Before his right calf injury on Wednesday, Kevin Durant not only led the Golden State Warriors in scoring, he was the top scorer in every NBA playoff. While the Warriors face the Houston Rockets on the road in Game 6 (Friday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) without KD, how they replace their incredible 34.2 points per game this postseason is the most important question.
Can Golden State find new and reliable ways to score? In a series in which all five games have been decided by six points or less, the answer to that question can determine who reaches the Western Conference finals. The points are the last coin in these games, and Durant has scored a whopping 29 percent of the Warriors' points this postseason.
His shooting frame leaves little doubt that he is one of the best scorers in the world, but he is also by far the most competent 2-point threat from the Warriors. Durant has scored 90 2-point shots in the playoffs; Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have combined to make 91.
Still, if there is one team that can absorb their loss, it is the Oakland team. Any conversation about the replacement of KD should affect three key elements: punctuation, depth and defense.
All eyes will be on Curry, the two times Most Valuable Player and the best marksman known to man, to ignite the offense. Its rate of use in this postseason is 25.2 percent, lower than that of Pascal Siakam. It has an average of 23.5 PPG. Curry has to take over, and both his use and his score have to increase.
That will not be easy. Curry has never averaged more than 28.3 PPG in the playoffs, so it is not reasonable to expect him to replace more than a fraction of Durant's score load, particularly in a world where Houston can now badign much more defensive attention to reduce his style.
From Houston's perspective, Durant's absence releases the defensive resources of PJ Tucker. For second spectrum tracking, Tucker has faced Durant more than twice as many times as any other Houston defender in this series. With Durant on the sidelines, Tucker will probably spend more time chasing Curry and Draymond Green.
Tucker has a way of reducing the effectiveness of both types. Each player has exhibited decreases in use, shooting efficiency and score when compared against him in the last two seasons.
Curry and Green vs. PJ Tucker
|Curry (vs. JP)||Curry (vs. HOU)||Green (vs. PJ)||Green (vs. HOU)|
|Points / 100||23.6||31.1||8.1||13.3|
|Source: Second spectrum from 2017-18.|
Replacing the 34 points by KD contest is a huge task, and it will be a team effort. Curry and Thompson must be on the front line of that push. They both scored 25 or more points for the first time this postseason in Game 5, which is encouraging. It's also a good barometer to watch: the Dubs are 9-3 in the playoffs when the Splash Brothers lose at least 25.
But it's not just about scoring.
No warrior has played more minutes in this postseason than Durant, and given the fact that this team was already dangerously thin after DeMarcus Cousins injury, depth is a major concern here. Head coach Steve Kerr has a total of 240 minutes to distribute to his team in Game 6. So far, Durant has chewed 16 percent of that time. Where will those minutes go?
In the Houston series, Kerr has relied heavily on an eight-man rotation that includes the Hamptons 5, Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney and Alfonzo McKinnie. But after KD fell in Game 5, Jonas Jerebko broke the rotation, and Looney played nine of the final 14 minutes of the game. These guys are good players. But not only do they represent a big step down on the offensive end, they are also a low on the defense.
The most underestimated component of Durant's game is its ability to deter cubes. It has become an impressive defensive piece for Golden State. The same combination of intelligence, skills and duration that makes him a terrifying scorer also makes him versatile and effective in defense.
For second spectrum tracking, he spent more than 75 percent of his time defending Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Harden and Chris Paul in this series. Those are Houston's top four scorers against the Warriors. The loss of Durant, the defender, means that the Rockets can look for better matches for their top scorers.
The best defensive matches of KD in this series
|Source: Second spectrum|
Durant replacements have to intensify the defense and offense, and guys like Jerebko and Looney do not scare anyone for that reason.
Durant is one of the best two-way players in the world at the moment, which means that his effectiveness is virtually impossible to completely replace. But if anyone can do it, they are the defending champions.
They have found ways to earn through injuries in the past. One of the advantages of being a super team is that the following proverbs are called Curry and Thompson.