It was a weird night in Oracle Arena. LeBron James, the Lakers’ superstar, sat out against the Warriors due to what was termed as “load management,” spurred by him waking up that morning feeling sore — and evoking memories of General Soreness and his meme’d-to-death excuse for refusing to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It was a weird night for Stephen Curry, who finished the night with 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting (2-of-9 from three). Twelve of those 14 points came during the fourth quarter, where he finally realized that the Warriors were in the middle of a game and proceeded to torch the Lakers within a matter of minutes.
Even if Curry is considered the best and most important player on the team, it is still good to have fellow All-Stars to carry the load when he is having an abysmal night. Klay Thompson finished the game with 28 points; DeMarcus Cousins had his first double-double of the season, finishing with 18 points and 10 rebounds; Draymond Green dished out 7 assists with 0 turnovers, as well as being active on the defensive end.
But perhaps the most glaring performance was from Kevin Durant, who finished the night with a double-double of 21 points and 11 assists, all while staying true to his efficient ways by shooting 8-of-13 from the field (61.5 percent).
Durant is a bonafide scorer; it is a given that he will get his share of points and do so in an extremely efficient manner. But like other elite superstars, Durant isn’t content on being known for one thing and one thing only. His passion for the game compels him to keep on adding to his overall repertoire, not too dissimilar to the manner through which a video game protagonist is slowly built up and boosted through the accumulation of skill points. Through constant practice and a deep passion for the game, Durant added several skill points and improved the other facets of his game.
So far this season, Durant is averaging a career-high on assists — 6.0, per Basketball-Reference.com. It’s easy for a deadly scorer like him to succumb to tunnel vision and resort to one-on-one isolations without trying to use his gravity to set up his teammates — and he has occasionally fallen victim to such tendencies. But more often than not, he has developed the mindset of trying to move the ball around and using the threat of his scoring to allow others around him to score.
Let’s break down Durant’s exceptional night as a playmaker and distributor.
The Warriors are fond of stationing Durant on the low-post and letting him operate from that position. It allows him to use his height to see over most defenders, giving him the luxury of choice: either try to score one-on-one, or find an open man on the perimeter or on cuts and dives.
When the Warriors push the pace in transition after the Lakers miss a shot, Green sees up ahead that Durant has a mismatch on the post against Rajon Rondo. Rondo tries his best to deny the pass, but Durant’s size is too much, and he is physically overpowered. This forces Ivica Zubac to come over and rotate, leaving Cousins wide open under the rim to receive Durant’s bounce pass and the dunk.
Even off of made baskets by the opponent, the Warriors look to push the pace to take advantage of defenses that are lax in going back to the other end. Curry throws a long pass ahead to Green, who in turn passes it out to Durant on the wing. Durant surveys the floor and sees Thompson cutting inside, and his pass is beautifully timed to coincide with the cut. Thompson takes care of the rest by laying in the shot.
In this possession, the Lakers try out a bold tactic: doubling Durant. But it is a poor and weak double that fails to put any sort of effective pressure; all it manages to accomplish is to leave Andre Iguodala wide open to stroll toward the rim and receive the pass from Durant, who is more than capable of passing out of a double team.
The Warriors run their classic low-post split with Durant as the designated low-post decision-maker. Meanwhile, the Splash Brothers execute the split on the perimeter, with Thompson diving inside as a result of being overplayed by Kyle Kuzma. Durant’s well-timed pass finds Thompson for the easy layup.
The most eye-catching moment of the night came courtesy of a Durant assist. The Warriors run a simple 3-5 pick-and-roll with Durant and Cousins, an action that has proven to be deadly in previous games. The Lakers opt to defend this by doubling/blitzing Durant — but once again, the double is weak. Durant threads the needle with a beautiful pocket pass, and the rolling Cousins receives the ball and steamrolls all over Kuzma.
With the Warriors having woken up from their mid-game hibernation, they force a turnover, with Durant passing the ball ahead to a streaking Iguodala. As he has often done several times during this season, Iguodala defies Father Time and goes up for the earth-shattering dunk over the man he gave a championship ring to earlier that night.
In this possession, another double team comes Durant’s way. But he is doubled by two players who are much smaller than him. He simply uses his height to survey the court, and sees that Quinn Cook is the man left open. A skip pass to Cook on the weak side leads to a wide-open jumper.
With Durant being the sole immediate threat on offense, the Lakers have their undivided attention focused toward him. Handling the ball up top, they neglect to stay close to shooters on the perimeter. Durant takes advantage of this relaxed defensive stance by passing the ball to Alfonzo McKinnie in the left corner, who promptly buries the three.
The Lakers insist on throwing double teams toward Durant, but he continually makes them pay for doing so. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leaves Iguodala to double Durant on the left block, and Durant immediately passes to the open man. Iguodala goes up for the wide-open three and knocks it down.
Durant links up with Curry in this possession, where the two-time MVP’s penchant for being perpetually in motion allows him to knock down a three. Curry gives up the ball and immediately loops around toward the right wing. Meanwhile, Durant’s eyes are tracking Curry — he fakes a drive inside and whips the ball to Curry for the catch-and-shoot three.
The continuing evolution of Durant as an all-around player is a sight to behold. Glimpses of his improvement as a playmaker were present during his later years with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Being integrated into a system where sharing the ball is highly encouraged and rewarded only served to bring out those tendencies to the forefront.
Durant’s much-improved passing ability was on full display against the Lakers, who were hell-bent on taking advantage of the Warriors’ overall lack of enthusiasm by giving them a brief scare during the second half. On a night where the Lakers wanted to instill chaos and disorder, Durant’s passing was one of the shining beacons that provided much-needed stability and order to the Warriors.
Durant has been widely praised and appreciated for turning scoring into a graceful and beautiful form of art. Perhaps it is time to look past that and also consider him as one of the elite wing passers in the league.
Fifty-two down, 30 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.