Nobody wants to see Kevin Durant injured, save for a handful of internet trolls who fill his social-media feeds with snake emojis. Now that he is injured, though, we are forced to grapple with the reality that the Golden State Warriors are so much more fun to watch without him, and the NBA as a whole is more entertaining as a result.
The impact of Durant’s absence, which will linger for at least another week, is twofold: The Warriors are playing a more enjoyable brand of basketball, akin to the one that made them media darlings before their super villainous turn, and they’re also more vulnerable. To a man, the Warriors will tell you they’re better with Durant.
“That’s idiotic,” Draymond Green told The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami about the idea the Warriors are better without KD, complete with some eye-rolling and head-shaking. “It’s very idiotic. I don’t think there’s one person in this locker room, one person in this organization that thinks that. And I know for damn sure that any idiot that does possibly [say] it don’t believe it.”
As Stephen Curry said after Thursday’s thrilling Game 2 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals, “We’re confident we can win, but we’d much rather have him playing.” They might even need Durant to counter Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard and beat whichever team gets out of the East.
And that’s the whole point here. The last two seasons have had an air of inevitability about them, even as the Houston Rockets pushed the Warriors to seven games in last year’s conference finals. The salary-cap jump that allowed Durant to join the Warriors tipped the scales such that they could win titles even without playing their best basketball. This is the luxury of having two MVPs in their primes on the roster.
We want the old Warriors back — the team with two shooters, Curry and Klay Thompson, who light you up from 30 feet until you chase them on the perimeter, and then they find Green, who feeds cutters for dunks from the high post. We have seen plenty of that in the past three Durant-less games, and it has been fun as hell. It’s like seeing an old friend again after he got rid of an overbearing ex-girlfriend.
Their scorching runs to erase third- and fourth-quarter deficits on Thursday were reminders of how thrilling they once were. The ball is moving, and in the chaos that creates, the Warriors thrive, running and gunning to Oracle Arena’s greatest delight. There is no NBA atmosphere better than the Bay Area embracing a Splash Brothers heat check, and there are more sparks without Durant pouring water on the fire.
Golden State’s offense is built on the philosophy that 300 passes per game is a prerequisite for their offense to work at peak efficiency, with everyone touching the ball until someone gets the best shot. Everyone’s happy, so long as you get your touches and the ball finds you open enough. It is the foundation of their success.
“If you have shooting — if you have great shooting — then the more ball movement the better, because you have guys coming off screens and … you want to make the defense have to defend for long stretches rather than just one pass and a shot,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr explained last year to Sam Amick, then of USA Today. “So we looked at the passing totals, and …  was a really key number for us.
“I just said I want the ball to move. That’s always how I’ve seen the game, and if you have Steph and Klay on your team and the ball is moving, it’s fairly obvious that it’s going to be hard to defend. So we just kind of came up with that number.”
Except, with Durant in the mix, ball movement slowed as competition heightened. It still worked, because he is one of the greatest scores in the history of the game and completely comfortable working in isolation. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.
If Golden State’s offense has looked more fluid since Durant suffered his calf strain in the second half of Game 5 in the last round, it’s because it is. The only game in which the Warriors exceeded 300 passes against Houston was Game 6, sans KD. (It took them overtime of a Game 3 loss in Houston to get to exactly 300.) After averaging 278 passes in their first five games against the Rockets, the Warriors have exceeded 300 in each of their past three games without Durant — all victories.
Another interesting wrinkle: The Warriors have covered almost the exact same amount of ground at the same rate with or without Durant, traveling roughly nine miles on offense per game at 4.5 miles per hour in these playoffs, according to the NBA’s Synergy Sports data. That means everyone is working just as hard, but they’re getting the ball less often when Durant is on the floor. Thompson has seen the steepest increase in touches since KD’s injury, getting 17 more per game.
There’s no telling how much, or if at all, this played into the team’s chemistry explosion in November, when Green told Durant, according to Yahoo Sports senior NBA insider Chris Haynes, “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.”
It sure looks like the Warriors are having more fun when they play without Durant. The win column reflects that, as they are now 29-1 in their last 30 games without KD, per Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports. For the uninitiated, that’s better than the 73-9 pace that the Warriors set in their last regular season before Durant’s arrival.
There are surely caveats to that, and the biggest is this: The Warriors are more vulnerable to top-end teams without Durant, as they learned the hardest way in the 2016 Finals, and that’s what makes this recent run more fun for the rest of us.
The Blazers didn’t play all that well, and it took a 39-point fourth quarter for the Warriors to put them away in Game 1. It then took 61 points from Curry and Thompson to overcome a 17-point hole in Game 2. If Damian Lillard were shooting better than 10-for-28 in this series, we might be looking at a tie going back to Portland, and even now there’s at least a chance the Blazers hold court at home.
This is why the NBA needs Durant to leave in free agency. Go to the New York Knicks and bolster an Eastern Conference that is already as interesting as it has been in a long time. We need the old Warriors back, only more susceptible to a Western Conference that could be bolstered by superstars moving to Los Angeles this summer. This is what we’ve been reminded of in this window between Durant going down and inevitably returning to lead Golden State to a third straight title.
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports: