Wednesday NBA Roundup: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry Perfecting 1-2 Punch

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2017

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 18:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles past Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at ORACLE Arena on January 18, 2017 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This had to be what Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors had in mind when they added Kevin Durant over the summer.    

It's taken half a season to reach this point—and head coach Steve Kerr still constantly uses the word "process" and various synonyms to describe it—but the Warriors' harmonious 121-100 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday at Oracle Arena showed that two superstars could seamlessly coexist, that they could be great together rather than at one another's expense.

Durant caught fire for 40 points, 12 rebounds and four assists on just 16 attempts from the field, taking shots in the flow of the offense and almost never stopping the ball in isolation. Curry, meanwhile, finished with 24 points and took three more shots than KD on the night.

Most importantly, Curry was aggressive, creative and even a little loose with some of his decisions.

He showed off on the break:

And fired away from ultradeep:

There's a line between freedom and carelessness that Curry crosses often, but the Warriors prefer him to be bold. It's a better alternative than the deferential version of the two-time MVP they saw until Christmas Day.

To get that iteration of Curry more often, they've made him the unquestioned focal point of the offense, according to Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com:

Curry received only 18.5 screens per game through the first 32 games of the season, down slightly from last season's rate of 18.8. On the season, he has seen 19.6 screens per game. ...But since that Christmas Day loss, the story has changed. Per SportVU data, the Warriors have bumped up the screens that the reigning MVP sees to 23.4 per game, and the team's scoring average has ballooned to 1.16 points per play.

Oklahoma City had no answer for the Warriors' one-two punch, though Russell Westbrook was his typically prolific self, posting a "quadruple-double" with 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists and 10 turnovers. He even offered the quote of the night in his postgame interview, vowing vengeance against Zaza Pachulia, who knocked the OKC guard to the deck in the first half:

The Warriors were far from perfect, turning the ball over 10 times in the game's first 15 minutes, which will provide Kerr with yet another opportunity to harp on mistakes and underscore the notion that his team truly is a work in progress—even if none of the Warriors' miscues measured up to Westbrook's bizarre stroll:

Golden State knows how critical this superstar melding is, per Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group: "The Curry-Durant on-court relationship needs time to develop. They have to learn each other’s tendencies, allow their interaction to become instinctual. The Warriors’ dominance depends on it."

So plays like the one that got Durant to the 40-point mark are particularly encouraging.

There's chemistry there, not to mention a desire to set one another up. And when you've got two MVP-winning talents looking to make each other better, there's not much they can't accomplish.

Except the completion of a high-five.

The dual attack we saw Wednesday isn't locked in as a certainty going forward. There'll be games where Curry looks for Durant too much, and we'll see spots of offensive stagnation once in a while. But this is a heck of a way for the Warriors to inspire confidence that the second half of their season could be even better than the first.

           

Joel Embiid's All-Star Case Is Getting Stronger

After a Monday victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown told reporters it was "our finest team win."

Two days later, it's time to update that assessment.

The developmental pace is ramping up for the 76ers, who downed the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday by a final score of 94-89 behind 26 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks from Joel Embiid.

Riding a defense that has ranked fifth in the league since Dec. 1, Philadelphia closed out the Raptors with a 9-3 run, allowing the East's best offense just one field goal in the final 1:53.

Embiid was at the center of everything—blocking shots, drawing fouls and even hitting the clinching free throws while exhorting the Philly crowd to up the volume on its signature "Trust the Process" chants. The defensive effort has been impressive, and it's probably not fair to give Embiid full credit for the Sixers' winning seven of their last nine games.

But we should probably agree that he's earned the vast majority of it, particularly on defense:

The numbers from Derek Bodner of Philadelphia Magazine and John Schuhmann of NBA.com show the undeniable link between the rookie stud and his team's success:

Put the guy in the All-Star Game—if only so we can get a nonpartisan crowd chanting about processes.

               

Marc Gasol Games the System

If you're going to try to beat the Washington Wizards at home, you'd better seek out every possible advantage.

Marc Gasol's search for an edge in the Memphis Grizzlies' 104-101 loss at the Verizon Center was as creative as it was admirable. He tried to dispense with inbounding, as this clip from Kyle Weidie of Truth About It reveals:

Shrewd, Marc. Very shrewd.

It didn't work, of course, as the officials quickly blew the whistle and forced the Grizzlies to observe the rules.

Washington has now won 13 straight games at home, and this latest one against Memphis served as validation of that streak. The majority of the previous 12 victories came against opponents with records at or below .500. You have to go all the way back to a Dec. 18 win over the Los Angeles Clippers to find a real quality win.

Memphis has been inconsistent this season, but even after Wednesday's loss, it sits at 25-19.

Otto Porter going 6-of-8 from three was a big reason for Washington's streak extension, but don't overlook the bench. Typically a major weakness, the Wizards' reserves all posted plus-minus figures in positive territory.

Because of the opponent and the method of success, this win stands out as a streak validator. It's the best signal yet that the Wizards might stick around in the race for a top-four playoff spot.

             

Isaiah Thomas Can Only Do So Much

Isaiah Thomas got his quarters mixed up.

The NBA's most fearsome fourth-period weapon got loose early in the Boston Celtics' 117-106 loss to the New York Knicks at TD Garden, producing highlight dimes during the first and getting all the way to 31 points before the final quarter even began.

But he managed just eight points in that fourth quarter as the Knicks—playing without Kristaps Porzingis—sealed the advantage with a 29-23 period.

Have the Celtics gotten too used to Thomas' late-stage bailouts?

It's also possible that getting bashed on the boards by a 57-33 margin had something to do with the result. And Al Horford's 2-of-14 effort from the field didn't help much, either.

Boston let one get away against a wounded, spiraling Knicks team, but the slip should have some instructive value: Obviously, the Celtics can't count on Thomas' heroics every night.

The larger focus, though, must be on a defense that has slipped from fifth last season (100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) to 20th this campaign (106.2). Horford's poor rebounding makes it difficult to complete stops, and the sore Achilles that kept Avery Bradley sidelined against New York is an issue. But there's no excuse for a Boston team with several capable defenders, a good coach in Brad Stevens and a track record of high performance to flounder on D this badly halfway into the season.

And hey, before Knicks fans cry foul, let's acknowledge Derrick Rose, who posted 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists during a game for just the second time in his career.

                    

James Harden Is Reliable

No preamble necessary for this absurd stat from NBA on ESPN:

James Harden produced 56 points (38 of his own, 18 via the assist) against the Milwaukee Bucks during a 111-92 win at Toyota Center on Wednesday, nailing his average coming in and outshining Giannis Antetokounmpo's 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

If the MVP debate comes down to the supporting cast of Harden versus Russell Westbrook, with the guy surrounded by inferior talent getting some kind of edge, just remember that Antetokounmpo is the one who could really use the help.

Milwaukee shot 1-of-17 outside the paint in the first half and finished at 39.8 percent overall—and that was with Antetokounmpo hitting 13 of his 20 shots.

                     

Please Keep Anthony Davis in Your Thoughts

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 18:  D.J. Augustin #14 of the Orlando Magic looks to pass the ball around Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center on January 18, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. N
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans stayed within striking distance of a playoff spot (one-and-a-half games out of the No. 8 seed) via 118-98 walkover win at the Smoothie King Center against the Orlando Magic, but Anthony Davis had to leave a portion of the game because of injury.

The image of Davis hustling back to the locker room in pain is getting a little too familiar, per Justin Verrier of ESPN.com:

The good news: Davis returned and finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes.

Already hampered by hip and thumb injuries, this latest ding just adds to the pile of maladies Davis has faced this season. He remains on pace to log more minutes and games than he has in any previous year, but AD can't keep making trips down the tunnel.

Eventually, he won't come back out. And when that happens, the Pels and their playoff hopes will be sunk, according to the numbers from B/R's Adam Fromal:

Wednesday's Final Scores

                

Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Wednesday.

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