The Golden State Warriors faced a difficult decision regarding the status of superstar forward Kevin Durant before Wednesday’s Game 2 of their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. Roughly two weeks removed from a lengthy layoff due to a knee injury, Durant suffered a left calf strain during the Warriors’ Game 1 win on Sunday and was immediately listed as questionable for the follow-up. Playing Durant would risk an aggravation but improve the Warriors’ chance at a 2-0 lead and a quick resolution to this matchup, whereas sitting him would give him plenty of rest but risk letting the Blazers back into the series.
The Warriors decided to rest KD, and the results of Wednesday’s game confirmed that they picked the correct option. The league’s No. 1 overall seed outscored Portland 33-17 in the first quarter and weathered a momentary second-quarter comeback to coast to a 110-81 blowout win. It was lopsided enough that Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, not Warriors boss Steve Kerr, was the first man to empty his bench in the fourth quarter.
Golden State took control largely via the same stellar defense that carried the club when Durant missed 19 full games (and all but two minutes of a 20th) in March and early April. The Warriors limited the Blazers to 33.3 percent shooting (30-of-90) from the field and 20.6 percent (7-of-34) from deep, figures that were both well below what they posted in a high-scoring Game 1. Star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum followed up their 75 combined points on Sunday with only 23 on Wednesday. Worse yet, both attempted 17 field goals to get there.
Portland scored fewer than 25 points in three of four quarters and only really got things going in the second. Not coincidentally, that’s when the Warriors offense began to stagnate, as Stephen Curry rested the first 4:30 of the period.
As Golden State learned in March, Curry remains an MVP-level player who can carry an elite offense by himself. But the whole point of adding Durant last summer was to ease everyone’s burden in the playoffs, and his absence on Wednesday led to some rough stretches without Curry and required some readjustments upon his reentry. Those blips were enough to let the Blazers back into the game in the second quarter, and an Evan Turner 3-pointer with 3:38 remaining cut the score to just 43-42.
For a little bit, at least, it appeared that resting Durant would force the Warriors to win ugly in a close contest. That feeling didn’t last very long.
The Warriors pushed the margin back up to nine by halftime, and a 28-12 third quarter turned the fourth quarter into extended garbage time, a rarity in any playoff game. Kerr avoided overextending any players and doled out a team-high 34 minutes to rookie Patrick McCaw, and even little-used rookie center Damian Jones got the chance to play six postseason minutes. Meanwhile, the Blazers looked resigned to making the Warriors uncomfortable in Saturday’s Game 3 at Moda Center and hoping things go better at home.
Golden State didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in Game 2, but there were several key performances in Durant’s absence. The importance of Curry (19 points on 6-of-18 FG) and Draymond Green (six points on 1-of-5 FG) goes without saying and certainly cannot be summed up by a single game’s middling scoring numbers. Simply put, the offense flows differently when they’re on the floor. For all the versatility Durant has brought to the lineup this season, these two remain the Warriors’ most essential players.
If nothing else, they deserve credit for turning JaVale McGee into a legitimate weapon.
While the 29-year-old big man offered some enticing playoff performances in his youth, few had given him much chance of contributing to a contender after several iffy seasons. But JaVale has now played two impressive games against Portland and made all seven of his field goals on Wednesday for 15 points and four blocks. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to see extended minutes against a crisper offense, but it’s a testament to what the Warriors have built that such a player can fill gaps with someone as talented as Durant sidelined. It’s hard to see McGee would be so successful on any other team.
Ultimately, it’s that organizational strength that should allow the Warriors to hold Durant out as long as necessary and still advance past Portland in short order. As long as Curry and Green are around, Golden State can beat the West’s lowest seeds. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see KD sit until the Warriors lose.
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