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Without Kevin Durant, the '19 Warriors must become the '16 Warriors

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Kevin Durant limps off the court in Game 5 Wednesday. (AP Photo)
Kevin Durant limps off the court in Game 5 Wednesday. (AP Photo)


To pull the upset and advance to the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets must win two games in a row against the 2016 Golden State Warriors.

That’s right. The 2016 Warriors.

You remember the ’16 Warriors, of course. The team that famously went 73-9, setting an NBA record for victories in a season, then rallied from a three games to one deficit against the Thunder in the West finals only to lose their own 3-1 lead against Cleveland and lose the NBA Finals.

Those Warriors seemed like such a quaint and charming team, even if they weren’t. Those Warriors are hard to remember during the three reign-of-terror years since Kevin Durant joined Golden State so the NBA Playoffs could be more coronation than competition.

But the 2016 Warriors are back in the wake of Durant’s injury suffered in Game 5 of the West semifinals Wednesday night. Golden State held on to beat Houston 104-99 and take a 3-2 lead in the series, but it seems unlikely that Durant will return for Game 6 and perhaps even a potential Game 7, due to what the Warriors termed a “calf strain” but what looked much worse.

And a series that has included five straight close games forges ahead with the Warriors using a roster very much like their 2016 group.

In the 2016 playoffs, the top seven Warriors in minutes were Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudala, Harrison Barnes, Steph Curry, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut, followed by Leandro Barbosa and Festus Ezeli.

The 2019 minutes played list goes like: Durant, Thompson, Green, Curry, Igoudala, Kevin Looney, Livingston, Alfonzo McKinnie and Bogut.

Golden State essentially traded Barnes to make way for Durant’s signing, and has found Looney and McKinnie to fill the Barbosa/Ezeli roles.

So without Durant, the Warriors are back close to their 2016 version, except everyone is older and Barnes is a Sacramento King.

The question becomes, as it relates to the rest of this series against Houston, is can Golden State play now the way it played in 2016?

Those Warriors were hailed as basketball savants. A team of many ballhandlers and shooters and skilled craftsmen of the game. In recent years, they’ve taken to calling their small-ball lineup – Durant, Green, Igoudala, Curry and Thompson – the Hamptons Five, in honor of the Long Island region where the latter four journeyed to talk Durant into joining their band in summer 2016. But when Barnes was part of those four, it was called the Death Lineup, because it was so effective, especially late in games. The Death Lineup was hard to guard and still able to function defensively at a high level.

Of course, the NBA didn’t know what death was until Durant joined those four and made the Warriors unbeatable.

But along the way, Golden State lost its charm, and not just because of Durant’s tilting of the balance of power. The Warriors don’t play the way they once did. All that sweet ball movement? Not so much of that anymore. Especially during these playoffs, Golden State reverts to isolation, more often than not with Durant, who might finally have stolen from LeBron James the mantle of world’s greatest player. Curry, too, does a lot of one-on-one dribbling. It’s the nature of the game these days, embodied by the Rockets. Even the Celtics, hailed 15 minutes ago as a bastion of great coaching, have skidded. Boston was unceremoniously ushered out of the Eastern Conference playoffs Wednesday night amid a long line of drudgery games against Milwaukee, with the free-flowing Celtic offense long lost in a sea of Kyrie Irving dribbles.

Referees have gone whistle-happy -- again, courtesy of the Rockets – and teams have figured out that refs don’t call fouls on passes. So the game has stagnated in recent years, and those beautiful-game Warriors are a thing of the past.

Can they resurrect themselves against the Rockets? Golden State is having a devil of a time beating Houston with Durant. How can Golden State beat Houston without Durant? Only by finding their old self. When the ball moved and Thompson and Curry found open 3-pointers off the catch, not the dribble, and Igoudala and Green supplied great defense, and Barnes was a jack of all trades. There is no Barnes now, so coach Steve Kerr will have to improvise. McKinnie? Jonas Jerebko? Quinn Cook?

Curry and Thompson have not been themselves in these playoffs. Thompson was hot Wednesday night, making five of 10 3-pointers to raise his series percentage to .361. But Curry has made just 15 of 57, .263.

Frankly, the entire Golden State team seems to have adopted the stance that it will stand around and watch Durant do his magic. Durant is averaging 33.2 points a game in this series, shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range.

Durant is a marvelous player, but while making the Warriors virtually unbeatable, he’s changed the Warriors. They are not who they used to be.

And now Durant figures to be gone for at least a short term. Can the Warriors rediscover what made them great in the first place?

Related Photos
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, center, limps off the court during the second half of Game 5 of the team's second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, center, limps off the court during the second half of Game 5 of the team's second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-1c6308d47a2d67cbaf8d1f0a93b09588.jpg" alt="Photo - Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, center, limps off the court during the second half of Game 5 of the team's second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)" title="Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, center, limps off the court during the second half of Game 5 of the team's second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)"><figcaption>Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, center, limps off the court during the second half of Game 5 of the team's second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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