In the simplest of terms, Kevin Durant’s second season with the Golden State Warriors was a resounding success as the Warriors won another title and Durant won another Finals MVP. That’s the best outcome, the thing that everyone wanted. But when one looks back at the Durant’s entire 2017-18 season, one sees a season that was full of ups and downs, a much more challenging and difficult one for both player and team but one that ended in the best way possible.
Affecting the offense not just by scoring
Statistically, it was another excellent season for the Warriors’ All-Star forward. Durant averaged 26.4 points per game, along with 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.8 blocks. Though his points per game were slightly below his career average (which makes sense given that he shares the ball with other great offensive players), 2017-18 was Durant’s second highest assists per game total in a season. In his 2013-14 MVP season, Durant averaged 5.5 assists, so the gap between those two seasons in terms of assists is not all that great.
Durant was able to post higher-than-normal assist numbers while still remaining one of the top scorers in all of basketball. He continued his development within the Steve Kerr offense, which is predicated on a great deal of passing (contrasted with the iso-heavy style in which he played while a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder). Durant, whose career average is 3.9 assists per game, had 43 games in 2017-18 in which he had five or more assists in a game.
To be certain, Durant will never be a passer like Stephen Curry or Draymond Green. But this slight increase in his assist numbers reflects his growth in that area of the game as he becomes more comfortable in the Warriors’ style of offense.
Durant’s stellar December
Injuries plagued the Warriors in the regular season in a way that it hadn’t in the previous three. Though just about the entire roster dealt with injuries at different points in the season, Stephen Curry’s season was the one most affected by them. Curry played in just 51 games (his lowest total since the 2011-12 season). Curry’s absences came over two prolonged stretches of the season-- more or less the entire month of December and from March 8th (against the San Antonio Spurs when he suffered an ankle sprain) through the March 23rd game against the Atlanta Hawks (in which he suffered the Grade 2 MCL Sprain) and the end of the regular season.
Why do I bring this up when discussing Durant’s season? During both of those stretches, the Warriors were for all intents and purposes Durant’s team. Durant’s usage rates during those periods were amongst the highest of his time with the Warriors— 33% in December, 35.1% during March and 33.1% during April. By contrast, Durant’s usage rates never went above 30% in any month during the 2016-17 season. With Curry out of the lineup, Durant had to be more involved, especially on offense.
Durant’s December, a month in which he was largely in charge of the Warriors as Curry missed all but 9 of the 15 games the team played in that month, was probably his best of the season. Durant averaged 27 points per game in December along with 5.9 assists while the Warriors went 13-2 over that period of time.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t Durant’s offensive production that was the main reason for that impressive stretch for the Warriors. Rather, it was his defensive effort as well as the team’s play on that end of the court that turned the most heads.
Durant’s defensive rating for the month of December was 104.4, his second-best stretch of the season behind November when it was 100.4 (though playing in six fewer games). Durant averaged 2.5 blocks and 2.5 steals per game in December, while also pulling down 7.1 rebounds per game, while the Warriors held opponents to 102.7 points per game.
After a December 27th game against the Utah Jazz, Draymond Green said the following about Durant’s defense at that point in the season.
“I don’t think it’s really a race right now. The way he’s been playing on the defensive side of the ball, he’s been spectacular. It’s a thing now, which is impressive because it always seemed like it was impossible to be a thing, but he’s getting more and more attention for that and obviously he’s helping our defense tremendously with the way he’s playing on that side of the ball. So, if I had to vote, if I had a vote, I’ll vote for him right now.”
The greatest example of this was Durant’s performance in the Christmas Day game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In that game, which the Warriors won, Durant scored 25 points but it was his defense, particularly on LeBron James down the stretch, that was even more impressive. Durant had five blocks and two steals in that Christmas Day win.
LeBron did not score against Durant in the past three possessions they have matched up in the fourth— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) December 25, 2017
Durant’s December was a display of why exactly he wanted to come to the Warriors, or one of the reasons at least. During that month, Durant was more than an elite scorer and offensive weapon to be deployed at certain times. One need not look further than his triple-double against the Charlotte Hornets, the team’s first game without Curry after he sprained his ankle in the team’s previous game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Durant tallied 35 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists in that Warriors win, his fifteenth-career game with 10 or more assists.
There was also Durant’s five-block performance in a road win over the Detroit Pistons or his near triple-double (36 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists) and game-winning shot in a road win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Kobe Bryant night at the Staples Center.
Impressive offensive achievements, but not in wins
Durant also had many impressive moments in the 2017-18 season of the variety that we’re used to seeing from him—offensively. Durant scored his 20,000th point in a January 10th loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, a game in which he scored 40 points but was bested by Lou Williams’ 50 points for the Clippers.
His 25th point of the night gave him 20,000 points for his career. Congrats Kevin Durant! #NBAVote pic.twitter.com/KOSIrL5jkQ— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) January 11, 2018
Durant was the second-youngest player to reach that point (behind James) and the 44th player overall.
In advance of reaching the milestone, Durant talked with The Athletic’s Anthony Slater about reaching 20,000 points and being known as one of the greatest scorers in NBA history.
It’s something. You want something to be remembered as. You want people to recognize your skills. I put in the work and basketball fans around the world, they can appreciate the effort I put in and the level of knowledge I’ve gained over the years from scoring.
But that standard they have for me is something I appreciate. I worked, I worked, I worked to be an all-world scorer. The object of the game is to put the ball in the basket. I’ll take it.
Durant also posted his highest scoring night since joining the Warriors, dropping in 50 points in a Valentine’s Day loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. It was the fifth time in Durant’s career that he scored 50 or more points in a game. Durant scored 40 or more points four times in the 2017-18 regular season, but each time the Warriors ended up losing the game.
It foreshadowed issues that would arise when the Warriors faced the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. When the ball stops with Durant and the entirety of the Warriors offense comes from Durant, the Warriors tend to stagnate and (often) lose.
As it became clear that the Rockets had the top spot in the Western Conference and the Warriors were firmly locked into the second seed, the final stretch of the regular season was a bit of the slog, both for Durant and the Warriors. Durant’s performance curtailed as the season went on, though there were some good performances like the March 8th game against the San Antonio Spurs when an impressive final five minutes by Durant gave the Warriors 110-107 victory.
Highs and lows in the Western Conference Playoffs
Durant, like the Warriors as a whole, underwhelmed in the last quarter of the regular season, leading to some questioning whether they’d go on to win the title. There was chatter; there were concerns being expressed. Those concerns about Durant and the Warriors evaporated once the postseason began.
Durant played well in the Warriors’ first two playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans. With the team still missing Curry for that opening round series, Durant averaged 28.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in the team’s five-game dispatching of the Spurs. Curry was back with the team for all but one game of the Pelicans series, but it was still Durant who led the Warriors in scoring with 27.8 points per game while also pulling down 7.4 rebounds. Durant’s best game of that series was easily Game 4, in which he had 38 points and 9 rebounds while driving the Warriors to gain a commanding 3-1 series lead and responding after a rough loss in Game 3.
While Durant played well in the first two series, his Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets was a more up-and-down affair. After strong performances in the Warriors’ Game 1 win as well as in their Game 2 loss, Durant’s performance trailed off a bit in subsequent games. The Rockets’ defense forced the ball to Durant in isolation situations, disrupting the Warriors’ offense and leading to poor shot selection from Durant. Durant shot under 40% in the team’s losses in Games 4 and 5 as well as in Game 6 when the Warriors mounted a comeback to stay alive in the series.
Durant did play better in the team’s Game 7 road win, including 11 points in the fourth quarter to punch the Warriors’ ticket to a fourth-straight NBA Finals. But there was still a bad taste left in the mouth of Warriors’ fans after Durant’s series against the Rockets. This is something Durant acknowledged, saying the following after Game 7:
I thought [the Rockets] did a great job when I get it in the post. When I’m driving, they start to bring guys over and help and shadow a bit. I wasn’t seeing that for a couple games. I was running the crowd. As I was forcing, I was going too fast on my drives and on my moves. Had me just thinking too much out there.
But though he struggled against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, Durant would have a chance to erase all those struggles with another excellent performance in the NBA Finals against Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Durant saves his best for the Finals
Durant’s NBA Finals did not get off to a good start, as many of the same struggles he experienced in the Western Conference Finals came with him. Durant did score 26 points but did so very inefficiently, going 8/22 from the field. Durant also struggled rebounding, frequently getting boxed out, including by J.R. Smith on what would become the pivotal play of Game 1.
Durant played better in Game 2, supplementing Curry’s record-setting nine makes from long distance with 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists of his own. But in Game 3, Durant turned in one of the greatest performances of his entire career and effectively ended this year’s Finals as the Warriors were able to claim a 3-0 series lead over the Cavaliers.
With Curry and Klay Thompson struggling mightily (they combine for just 21 points) and having to contend with a hostile and energized Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Durant gave one of the great performances in NBA Finals history. Durant scored 43 points in Game 3, which was the first time this season Durant scored 40 or more points and the Warriors won.
Durant was 15/23 from the field and 6/9 from three-point range, making the achievement all the more impressive because he was able to do so without having to take an out-of-the-ordinary number of shots.
And, oh yes, he also had 13 rebounds and 7 assists.
After the game, Curry was effusive in his praise for his fellow former-MVP teammate.
For the last two years, I’ve been playing alongside Kevin Durant [...] he’s an amazing talent, an amazing player. He does amazing things every night. We all feed off each other. So tonight was not my night offensively. It was his night, but like I said, this moment is great, and you encourage each other along the way, and we appreciate what we bring out of each other. We could talk about him all night. He was amazing.
It was Durant’s second consecutive great Game 3 in the NBA Finals. In 2017, he hit the dagger three-pointer to put the Warriors up 3-0 on their way to a five-game Finals win.
In 2018, Durant hit a similar shot in this year’s Finals to seal the road win.
It was a shot that was in roughly the same area as where he hit the 2017 game-winner but, as James pointed out in his postgame comments, “No, that wasn’t the same shot. The one he made tonight was about four or five feet behind the one he made last year [...] same wing, different location.”
Curry played a much better Game 4, creating a little bit of intrigue surrounding who would be the Finals MVP. But it was Durant’s transcendent play in a rabid and hostile arena with fans trying to will their team back into the series that put him over the top and gave him his second consecutive Finals MVP to go with his second consecutive NBA championship. But rather than focusing on his individual accomplishment, after the Warriors finished off the Cavaliers in Game 4 Durant was more focused on what his team did.
It feels great to go out there and win a championship with these guys, the way we did it. Like Draymond said earlier, it’s the season, it was just an up-and-down season, so many guys got hurt. We were going through so much. When Pat McCaw went down, that put a lot on us emotionally as a team, and we got through that. I feel like we had a lot of those episodes throughout the year. To finish it off with a championship, especially in a sweep, it feels so good.
Between his personal accomplishments and playing such an important role in back-to-back championship seasons, Durant has cemented his place in Warriors history. The Warriors have helped Durant to become the best player he could be and, in turn, Durant has helped these Warriors become the best version of this team that they could be.
Durant is a part of this, a part of this culture. He didn’t only come here because of it, now he’s playing a role in shaping and developing it.
Just before the onset of free agency, Durant requested and received a two-year contract from the Warriors, one that had an opt-out after the 2018-19 season (when the Warriors, by then acquiring Durant’s full Bird Rights, could offer him the longest deal possible).
The deal saved the Warriors more than $5 million in salary that could be used to bring in new players but will also lead to abundant speculation of what Durant will do in the Summer of 2019. Many see this as a portentous sign, the possibility of Durant’s non-belonging or his desire to move on sooner rather than later from the Warriors.
But as The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson wrote, it might be indicative of something more.
So, is this a Durant takeover? If it is, that only underscores Durant’s commitment to the Warriors. That means he wants this franchise.
Durant is invested. And he is sacrificing. And plotting. And, yes, keeping all his leverage. He is being a modern superstar.
What happens in the future between Durant and the Warriors remains to be seen. The one thing we do know is that Durant’s 2017-18 season was one filled with good and bad, great moments and profound struggles. But in the Finals, when the pressure was the greatest and things mattered the most, Durant turned in a performance for the ages that was instrumental in the Warriors repeating as NBA champions.
What grade would you give Kevin Durant for his 2017-18 season?
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