Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals felt familiar, as the Warriors dominated the Blazers as they’ve done twice in the past in the playoffs, and did so in the way that first made them the league’s best team back before the addition of Kevin Durant.
With Durant out, it was Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson that flew around on the perimeter, working tirelessly on and off the ball to create open looks for themselves, resulting in a three-point barrage that, ultimately, blew away Portland. Curry hit nine threes himself, many of which came courtesy of the Blazers’ much talked about drop coverage, in which Enes Kanter was regularly sitting back in the paint while the best shooter of all-time came around a screen to walk into a wide open three.
The Blazers were widely panned for their coverage in Game 1, and rightfully so, but it’s been awhile since we saw that version of the Warriors. Durant’s presence changes the way Golden State plays, as he’s more ball dominant and they are far more isolation heavy, with much less quick ball movement, when he’s on the floor. That’s not to say that isn’t effective, it just presents a very different challenge to the defense — one in which you have to figure out how to contain a 7-foot tall monster who might be the best scorer in league history.
While that’s a challenge, the plan is often fairly simple and doesn’t require tons of thought — executing that plan, however, is much, much harder. Blazers guard Seth Curry, who knows Steph’s game as well as anyone, noted that difference in playing style ahead of Game 2 when he admitted it is harder to defend Golden State without Durant than with him to The Athletic’s Sam Amick.
“I think they are harder to guard (without Durant),” Seth said. “They move around faster when he’s not out there. They’re definitely not a better team, but they’re harder to guard. Obviously, they play a different style of basketball when Steph and Klay (Thompson) are the focal points offensively, and we haven’t played that team in a while. We’ve got to reshift our focus and make some adjustments coming into Game 2.”
Seth is sure to include that they’re not a better team, just that they’re harder to guard. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in the basketball world that disagrees, as watching the Warriors in Game 6 against Houston and Game 1 against Portland was night and day to what we saw prior to that with KD. With Durant the pressure points are less, but it’s because he is, on his own, nearly impossible to stop. That makes coverage fairly simple, just extremely difficult to actually do anything about him even when in the correct spots.
Without Durant, the pressure is spread out far more. The ball moves much faster around the court, as do the players, which forces a defense to communicate significantly better and, often, results in more lapses and wide open shot attempts, inside and outside, because sometimes two people run to the same person. That was what we saw a lot in Game 1, and if the Blazers are going to have any chance in Game 2, they’ll have to clean that up as much as they’ll need to adjust their pick-and-roll coverages.
Seth isn’t firing shots at Durant, he’s just noting the honest truth about the Warriors that many don’t want to say because it seems like a slight against KD. He undoubtedly makes them better — two titles is proof enough — but while he elevates their floor tremendously, on offense, there is a slightly lower ceiling with him. They’re always going to be terrifying with him out there, but when he’s not and it’s the Steph and Klay show, they are more likely to absolutely run an opponent off the floor.
With Durant, a midrange assassin and unbelievably efficient isolation scorer, they kill you with brute force. Without him, it’s a greater spectacle that, when it starts running a defense around frantically, can unleash unbelievable onslaughts in the most beautiful of ways.