who cares about basketball. Now they are (maybe?) crashing back to earth and it’s been every bit as surreal. Meanwhile LeBron is back to torturing the Eastern Conference and reminding the world that he is absolutely this generation’s version Michael Jordan. Brad Stevens looks like the best basketball coach alive and Jayson Tatum has somehow been even more impressive. Anthony Davis helped save the Pelicans’ season and also sent the entire Blazers franchise into an existential crisis. The Jazz repeatedly punked the Thunder on national television, Joe Ingles vs. Playoff P became a landslide, and Donovan Mitchell will emerge from these playoffs with what has to be the highest approval rating of anyone currently in the NBA. There have been great stories everywhere. 

But all those subplots are burning away now and we’re about to hit the main events. Rockets–Warriors is coming. LeBron will likely be waiting in the Finals. And if the next few weeks are where the playoffs get real, I’m most interested in watching Durant.

He was the best player on the floor in the Pelicans series, and with Steph Curry still recovering from a knee injury, the door is wide open for Durant to come through and crush everyone’s dreams for the next month. A skeptic might note that Durant just spent the past two weeks shooting over guys like Holiday and Mirotic, and he probably won’t look that dominant in the next round. Maybe. But thinking through a Rockets matchup, does Houston have anyone who will be that much more effective?

I want to believe in Rockets–Warriors. I really do. You can convince me that Harden and Paul can play the Golden State backcourt to a draw, particularly if Steph isn’t 100% healthy. I’m even willing to suspend disbelief and talk myself into Clint Capela’s shot blocking and rim-rolling as a viable counterpoint to Draymond Green’s playmaking on both ends. Sure. Fine. Whatever. But Durant … Are we really pinning our hopes to Luc Mbah Moute and PJ Tucker? Trevor Ariza is supposed to hold serve here? Unless Mike D’Antoni is bringing 28-year-old Tracy McGrady off the bench, this matchup seems like it will be a problem. 

I once wrote that where Russell Westbrook is radioactive energy, Steph Curry is cold fusion. His game is cleaner, healthier for everyone, and simultaneously more efficient and more powerful. Granted, everything I know about cold fusion I learned from Elisabeth Shue in 1997’s The Saint, so this analogy might be vulnerable to fact-checking. But in any case, Durant is like Curry. He’s also the size of Kevin Garnett.  

He stripped his game of inefficiencies six or seven years ago, and ever since, he’s been one of the most unstoppable scorers on the planet. If he’s engaged, there’s only so much the defense can do. And if he’s engaged and playing in Golden State next to three other Hall of Famers, Durant becomes the most unfair weapon in NBA history.

So the question, then, is whether Durant will be engaged. For example, he wasn’t quite there in Game 3 against the Pelicans. He finished 8 of 18 for 22 points in a 19–point loss. He also never really hit an extra great as the Warriors flat–lined through the final two months of the regular season. Curry was out, and it was a perfect opportunity for Durant to assert himself. While his numbers were typically excellent, he never clicked as the catalyst. 

When Durant faded against the Pelicans, Draymond spoke up. After watching film til 4 a.m. he sent Durant “a long ass text message” per ESPN and Chris Haynes. Durant followed that with 38 points and Golden State ran its offense through his mismatches in the post. As Draymond told ESPN, “I just challenged him to be who he is. I had to tell him. I didn’t see him attacking or being aggressive enough on both ends of the floor like we need him to be. You know, I don’t hold back. When I see something’s wrong, I have to voice my opinion. There were no hard feelings. We’re just trying to win a ballgame.”

It’s been a strange two years for Durant. There have been burner accounts, cupcakes, podcasts, Instagram likes, forays into venture capital, and even after a title, he’s never found the sort of mainstream validation he seems to crave. There’s a strange edge to the way he addresses the public, and mainstream audiences aside, he still doesn’t resonate with Warriors fans the way players like Curry or Green do. But then again, all of that could be irrelevant for the next month. It certainly didn’t matter in last year’s Finals. 

All we know for sure is that nobody on the Pelicans had a prayer of stopping Durant. The Rockets won’t have many better options. Neither will the Cavs, unless LeBron goes superhuman. That’s been the story of the Warriors since the summer of 2016. Steph Curry makes them go, Draymond Green makes them great, Klay makes them twice as difficult to guard, and about 18 months ago, Kevin Durant went to the Bay and made them impossible. Teams can try to trap or get physical with Curry, but even if that works, there’s always a 6’11” insurance policy waiting to make some poor defender look helpless. 

As long as everyone is healthy, Golden State really shouldn’t be threatened by anyone. I hope I’m wrong about this, and it would be great if we’re about to enter two weeks of Warriors–Rockets chaos, but Steph Curry already warned everyone about overthinking it. Nobody can guard Kevin Durant. If he plays his best basketball over the next month, the playoffs are already over.

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