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The Golden Breakdown: Durant isolations and Thompson mid-range jumpers aren’t enough against the Spurs

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The offense is sputtering without Steph Curry. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are trying their best, but as defenses focus on shutting them down, it is clear that they will need Curry back soon to right the ship.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors have a problem on offense. One way or another, they desperately need Stephen Curry back.

By losing against the San Antonio Spurs, the Warriors have now lost five of their last seven games, including this Texas road trip that has quickly transformed into the Bermuda Triangle. It has been a nightmare of a week for the Warriors, starting with the infamous spat between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, leading to the suspension of Green and creating locker room tension that has engulfed the Warriors like never before.

Despite the presence of Curry on this trip to provide off-court leadership and stability, the incident has clearly left its mark on the Warriors’ performance on the court. Furthermore, the absence of Curry and Green due to injury has severely limited the offensive options for the Warriors. Leaving Durant and Thompson to shoulder the majority of the offensive load has quickly become an exercise gone awry.

During the last six games without Curry, Durant is averaging 28 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5.8 assists — on a shooting split of .420/.182/.935. Meanwhile, Thompson is averaging 22.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists — on a shooting split of .419/.273/.700.

It is quite apparent that opposing defenses have adjusted their gameplans on defense, taking advantage of the absence of Curry by putting pressure on both Durant and Thompson. Coupled with the lack of ball-movement, possessions often devolve into isolations by either Durant or Thompson — basically a “your-turn-my-turn” type of offense.

Durant isolations galore

As NBA defenses have evolved, isolation-heavy schemes were put by the wayside in favor of schemes that heavily favor off-ball movement, constant pick-and-roll, and three-point shooting. That is not to say that isolation possessions were completely rendered useless. There is still value being placed in players who can create their own shots one-on-one, especially during times where defenses put a standstill on off-ball movement and shut down multiple options.

The Warriors possess two of the best one-on-one players in the league today in Curry and Durant. Both players have the ability to take their defender off the dribble, with a variety of ways through which they can score. They can pull up and bury a jumper, or penetrate and finish at the rim. Even if the Warriors’ vaunted motion offense gets shut down, they will always have the luxury of having either Curry or Durant as an insurance policy.

However, the past six games have seen Durant as the sole isolation threat on offense. With no Curry, and Thompson being the only other legitimate perimeter threat, opposing defenses could afford to “stack up” and overload their defense against Durant — a strategy that the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, and Spurs used to great success. They would often let Durant isolate up top or on the post. With little to no off-ball movement — due to either excellent defense or stagnant ball-watching by the supporting cast — defenses would often take their chances with a Durant mid-range jumper. Should Durant attempt to back down his defender in order to get closer to the basket, multiple defenders pack the paint and attempt to smother Durant’s eventual shot attempt.

Notice that on several of those isolation possessions by Durant, the Warriors would try to run several off-ball actions such as flare screens to get shooters open, or low-post split cuts to make defenders guess wrong, resulting in either a cut to the basket or a wide open three-point shot. But the Spurs do a great job at defending these actions. The Warriors then devolve into standing still and watching Durant try to score on his own.

In some possessions, Durant elects to pull up for a three, and almost all of them are well contested. Knowing that Durant is struggling from three-point range this season (32.4 percent, per NBA.com), the Spurs would prefer that he shoot from as far away as possible, rather than him shooting mid-range jumpers or driving straight to the rim.

When it comes to slow-paced games where defenses are often tight and movement comes to a screeching halt, Durant’s ability to score on his own is crucial — this much was proven during the last two NBA Finals. But when Durant is having an off night, and the supporting cast is limited in their ability to provide assistance, then there is almost nothing else that can be done.

Durant is well aware of the problems facing the Warriors’ offense, and acknowledges that without Curry and Green to provide spacing and playmaking, the Warriors are hard-pressed to generate offense from a system that puts a premium on passing and moving off the ball.

Thompson isolations and mid-range shots

Thompson has also tried to isolate several times, but he serves much better as an off-ball threat who uses his constant motion to curl off screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers or cuts to the basket.

In this version of the Warriors’ roster — one without Curry and Green — Thompson is given much more leeway to isolate on the post or off the dribble. His handle has pretty much improved enough to the point that he can put the ball down and pull up for the mid-range jumper. But without off-ball support and spacing, Thompson plays right into the hands of the defense, who would prefer that he dribble and isolate instead of cutting off the ball or catching and shooting.

Normally, with a playmaker such as Curry and Green present on the floor, Thompson has less attention on him, and has more freedom to roam off the ball and use screens to curl and shoot. But with only Durant as his fellow scoring partner, he is forced into more isolations and dribbling.

Of all of Thompson’s field goal attempts this season, 60.4 percent have been inside the arc, per NBA.com — the highest since his rookie season (62.7 percent). The increase in mid-range shots that Thompson is taking is perhaps partly due to his struggles from beyond the three-point line, where he is currently shooting 32.1 percent — on pace to become his career low. Naturally, the answer to a severe drought from three-point range is to get your shots off closer to the basket. This allows for higher percentage shots and establishes a shooter’s rhythm that can eventually help him regain his range from afar.

When asked about the fact that he and Durant combined for 51 points on 51 shots, Thompson answered in a way that only he can:

While he may be speaking the truth — it won’t be every time that Thompson and Durant will have inefficient shooting nights — there is perhaps an element of “rocket science” to this, contrary to what he said. The recurring theme of the struggles that the Warriors are currently experiencing is the absence of Curry.

Without Curry, the Warriors lose a significant amount of their offensive identity. They lose the gravity that allows everyone else around him the freedom to operate without any hindrance. They lose his superhuman three-point shooting ability, and the proof is in the pudding — they lead the league in three-point shooting percentage (39.1 percent) with him; without him, that number goes down to 35.9 percent, which would drop them all the way to 13th in the league.

The Warriors may have lost their third game in a row, but the question remains: is now a good time to panic?

As was said after the loss to the Mavericks, panic is a natural reaction, but there is still no need for it. Curry will eventually come back, along with Green. There is still the untapped talents of DeMarcus Cousins, and he can remedy several of the problems the Warriors have been facing. Only 18 games have been played, and the season is young. Durant and Thompson will eventually return to their efficient ways.

Until the captain returns, however, they will need to hold down the fort. There is no other choice.

Eighteen down, 64 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.