Without Steph Curry racing around screens, penetrating at will, and existing as an infinity threat whenever on the floor, it's oddly easy to forget all the ways Kevin Durant is offensive strategy unto himself.
The San Antonio Spurs were reminded in Game 1, as Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr opted to stray ever so slightly from the team's usual untamable offense by putting the ball in his best player's hands. The Warriors attacked the Spurs over and over again with Durant running a pick-and-roll—the most basic yet effective action in basketball—and it let him showcase all the different reasons why there's no obvious strategy to slow him down.
During the regular season, possessions in which Durant operated as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll accounted for 28.1 percent of his offense. The concept wasn’t foreign—Durant has more than enough experience reading defensive rotations off the dribble—and the Warriors still found plenty of success in their playoff opener with typical half-court chaos, plopping Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala at the top of the arc to let them survey for swift split cuts that would eventually lead to a deflating and inevitable reel of dunks and layups.
But in Game 1, Durant had the ball in his hands more often than usual, and the percentage of possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler jumped to 37.1 percent. By letting a four-time scoring champ dictate half-court possessions earlier in the shot clock, Golden State forced San Antonio’s defense to answer even more complicated questions. Durant ended the game with an assist rate of 35.0 percent, a number he only crossed six times during the regular season (two of those games were in April and one saw him get ejected before halftime in a recent loss against the Milwaukee Bucks). It's about double his career postseason average, and seven points higher than his season average in minutes played without Curry.
At the start, whenever he received a high ball screen, Durant’s man would go over it while the screener’s defender would stay high to prevent a pull up jumper. Ideally, a third defender would then help off one of Golden State’s less threatening shooters (Green, Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, etc.) and cover the roll man.
Early on, the Warriors made that nearly impossible. They put Green in the dunker’s spot and Klay Thompson on the opposite wing as JaVale McGee rumbled down the lane for a series of easy baskets. Below, Patty Mills isn’t helping off Thompson and Danny Green has to defend two players who’re a lot larger and stronger than he is.
The very same action also worked in the second quarter, even after San Antonio added more size to their frontcourt by having Pau Gasol defend the screener and LaMarcus Aldridge take care of Green.
Golden State ran it in the opposite direction, too, clearing one side of the floor as Durant went middle. Even though Danny Green is exactly where he’s supposed to be and makes a play on the first shot, McGee gathers the miss and draws a foul. (According to Synergy Sports, McGee finished in the 95th percentile as a roll man during the regular season.)
The Spurs had some success when Kevon Looney was the screener, particularly whenever he caught Durant’s pass outside the paint with no real momentum leading him towards the basket. And a couple times they lucked out when Durant pulled up over a decent contest and missed a shot he’s still perfectly able to drill.
But even after San Antonio began to plug the roll man with even more assertiveness as the game went on, Durant answered by reading the defense and making the right pass. Here he is hitting Iguodala with a skip as Dejounte Murray camps out in the lane.
And on the play below, Durant flips the ball back to Green once he sees Rudy Gay so deep in the paint.
Of course, these sequences are exactly what the Spurs want. Iguodala made 25 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this season while Green was only at 30.8 percent. The “recipe” to “stop” Golden State over the past few years has been to help off those weaker options and force them to make you pay. Any direct route to a certain death is more acceptable than Durant rising up from 24 feet or Thompson having an extra split second to square his frame towards the rim.
The Warriors don’t run a ton of pick-and-roll for that very reason. They’d rather make use of Green and Iguodala as passers and cutters than underline parts of their game that aren’t as effective. But leaving them open sounds like a nice plan until they combine to make six or seven threes, and leveraging Durant’s impact with the ball in his hands still opens up avenues for everybody else. McGee, Looney, and even David West were useful (for the most part) catching the ball in a four-on-three situation, and should Golden State choose to set ball screens for Durant in Game 2 with Green or Iguodala, there’s really nothing San Antonio can do.
The Spurs can always switch a wing onto Durant, but, as we saw multiple times in Game 1 whenever the Warriors ran him off a cross screen or pin-down to force a favorable matchup, the temperature in the building actually rose 700 degrees the second he caught the ball.
Changing the match-ups might be a start for Gregg Popovich. Starting the game with a wing (Rudy Gay or Kyle Anderson) on McGee, Danny Green on Durant, and a big (Aldridge/Gasol) on Iguodala might be a temporary solution. (I'd also put Mills on Iguodala and Murray on Thompson, because that matchup was a nightmare in Game 1.)
It’d allow San Antonio to clog the lane with more consistent size, keep Durant on the perimeter, and switch ball screens without as much worry. This isn’t a long-term answer, though, and Golden State could still rip San Antonio's heart from it's chest with any number of available adjustments.
But unless they want to switch Gasol or Aldridge onto KD, it’s probably a slightly better form of resistance than what we saw in Game 1. Stopping Durant isn't even Popovich's number one concern in the series (that'd be "scoring points"), but his top-five defense will get systematically shredded if they show the same looks.
As for the Warriors, it's nice for Durant to get reps running more pick-and-roll with Curry on the sideline, but things should go back to the way they were once the two-time MVP returns. At the end of the day, the variety of efficient ways Golden State can beat you remains unfair. Game 1 served as a scary reminder.