Conventional wisdom often states that combining two superstars of equal or near-equal talent and skill is a recipe for success. We’ve all seen it in the past — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson formed a partnership that led the Showtime Lakers to eight finals appearances; Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Bulls to six NBA championships; Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were a formidable one-two punch that gave the Lakers three straight titles; LeBron James and Dwyane Wade terrorized their foes with their dynamic and athletic partnership.
But like most things in life, partnerships like these don’t last forever. O’Neal and Bryant couldn’t set aside their egos for the sake of winning more championships. James sensed that his partner-in-crime was slowly declining, and decided to bolt out of Miami before things became way uglier. Dynasties forged on the fusion of otherworldly talent are often placed on a timer; no matter how strong the chemistry is, one way or another there will be a cause for separation.
The duo of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant is the latest in that list of greatest duos to have ever played in the NBA. The unselfishness and willful accommodating nature of Curry has allowed Durant to flourish within the Warriors’ system, and it has also elevated each of their individual greatness to levels that have been unreachable by any other team or player. The proof is in the pudding — since Durant has joined the Warriors, they have won two straight championships, and despite their early season struggles, are still favored to win a third straight.
Against the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, the duo reminded the city of Cleveland of their partnership that created a dynasty and prevented the formation of another. A depleted but motivated Cavaliers team — perhaps spurred on by recent comments from Klay Thompson and an Instagram post from Draymond Green — came out of the gates with a spitfire energy that garnered them a six-point halftime lead against the defending champions.
But in the end, championship pedigree and superior talent won out. When all was said and done, the Cavaliers did not have an answer for the one-two punch of Curry and Durant.
An undeniable fact about the Warriors is that with Curry on the floor, they are simply a much faster-paced team than without him. Before he was sidelined with a groin injury, the Warriors were at a respectable pace of 104.06 possessions per game, good for 10th in the league at the time, per NBA.com. Curry’s ability to push the pace is akin to that of a catalyst in a chemical reaction — with the presence of Curry on the floor, the Warriors’ offense is allowed to speed up, catching defenses off guard and unable to set up properly, even off of made baskets.
What makes Curry even more deadly in transition is when he hauls in the defensive rebound, which gives the Warriors even more of a head start on the fastbreak. With immediate possession of the ball, Curry gets the undivided attention of the defense. His attention-grabbing nature opens up the floor for his other teammates; sometimes, it can come in the form of three-point shots for Durant or Klay Thompson; other times, it can manifest in an uncontested dunk for Andre Iguodala.
The first link up between the deadly duo of Curry and Durant is a classic example of good defense translating into instant offense. With Durant on the floor, one would assume that passing lanes would quickly close shut due to his length — as such, he makes good use of his length by intercepting a wayward pass. Curry’s effort to run after a forced turnover serves as another example of how the Warriors are simply a different team in terms of pace when he is present.
Oftentimes, Curry’s gravity is what allows the other All-Stars and role players on the team to take the kind of shots that they get. But an often overlooked and underappreciated aspect is the fact that Curry can also benefit from the gravity that his fellow All-Stars can generate. Curry’s ability — and willingness — to set screens for his gravity-generating teammates such as Durant gives him the space he needs to move to his spot and shoot the three.
Curry always makes sure to repay the opportunities that he gets in kind. The simple action of running to a certain spot on the perimeter — off of a missed basket on the other end — forces the defense to pay extra special attention to him, which stretches the defense and opens up the driving lane for Durant. Woe to the lone defender who has the impossible job of stopping a Durant drive to the basket.
Offenses that run on a “your-turn-my-turn” basis are often highly unsustainable, since it allows defenses to simply adjust accordingly — such an offense is certainly not immune to the law of diminishing returns. While the conventional way of “your-turn-my-turn” is having one player isolate in one possession — then have the other isolate in another — Curry and Durant have their own version that doesn’t have to sacrifice one or the other. When the defense is on point, Durant and Curry are in perfect synergy, with Durant seeing Curry run ahead of the last line of defenders. A pinpoint bounce pass gives Curry the transition layup.
Durant and Curry play off of each other so well, and they have had two years to adjust to each other’s rhythm and tendencies. “Your-turn-my-turn” seems so blasé with other teams and players, but with Curry and Durant, it turns into an art form and a deadly weapon, both at the same time.
After Durant has had his fill, Curry takes the wheel once again. A somewhat extant play resurfaces for the Warriors while inbounding — the “elevator” — where Iguodala and Kevon Looney serve as the closing elevator doors, not allowing the defender to crash the three-point party that Curry has been invited to.
Curry takes it upon himself again to show off what he can do when creating his own shot. He is an absolute master at suddenly changing speeds and creating separation, which he does in these two instances. He acts as if he is about to go 0-100 toward the rim, but it only serves to separate himself from his hapless defenders.
For almost the entirety of the first half, Curry carried the majority of the scoring load — but surprisingly, the Cavaliers still came out of the half with a lead, thanks to an unusual surge of three-point shooting, aided in part by a lazy defensive effort from the Warriors.
In the second half, Durant began to establish his presence, which helped take a bit of the scoring load off of Curry. Durant’s assertiveness and aggression allows him to take advantage of the Cavaliers’ holes in defense — something that was bound to happen sooner or later, given that the Cavaliers are ranked dead last in defensive rating (114.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com).
Durant had a 3-of-9 shooting clip before burying this post-up isolation jumper, as a result of being left alone to operate against a single defender. The rest of the Cavaliers’ defenders are nailed to the weak side, due to Curry and Thompson being shooting threats on the perimeter. Having both of them on the floor at the same time makes doubling Durant out of the question.
Durant’s willingness to play within the system — aided in no doubt by the support that he gets from the likes of Curry — is in full display. Basic basketball involves basic reads that are made according to what the defense gives you. The Cavaliers’ Swiss cheese defense certainly gives a lot of opportunities to score, and Durant takes advantage through a simple backdoor cut and well-timed pass from Jonas Jerebko.
Once again, good things happen when Curry pushes the pace in transition. In this case, Curry attracts a lot of eyes upon crossing the center court line, and a quick pass to Durant on the right wing catches the defense unawares.
And for good measure, Durant jogs the memories of those in attendance with two three-point shots in succession that should look very familiar to them — the only difference being that in this instance, there is no king to slay, having left his royal subjects for a brighter kingdom out west.
Curry’s return is a welcome sight to every member of Dub Nation, due to the fact that his presence alone on the court makes the Warriors into an all-time great offense. But his return also provides fans the pleasure of watching two of the top three players in the league play off of each other, elevate each other’s games, and cooperate in synergistic fashion. When conventional wisdom and historical precedent has told us that attempts at co-existence between superstars have devolved into parasitism, Curry and Durant have instead thrived through mutualism — that is, they are existing in a relationship where each of them benefit from each other’s activity and presence on the court.
If any more evidence of this mutualism was needed, then the statistics speak for themselves — 42 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists for Curry, with an 11-of-20 shooting clip (9-of-14 3PT); 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists for Durant, with a 9-of-16 shooting clip (4-of-7 3PT). Both players finished with a plus/minus rating of +22.
“But that’s just one game.”
Sure. But consider this: Durant is averaging 29.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on a shooting split of .519/.342/.927, with a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 63.2 percent. Curry is averaging 30.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.7 assists on a shooting split of .519/.503/.931, with a TS% of 69.3 percent, which is on pace to be the highest of his career.
When was the last time two teammates averaged these kinds of numbers, while posting ridiculous shooting splits, and having true shooting percentages that soar beyond the realm of normal? Digging into the history books and finding a duo with similar numbers is a difficult and — dare I say — impossible task.
More importantly, when Curry and Durant have played together, the Warriors have posted a record of 12-3. Without one of them (which in this season is only without Curry, since Durant hasn’t missed a game yet), they are 5-6. This is a testament to how much the team needs Curry and Durant to be together on the floor.
If NBA lore has taught us one thing, one way or another, this partnership between Curry and Durant will most certainly come to an end. It may not be this season or the next, or — basketball gods willing — it may not happen till several years from now. But for a franchise that has spent years toiling and languishing in the slums of the NBA hierarchy, having two of the best players in the league today — and two of the best players to have ever graced a basketball court, for that matter — is a blessing that will forever be counted and cherished among the Warriors’ fandom.
Twenty-six down, 56 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.