Sleepwalking Warriors snap to behind 'ultimate weapon' Durant

NBA.com Global on Apr 27, 2019 07:07 PM
Sleepwalking Warriors snap to behind ultimate weapon Durant
OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 13: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors dunks against the LA Clippers during Game One of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 13, 2019 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

LOS ANGELES -- The only sound in a basketball game that mimics an alarm clock blaring is the final buzzer, but by then the score is official and it’s too late to wake up.

And maybe the Warriors needed seven months and 88 games to recognize this, because when you’ve won three championships in four years and bring four All-Stars in their prime and play nightly against the rank-and-file, there’s a tendency to doze off just to, you know, make things interesting.

Well, nap’s over. After Friday's (Saturday, PHL time) 129-110 victory over the Clippers, the buzzer has shifted to the opening tip, and suddenly the Warriors are aware of where they are and who they’re up against and what time it is.

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At least, those are the signals they’re giving off now, on the eve of the second round of the playoffs, when there is no better moment -- to paraphrase the noted prophet Kevin Durant -- to let folks know who you are.

They’ll be led into their next basketball battle by Durant, fresh off a fiddy, which of course is basketball slang for 5-0 points, which finally silenced the Clippers and made the basketball world revisit the belief that the Warriors are not to be denied.

This of course will be put to the test by the Rockets, arguably the biggest threat facing the Warriors between now and a June champagne sip. But really, now: If Durant plays like he has the last few games, does it really matter what James Harden and Chris Paul bring in this upcoming best-of-seven?

“He’s in a groove right now,” said Steph Curry. “Special to see.”

With the exception of last year’s Western Conference finals, when Houston took Golden State to the limit, the Durant Warriors have been one level above all others in the playoffs. The Clippers just took two from them -- despite Durant -- and nobody else claimed more than one victory in a best-of-seven. Overall, excluding that Rockets’ series, the Durants are 32-5 in the postseason, a clean 9-0 in series play.

Everything that the Warriors were projected to do once Durant signed up for duty two summers ago has come true. They’re three superstars ahead of good teams and two superstars ahead of very good teams. Right now, they’re alone on the island, the only true great team in the league, even on nights when they don’t play the part.

With all due respect to Damian Lillard, no one has has drawn more awe lately than Durant, who’s on pace to cause major problems for whomever crouches in a defensive stance before him. In the last four games, he averaged 42 points on 55 percent shooting, and at times was a singular force against the stubborn Clippers.

Remember, Steph Curry is trying to climb out of a fog, stifled and troubled by missed jumpers in the last week and momentarily sidelined Friday (Saturday, PHL time) by a tweaked right ankle, which always causes the Warriors to hold their breath. Klay Thompson, as is his pattern, went ballistic for one game, then was rather tame by comparison in the others.

“I just play my game through it all,” Durant said. “I definitely don’t want to go away from my teammates if they’re struggling to shoot the ball. But at the same time, I have to be aggressive and try to win the game as well.”

Given how leaky the Warriors’ defense looked and how carelessly they handled the ball, the one constant in the first round was Durant drilling shots from all angles and distances, especially once he confined his chatter to making shots instead of taking them at Pat Beverley, the Clippers’ All-Star instigator.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr called it “one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen” and this is someone who rode with Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan. Whether Kerr was simply caught up in the moment, it doesn’t minimize what Durant did to close out the Clippers and what he’s capable of doing against the Rockets.

“He's the ultimate weapon because there's no defense for Kevin,” Kerr said. “No matter what anybody does, he can get a good shot. And he knew we needed him badly. And he just took over the game in the first half and set a great tone.”

Durant appears to be locked in and on a mission, and if this is his last run with the Warriors, it’s morphing into a gallop. His 50 points Friday (Saturday, PHL time) were a personal playoff high and his 38 in the first half tied Charles Barkley for second on the all-time list. And this came on the heels of the 45 points he delivered in a losing Game 5 effort.

“Sometimes you come across special people and it doesn’t matter what defense you send to them,” said Clippers guard Lou Williams. “There is no scheme. There’s nothing you can do with special people. He’s one of them and he showed it. He put them guys on his shoulders. He proved exactly who people think he is, who he thinks of himself, and he did it.”

The Warriors finished with the best record in the West this season, almost on reputation or cruise control. Once again, there were lapses that seemed suspiciously like a team bored with the schedule and awaiting a summer coronation. This breezy attitude seeped into the opening round, when the Warriors choked away a 31-point lead and then lost another home game to an eighth-seeded team devoid of All-Stars. This doesn’t happen unless the heavily-favored one-seed is taking their championship rings for granted.

“I think I made a joke like this first round felt like it was two months,” said Curry. “It was just the emotional part of it, I mean, losing (DeMarcus Cousins) and a 31-point lead and trying to come back on the road and the mental investment you put into it. We’ve got to be able to flip the switch from one team to the next and that will be the biggest test.”

Well, and this might be a stretch, but expect the Warriors to show the Rockets a lot more respect. Deep down, Kerr knows losing a pair to the Clippers was perhaps the face-slap his team needed, and at the right time. The Warriors know any lapse in this series will likely be their last, and a fatal one as well.

“We know what Houston's about,” said Kerr. “We know how good they are. We've got to be ready.”

There are positive signs beyond Durant. Thompson will be the first line of defense against Harden, the league’s leading scorer this season, and Thompson is coming off a lockdown of Williams, who finally cooled and went 3-for-21 Friday (Saturday, PHL time). This will be of major importance, of course, given Harden’s usage rate and relentlessness.

“If you’re not focused,” Durant said, “he can drive past you, he shoots floaters now, he’s a strong finish with either hand and obviously the step-back three-pointers is one of his staples. He can score in a variety of ways so you have to be locked in from the beginning. You’ve got to be ready to play tough all game.”

Draymond Green is coming off a triple-double, while the aging Andre Iguodala seems springy and active, usually his profile this time of year. Yes, there’s finally perhaps a sense of urgency or at least an understanding of what’s at stake and more of an emphasis on staying woke for the Warriors.

“Obviously we would love to win every series 4-0,” said Durant. “That would be ideal. But we know it’s not really going to happen that way.”

Perhaps not. But the Durant Warriors, based on their track record, are convincing enough.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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