Is a third Warriors title in four years and back-to-back championships the turning point for Steph, KD's on-court relationship?
When we look back at the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors team in 20 years time, this team could be overlooked in many ways. Future basketball enthusiasts might ponder of how good the Kevin Durant-era Warriors really were. They would see that it took four all-stars to sweep an all-time great in LeBron, and say that their title was an inevitability.
Instead, their championship odds were more in doubt than expected. A regular season full of injuries can do that. There wasn’t as many meaningful games in the regular season either. The season-long crawl to the playoffs didn’t inspire great basketball. Most often, the Dubs would flip the switch for a quarter or a half. It’s hard to look dominant when you coast most games. The rest of the league making a leap is/was cause for concern too. Repeating is a historically-daunting task though. Only a few teams have done it. It’s an accolade that's truly definitive of a dynasty, which they can now claim after a third title win in four years.
The 73-win Warriors team that failed to win the title showed how hard it is to win a title. That’s why last season's playoff run looked so much less sloppy for the Dubs. There was a sense of urgency to reclaim the throne, but also to integrate Finals MVP Kevin Durant into the team. They put egos aside for the good of the championship. It seemed clear that those emotions had finally boiled over this season.
Much of it stems from the dynamic between Durant and Steph Curry. Off the court, the two have competing signature sneakers, but on the court, they can be accommodating to a fault. Durant has the mindset of fitting in, and Curry has the mindset to make sure Durant feels included. This manifests often in close games, down the stretch, when one of the two need to make a play.
It came close to hurting them in the Western Conference Finals against the Rockets. Trailing by two in Game 2, Durant passed out of a mid-range shot on the break, and Klay put up a shot with no chance. It was clear they were tight. They lost a huge lead in Game 4 with an opportunity to take a 3-1 series lead, and as the Rockets crawled back into the game, the Dubs lost their focus.
The difference of play can be directly correlated to which MVP was managing the game. In the 3rd quarter, Steph went bonkers, scoring 17 points in the third. Then in the 4th, Durant soaked up most of the minutes, and took over for most of the possessions. As Houston forced them to play isolation basketball, the downside of the style was evident when the Warriors couldn’t respond to the success Houston had playing that way.
The adjustment to play Curry-centric ball was clear after Game 5 of the Rockets series. “I think we’ll win our next six games,” Kerr predicted after going down 3-2 to Houston. Steph scored 29, and 27 points respectively in the next two games, but freed up room for Klay to score 35 in game 6, and KD to score 34 in game 7. In both games combined, Steph was +46, and KD was +23.
As the Finals took hold, and the relief of beating the best team left in the playoffs set in, something finally clicked. Whether or not Curry is the leading scorer, they’re playing at their best when he’s running around causing defensive breakdowns. One of the plays that came out of the Houston series was a sequence where Curry tries to create, drops off a pass, and relocates to the corner for an open 3.
That change of play is what lead the Warriors to a sweep in the NBA Finals. Game 1 was certainly in the balance before overtime. Durant struggled shooting the ball, and had one of his worst games since joining GSW. Despite this, KD still lead the team with +17, scoring 26 points to match Steph's 29.
In Game 2, the two superstars were easily in their bag. Durant scored 26 on 10-of-14 shooting, and Steph scored 33, breaking the Finals record for three's in a game with 9. The blowout showed the level that this team can reach when they’re really clicking, and though LeBron almost took Game 1 on his own, Golden State got efficient games from both Durant and Curry.
The Cavs adjusted in Game 3, shutting down Curry defensively, holding him to 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting. They repeatedly trapped him when he came off pick and rolls, forcing him to pass the ball. This is a strategy the Cavs have gone to in their last three Finals matchups, but now that Durant is the second option, he can feast on the 4-on-3 situations that the PNR trap produces.
That’s what lead to Durant’s offensive explosion in Game 3, but KD got his shot in isolation play too. Steph spaced the floor, jacking up 10 threes, and despite hitting just 1 of them, his gravity created space that Durant and others could capitalize on. This is why Bob Myers signed KD, to be keep Golden State afloat when Curry can’t get it going (or gets shut down by design, as the Cavs often resort to).
It’s also why Durant agreed to join the team. Not to lead, or be led, but to be 1-B to Steph's 1-A. It cultivated with the cherry on top in Game 4. Durant had a 20-point triple-double, and led the team with +30. Despite Finals MVP still hanging in the balance, Durant was happy to keep feeding an already-hot Curry, who ended with a game-high 37 points.
Though Durant took home the award again, the dynamic seemed to have been solved in their last six games of the season. There’s a better sense between the two, and true adversity for the duo to build upon. The ups and downs of this championship season was far different than their inaugural season, and in the long run, this year should prove more valuable to their chemistry. So as the Warriors dynasty continues, it’ll be fascinating to look back and see if this Finals will be seen as the turning point for the franchise.