The acquisition of Kevin Durant by the Warriors opened up a lot of possibilities and combinations on offense. It was quite simple — Durant is an an elite offensive talent who is capable of scoring in a variety of ways: three-point shooting, mid-range, floaters, and drives to the rim. In an offense that was already soaring high above everyone else in the league, the addition of Durant was expected to bring them to an unreachable dimension.
Out of all those possibilities being imagined by analysts and fans, it was the prospect of a two-man game between Durant and Stephen Curry that made everyone drool like dogs staring at a dangling treat. And it was indeed a treat: Durant screening for Curry — and vice-versa — had the potential to be the most difficult offensive action to defend.
Once the 2016-17 season started, fans waited for the Warriors to finally unleash the deadly Curry/Durant pick-and-roll — but to their surprise, the action was, for the most part, absent throughout the entirety of the regular season. The Warriors opted to let Durant feel at ease and be comfortable in their patented egalitarian system. It was far from being a smooth transition — Curry himself struggled as a result of trying to let Durant get a feel for the Warriors’ system.
Steve Kerr explained the rationale behind the scarce use of the Curry/Durant pick-and-roll during his guest appearance on Zach Lowe’s podcast.
“The thing for me, philosophically, we could do Steph-KD pick-and-rolls all season long and get open shots, and I understand that. ... But we have playmakers everywhere — Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala. I want those guys making plays. I want them with the ball in their hands. ... When everyone is involved, touching the ball and cutting and screening, there’s a magic that happens, there’s something special where guys feel empowered, their defense gets better because they’re involved. And so I think, what’s important for me as a coach is to play the style we do.”
Simply put, the Warriors went away from running pick-and-rolls because of their desire to make everyone on the floor be involved in the offense. Running the pick-and-roll all the time would relegate everyone else not involved in the action to be bystanders.
Despite calls for Kerr to let his superstars run the offense by having them handle the ball for the majority of possessions, he still finds that there is a lot more benefit to be gained from sticking with the tried and true system that has brought them three championships over a span of four years.
Early on against the Portland Trail Blazers, it seemed like the Warriors’ motion offense would work without a hitch. The Blazers were having trouble in stopping all sorts of off-ball movement. They would pay for their constant overplaying of shooters through simple cuts and dives toward the basket.
When Curry and Klay Thompson come together during a split action, the Blazers pick their poison by having two defenders attach themselves to Thompson, allowing Curry to dive inside and receive the pass for the layup.
In this possession, Thompson punishes CJ McCollum’s overplay by suddenly cutting toward the basket and receiving the well-timed pass from Draymond Green. When teams overplay Thompson or Curry, Green’s value as a playmaker from the post or from the top of the arc exponentially rises.
Perhaps the most eye-catching sequence coming out of the Warriors’ motion flow is this gem, where Green has the ball on the left block. Andre Iguodala sets a screen for Durant, who dives inside, receives the pass, and hands the ball off to Shaun Livingston inside.
But the rest of the night wouldn’t be as smooth for the Warriors. Their usual offensive flow would get bogged down, and the problems that had been plaguing them for the past few days would resurface. While the Blazers themselves would have a terrible shooting night (36.2 percent from the field, 32.5 percent from three-point range), the Warriors would render their own defensive effort moot by having a terrible offensive showing, particularly in terms of taking care of the ball (15 turnovers) and in shooting the three (29.5 percent).
Down by 10 points with approximately three minutes left in regulation, the Warriors finally relegated the offensive responsibilities to Curry and Durant. With Durant handling the ball, the Warriors run a simple pin down for Curry, who receives the ball right in his shooting pocket.
The Warriors cut the lead to four out of a sideline out-of-bounds play, where Green sets a solid screen that frees up Durant for the three.
As is the expectation when the Warriors are down in crunch time situations, the Warriors finally unsheathe the Curry/Durant pick-and-roll — or in this case, a pick-and-pop, as Curry slips the screen and relocates to the right wing. With two defenders deciding to focus their attention on Durant, Curry is inexplicably unguarded, and he makes the defenders pay by burying the three.
After the Warriors send McCollum to the line to widen the deficit to five, the Warriors run another pick-and-roll. Curry sets the backscreen on Durant’s defender, who is preparing to fight through the screen. At the last second, Durant rejects the screen and goes to his right and through the open lane for the dunk.
After the Warriors get a stop, Curry gets the ball and uses a quick screen from Green for the three-point attempt, which misses. Iguodala punches the ball toward Curry, who hands it to Durant for the game-tying three that eventually sends the game into overtime.
Having had a new lease on life, the Warriors initially took advantage of being given a second chance in a game that they probably didn’t deserve to win. The Warriors get another stop, with Curry trying to push the pace immediately after. He sees Durant with only a single defender in front of him, and he gets him the ball. Durant uses his momentum to blow past the defender and toward the undefended basket.
The Warriors have had to rely on Curry and Durant to make the plays and score the points, and it allowed them to go into overtime for another chance at a victory. But these next two possessions may have proven to be the silent killers that eventually cost the Warriors the game.
In this possession, Durant gets a highly favorable mismatch against the much smaller Damian Lillard. Durant gets to his spot and rises up for the jumper, but he misses the shot — one that he usually makes at a high percentage.
Curry would miss an easy shot of his own. He gets the high pick from Kevon Looney, leaving him up against Nurkic in drop coverage. He goes up for the mid-range jumper, which Nurkic doesn’t even contest. But just like Durant before him, Curry misses a shot that is usually automatic for him.
The Blazers would retake the lead through the efforts of McCollum, and off of a timeout, the Warriors run a play that uses the Curry/Durant pick-and-roll as a decoy. The real action is a Thompson three using staggered screens, with Green as the second screener. However, Thompson is defended well, since Green opts to pop out to the corner, leaving two men to run Thompson off the line and trying to force him to drive or go up for a contested mid-range jumper.
Thompson sees Green in the corner and passes it to him. Nurkic sees who the shooter is, and doesn’t even bother to acknowledge his existence. Most of the time, this would be the right choice. But fortune favored Green this time.
After the Warriors get another stop, it would seem like the game was theirs to lose. The Blazers foul Curry, and the Warriors are set to inbound. The Blazers trap Curry when he gets the pass, and what happens next is a huge blunder on the two-time MVP’s part.
With Durant missing the potential game winning shot, the Warriors proceeded to lose a game that had a lot of eccentricities and sloppy play. The Curry and Durant combination — often the key to the Warriors’ close wins on most nights — almost saved the Warriors from another disappointing night.
But in a league such as the NBA, fortunes can quickly change in the blink of an eye. The level of play allows for small margins for error. Superstars and elite-level players are measured through their ability to navigate through that narrow margin and elevate their teams past adversity.
Curry and Durant navigated their way through a narrow margin, and it seemed like the Warriors were in the clear. But the margin caught up and closed tightly around the neck of the Warriors, who were left with nothing but the echoes of a victory that slipped away from their grasp.
Thirty-six down, 46 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.