There is something about playing the defending champions that motivates teams to get up and throw their best punches. The logic is sound — the odds are against them, and the most likely outcome would be a defeat against a team that packs more talent in their starting line up than any other that has played in the NBA, both in the past and the present; why not just give them their best and see if they can pull off an unlikely victory?
The Miami Heat didn’t just give the Warriors their best shot — they gave them multiple best shots in the form of an unexpected barrage of three-point makes. Shooting 18-of-43 from beyond the arc (41.9 percent), the Heat gave the Warriors a difficult time in trying to defend the perimeter. For a team that is currently ranked 15th in three-point field goal percentage, the Heat certainly gave the defending champions a veiled surprise that almost brought them a huge scalp on the road.
Against most teams, such a shooting clip would be enough to contribute to a victory. Against the Warriors, it was almost sufficient, if not for the combined heroics of the Warriors’ three best players in terms of offensive production. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson all combined for 93 points that were crucial for the Warriors to overcome a night where it seemed like they would falter and crumble under the weight of a team looking to make a loud statement.
First quarter production from Durant and Curry
During the first quarter, the Warriors shot a mere 8-of-20 from the field and were hounded by a disciplined defense, drilled by one of the most accomplished and able coaches in the league in Erik Spoelstra. Six of those eight made field goals were from Curry, Durant, and Thompson — and all were important in stifling a Heat run that could’ve easily ballooned their lead to as much as twenty points.
Arguably no other superstar in the league is more willing to give more of himself for the benefit of his other teammates than Curry. Most people would prefer for him to be the ball handler, and with good reason — he is perhaps the greatest offensive player of this generation; with the ball in his hands, worlds are shattered and gravity is warped. But that does not take away from his status as one of the best players to operate without the ball in his hands. The Warriors are fond of using his gravity to set screens and open opportunities for the others to shoot or cut inside.
In this possession, the Warriors have Curry set a back screen for Durant, who cuts inside and gets the pass from Draymond Green for an easy dunk. If not for the threat of Curry as a deadly sniper who could easily pop out to the line and bury a three, then Durant would not have been able to score one of the easiest baskets of his career. The presence of Curry simply makes his teammates around him better.
The importance of Curry as an off-ball threat will always be appreciated, but Durant’s ability as a deadly one-on-one scorer is much needed when the Warriors simply need no-frills buckets. There is hardly any defender in the league that has the percentages in their favor when they are matched up with Durant, especially when he is stationed in his preferred spots in the mid-range. On pull-up two-point field goals this season, he is knocking down 50.3 percent of his shots, per NBA.com — proof that Durant is a certified behemoth in the mid-range.
But the Heat are a smart team on defense, capable of making the appropriate adjustments when needed. When Durant gets the ball in his preferred mid-range area, the defender does a great job of planting his feet and staying close to Durant to give him little to no space to pull up for a shot. Durant adjusts by putting down the ball and using his deceptive strength to pound his way inside against the smaller defender, whose efforts are ultimately rendered moot.
Meanwhile, Curry himself struggled to generate any kind of offensive rhythm in the first quarter. His only made basket was through a simple flare three made possible by masterfully directing his defender onto a solid screen from Kevon Looney.
The Splash Brothers start to cook in the second quarter
With Durant having most of the production in the first quarter, the second quarter saw the Splash Brothers knocking down several of their shots that helped the Warriors convert a ten-point deficit after the first quarter into a five-point deficit at halftime.
In addition to Durant being a deadly mid-range operator, Thompson himself is also proficient at knocking down shots that are just inside the line. On pull up two-point field goals, he is shooting at a clip of 46.5 percent; on catch-and-shoot two-point field goals, he is shooting at a rate of 46.4 percent, per NBA.com. While it would be ideal for Thompson to be shooting threes rather than the often-touted “inefficient” mid-range jumper, it is also important that Thompson — who becomes the target of tightened perimeter defense during the non-Curry and Durant minutes — knocks down his mid-range jumpers at a reliable rate.
While the first clip displays Thompson’s improved ability to shoot off the dribble, the second clip is a marvelous display at how Thompson navigates his way from one corner to the other. He uses screens to his advantage and treats the entire sequence like a traffic cone drill.
With Curry uncharacteristically struggling from three-point range, he tries to generate momentum by momentarily going away from threes and instead stepping inside the arc and shooting mid-range jumpers. Curry is a master at using high screens to break free from his defender, proceeding to step inside and knocking down open looks.
Curry is even more proficient the closer he gets to the rim. On shots that are less than 10 feet away from the rim, he is shooting at a clip of 62.9 percent, per NBA.com, which is proof of his elite ability to make his way inside and finish through a variety of ways. On the third and final clip of this series of possessions, he uses his patented floater to finish over several defenders.
Curry’s approach to slowly building up his offensive groove pays off, as he knocks down two three-point shots near the end of the quarter that allows the Warriors to maintain a steady momentum going into the intermission. The first three comes courtesy of a simple high screen from Looney that gives Curry an open look at the basket against drop coverage, while the second three is made possible through the efforts of Green, whose offensive rebound gives Curry another opportunity to bury a long range shot.
Third quarter explosion from the Big Three
Down by five points to start the second half, the Warriors manage to churn out a 36-23 third quarter thanks in huge part to Curry, Durant, and Thompson.
Curry opens the scoring for the Warriors by knocking down a three in transition, after Durant blocks a shot from behind. The Heat fail to keep track of the trailing Curry, who makes them pay for leaving him wide open.
Thompson follows this up with a three of his own. After a Curry and Durant interchange is shut down, the Warriors flow into a secondary option. Thompson makes his way toward Green and receives the hand-off, while simultaneously using Green as a screener to go up for the shot that he knocks down.
Meanwhile, Durant continues to be an absolute scoring machine by scoring 14 points in the third quarter, with 12 of them coming from a variety of mid-range shots and a drive to the basket. But the most eye-catching bucket comes from a baseline back door cut from Durant, who is able to take advantage of terrible transition defense from the Heat with help from a perfectly-timed bounce pass from Green.
But the quarter wouldn’t be complete without another Curry three. The Warriors go to their tried and tested 1-3 pick-and-roll, with Durant setting a screen for Curry to force a switch. Curry immediately pulls up and knocks down the shot.
Thompson and Durant close out the game
With Durant and Curry sitting out for rest, Thompson becomes the main shooting option for the Warriors. Times like these are when the Warriors rely on Thompson’s full arsenal of offensive skills, and more often than not, he doesn’t disappoint.
With help from solid screen-setting from DeMarcus Cousins and Looney, Thompson gets free for several mid-range and and three-point shots. His last three comes at the 5:35 mark of the quarter, courtesy of staggered screens from Curry and Looney. After this field goal, no other Warrior — save for two clutch free throws from Cousins to seal the victory at the end — would score.
With the Heat fighting back with a vengeance, the Warriors would rely on Durant’s 11 fourth quarter points to carry them the rest of the way, starting with another baseline backdoor cut from Durant and an excellent pass by Green, which is highly reminiscent of Durant’s backdoor cut from the third quarter.
These two mid-range shots from Durant are from two identical plays. Curry’s screen force a switch, and Durant simply buries shots that he knocks down at an elite level.
After Durant gets blocked by Dwyane Wade, the Warriors commit a boneheaded turnover that gives the Heat a three-point lead. With under a minute left in the game, Durant would come up big — as he has done several times in the past — with this step back three to tie the game. It would be his first and only three of the night.
On nights like these, James Harden’s “There’s only one ball” comment back in 2016 remind us of how hollow that statement turned out to be. Yes, there is only one ball — but one ball placed in the hands of a team who knows how to share it, how to use it, and who to give it to during certain times is more deadly than one ball that spends most of its time in the hands of only one player.
That one ball spent a lot of time between Curry, Durant, and Thompson, whose 93 combined points were proof that all three of them are truly deserving of going to Charlotte and being designated as NBA All-Stars. All three of them shone brighter than everyone else on Sunday night — but in the end Durant shone the brightest.
Kevin Durant was 10-of-11 on mid-range Js tonight.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 11, 2019
When push came to shove, Durant rose above everyone else and took it upon himself to be the closer that he has always been. Amid the current atmosphere of rampant speculation and drama that may or may not be warranted, the Warriors continue to turn a deaf ear to the outside noise. And while those rumors won’t go away any time soon, Durant will continue to push back and let his play do most of the talking.
Fifty-five down, 27 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.