In 2016, the Golden State Warriors broke the single season record for most wins in the NBA with 73, a feat that no one expected to happen.
And as a longtime basketball fan, watching that 2016 Warriors team was a blessing from the heavens. Because more than the substance and wins, they always had this flair of playing basketball, a unique style that made their brand truly special. They were always THE show and everyone just had to tune in and wait for some basketball magic to happen.
But then, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers happened. And the NBA’s Thanos himself instantly snapped the of the Warriors’ amazing accomplishment and left them with the only record that they will always be remembered: being the only team to blew a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals.
The Warriors knew they needed to reassemble.
Enter Kevin Durant.
In one offseason, the 73 win team, just got better. No, wait. Adding KD in the fold made them the best.
To put things in perspective, here are some of the insane accomplishments of the Warriors ever since Durant joined the fray.
– Netted an amazing 114.8 offensive efficiency during the regular season
– Broke the best record in postseason history finishing with 16-1
– Dismantled the defending champions Cavaliers in five games
– Kevin Durant, Finals MVP
– Posted a record +153 point differential in the third quarter during the postseason
– Overcame a series deficit to eliminate the league-leading Houston Rockets on the road in Game 7
– Swept LeBron and JR Smith in the NBA Finals
– Kevin Durant, Finals MVP
Fast forward to two championships later and the Warriors are now the NBA’s inevitable. The 2016 Finals letdown is now on the shelf and Durant is already making the case as the best player in the world today posting 26.0 points per game on 52.1 % shooting, 6.4 rebounds per game, 5.9 assists per game in the regular season while averaging 34.2 points on 51.3 percent shooting, 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game in the postseason.
But just as the 3-1 jokes are slowly fading away with the presence of KD’s greatness, the fun and joy of watching the Warriors brand of basketball seemed to follow. Don’t get me wrong, the Warriors with Durant are still a feast for the eyes. But because their team is so great and talented, watching them play becomes a little less exciting.
That is, until, Durant went down with a calf strain injury in Game 5 of their West Semis matchup against the Rockets.
The injury to the Warriors’ best player was supposed to be the end of their dynasty. It was supposed to be their ultimate nightmare. But instead, what we got was a rebirth, a blessing in disguise, and a reminder that they are the defending champions for a reason.
Having KD on the court requires a little less ball movement than usual because he is the best one-on-one scorer in basketball. They found a failsafe in Durant. When their offense stalled or slowed down, the team could put the ball in Durant’s hands whenever they needed a basket. Golden State didn’t have that option when Durant went down in this year’s Playoffs.
In their Western Finals series sweep against Portland, the beautiful machinery of the pre-KD Warriors, the one that everybody used to love and enjoy, was brought back to life.
Steph Curry, a player who willingly took a step back when Durant arrived, may have just found that fabled DeLorean parked in his garage. The MVP Steph of old was back, averaging a ridiculous 36.5 points on 46.9% shooting, including 42.6% from the three-point land. He also recorded 8.3 rebounds per game and 7.3 assists per game.
Klay Thompson, the incoming free agent who was reportedly tired of being the third fiddle on this Warriors team, became the second option again. More than his offense, he took on the challenge as the primary defender of Damian Lillard, who was having a magnificent postseason. He used his defensive wits to put Lillard in tight situations against the Warrior defense and limited him to just 22.3 points per game on a mediocre 37% shooting.
Draymond Green, the loud and annoying all-around power forward that everyone loves to hate, became the heart and soul of the team again. He quietly impacted, actually, dominated the series with his passing skills and ability to push the basketball. He was able to dictate the pace of the game, and was back to being the defensive anchor of the team.
The Warriors, always heralded as the unfair super team of the NBA, became the Warriors of old again. A systematic, cohesive group where players like Kevon Looney and Alfonso McKinnie provided quality minutes. They were back to being a team where split screen actions involving Steph and Klay and Dray were executed beautifully. Facing the Warriors meant no double digit leads were safe. Facing them meant every possession became and exhausting battle because their players were continuously in motion looking for open shots with or without the basketball.
Without Kevin Durant, the Warriors are easier to root for. Their system, heart and the never say die attitude are easier to watch and appreciate.
But they are not better.
As Thompson said of Durant, “He’s our best player.” No lies found. “To get this three-peat, we desperately need him back.”
The Warriors having Durant makes them unstoppable, better in every way. That’s why Golden State needs him back for the Finals. They may be more fun without Durant. But with him, they have that championship pretty much locked-up.
Photos from Getty Images