Kevin Durant’s invisible masterpiece

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Kevin Durant’s invisible masterpiece

For the second straight game, Kevin Durant was clearly the best basketball player on the floor for the Warriors or Rockets. Durant has been completely unstoppable scoring the ball: in two games, he has 75 points in 56 shooting possessions. Given his threes and free throws, it’s the equivalent of shooting 67 percent on two-pointers at high volume. That’s come against one of the league’s best defenses on the road. It’s unreal.

On Wednesday, the box score came out to a game-high 38 points on 26 shooting possessions. The Rockets have no modicum of a defensive answer for Durant. Durant can do basically anything he wants with the basketball at any time, and has.

Yet the Rockets won Game 2 by 22. The Warriors were outscored by 28 when Durant, in all his offensive glory, was on the floor.

There’s a long-running debate about Durant and Stephen Curry’s relative importance to the Warriors’ success. At this point in their respective careers, it’s hard to argue that Curry is the better basketball player, especially given Durant’s defensive ability when locked in. (His defense was absolutely not locked in for Game 2, perhaps due to the offensive load he carried or perhaps due to the fact that the Rockets’ offense is devastating.)

Game 2 is an important, representative evidence point in this debate. Curry was shut down: he scored just 16 points on 19 shots, with just a single three and a single free throw. Whenever Curry has a bad game, murmurs about injury enter the conversation, almost as if only pain can explain an off-night. Curry looked as healthy as anyone else, though.

He looked tired, to be sure, and rightfully so: he is Golden State’s weakest perimeter defender, so Houston targeted him repeatedly with James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon on switches. And certainly on the other end, Clint Capela — as good a defensive center on the perimeter as there is in the NBA, with the possible exception of Anthony Davis — made Curry’s signature dribble dances look less potent.

But Curry didn’t look injured out there. He looked flustered and frustrated by an exhausting effort on defense and a tough shooting night.

(How interesting that so much conversation centers on a Curry injury for which there is little evidence versus Chris Paul’s blatantly obvious ankle injury, which had him limping around and receiving treatment on the bench. CP3 had 16 points on 14 shots and availed himself well on defense, for what it’s worth.)

In Game 1, Durant was incredible and Curry was fine. The Warriors won. In Game 2, Durant was incredible, Curry wasn’t. The Warriors lost. These results feed directly into the narrative that while Durant may be a better player than Curry, it is Curry who is more important to the Warriors’ success. This is a sensible theory.

But let’s dig one level deeper.

Because Houston hesitates to send help on Durant, his scoring explosion happens in a bit of a vacuum. The Rockets infrequently doubled KD as he was setting the nets on fire in Game 2, and never off of Curry. This is a smart strategy. If you try to put out the fire around Durant by helping off Curry (or Klay Thompson, for that matter) you risk having two fires to deal with it.

The Rockets don’t really have a defensive answer for Durant, because no one in the world does. No one has for like eight years. Houston’s only true big man playing in this series is Clint Capela, who isn’t quite quick enough to keep Durant from getting to the rim and is too valuable at the rim himself. Trevor Ariza has gotten most of the individual work on Durant when Golden State hasn’t forced a switch, and Ariza is a really good defender that’s just too short to bother KD’s shot.

Houston switches just about everything. Golden State most frequently tries to get Harden (Houston’s worst defender by an enormous margin, though only because Ryan Anderson is relegated to garbage time) or the comparatively tiny CP3 switched onto Durant. The Rockets are comfortable allowing Durant to cook in those situations, bringing help only when it’s available off of a shooter Houston doesn’t fear. (Draymond Green is the No. 1 candidate for this.)

Since there’s no good for answer for Durant, Houston is, in a way, drawing a containment line around him. Let Durant burn, but make sure his heat doesn’t set off fires elsewhere in the Warriors’ attack. It worked in Game 2: Durant dropped an easy 38, and it didn’t matter a lick. Durant had one of the smoothest scoring nights of the entire NBA playoffs, and it was completely irrelevant.

That said, Durant’s scoring performance wasn’t only irrelevant because Houston contained the damage. It was irrelevant because Golden State’s defense was scattered and inattentive, and because the Warriors were careless with the ball. Durant had a deleterious role in both of those factors. He missed several rotations that resulted in open Houston threes — at least one resulted in an anger scream from Green — and he racked up five turnovers with no assists, which is really gross. (No one had registered at least five turnovers without an assist in a playoff game since Jonas Valanciunas in 2014.)

Durant’s scoring happened in a vacuum on Wednesday because Houston refused to cave in the defense around him and because Durant was pretty ineffective in all other aspects of the game.

The former point bolsters the argument that Curry is more important to the Warriors: for a variety of reasons — most prominently that he’s a point guard — Curry’s infernos spread. But the latter point, that Durant fell short in all aspects by scoring, indicates that KD actually is the more important Warrior, but for all of the reasons other than point totals and shooting percentages. When he’s sloppy with the ball and on defense, the Warriors can be beat ... provided Curry isn’t cooking.

This is where the debate always lands in the end: Durant and Curry are both really damn good, and as such, both are incredibly important to the Warriors’ success and failure. That’s a boring answer to a fascinating argument, but it doesn’t make it any less true.