For someone who thought less than six weeks ago that he’d broken his leg, this wasn’t half bad.
Kevin Durant, as evidenced by his plus-22 outing in the Golden State Warriors’ 123-101 win over the New Orleans Pelicans at Oracle Arena on Saturday night, is not only healthy again but still very good at this game of basketball.
The mid-range pull-up, with that impossible-to-guard sweep through leading up to it, was still there on this night where he finished with 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting. The fluid motion on drives, those long strides that cover so much ground, were as effective as ever. The defensive impact hasn’t gone anywhere, either, that pride he takes in hitting the glass (a game-high 10 rebounds in all) and pushing the tempo as a playmaker for the league’s best offense (six assists). And most of all, after Durant’s worst fears about a leg break weren’t realized and he had to recover from the Grade 2 MCL sprain and tibial bone bruise of his left knee suffered back on Feb. 28., the smile is still there too.
Even when the rest of the Warriors might have been grimacing.
Early in the fourth quarter, as the Stephen Curry-less Warriors pulled away from a Pelicans team that was without its ferocious frontcourt of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, Durant flew past David West’s high screen and was bumped by big man Alexis Ajinca as he barreled through the lane. He was like a train off the tracks, falling to his right and planting that left leg that, not so long ago, had sparked so much speculation that the Warriors’ title hopes were in jeopardy.
No one could have blamed everyone from Warriors owner Joe Lacob on down for being nervous. But Durant — after getting help from two teammates to get up off his backside — rose with a smile and headed to the free-throw line.
Translation after one game with Durant back in the fold: the Warriors, winners of 14 consecutive games and an NBA-best 66-14 overall, are all alone as front-runners heading into these looming playoffs. With all involved well aware of all those lessons they learned with Durant before Zaza Pachulia’s head sidelined him in that game against the Washington Wizards, he’s back just in time to make a great team even better.
As surviving without a superstar goes, you can’t do much better than the Warriors did without Durant. This went well beyond winning games — 15 of 19 in all during that stretch — and all the way into defiant dominance. Their net rating, the figure that’s widely seen as the most accurate indicator of team-wide performance, was lapping-the-field during that span (first in the NBA at plus-11, with the Portland Trail Blazers a distant second at plus-6.5, and just below the league-leading 12.5 mark that Golden State posted before Durant went down). Their defense, which was second in the NBA as Durant emerged as their top rim protector (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), was somehow even better without him (100 points allowed per, tied with San Antonio for the league’s best mark during that time).
The only drop-off, and coincidentally the very area that Durant is best equipped to assist, was on the offensive end. The Warriors pre-Durant injury were the league’s best (113.9 points scored per 100), while they were just seventh in the NBA without him (111). All of which is to say that the Warriors, who had plenty of time to learn about maximizing Durant during his four healthy months, are in prime position here to merge the best of both worlds.
They look headed for a first-round matchup against the Trail Blazers, a team that — especially with the broken leg suffered by big man Jusuf Nurkic recently — simply doesn’t have the firepower to put up much of a fight. With Curry (left knee contusion) expected to return for Monday’s game against Utah and the Warriors set to host the Lakers on Wednesday, Durant still has a runway here to regain his rhythm. And impressive as these past few weeks have been, there’s not a person inside the Warriors organization who doesn’t realize how valuable his elite scoring abilities will be when they’re pushing into June.
But as Durant had shared in those weeks after the injury, there was a short time in those initial days when he thought his season would be over by now. The doctors had expressed concerns that there was a fracture in the leg, and everything he dreamed of last July when he made that unpopular decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder behind in free agency had disappeared in a flash.
In the end, the break came in the form of an updated diagnosis. And now, with Durant back to his old self after just one game, the Warriors are looking as unstoppable as ever.