The Golden State Warriors are in crisis mode. After averaging a league-high 29.3 assists per game this season, the Warriors notched just 14 in a stunning Game 4 loss to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, the lowest in a playoff game under coach Steve Kerr.
Those expecting a rejuvenated, pass-happy Warriors team Thursday night in Game 5 were met with the same story: The team tallied just 18 assists, well below their norm, and led to another eyebrow-raising loss that has Golden State one game from elimination.
Against the Rockets in these conference finals, this team has resembled the Oklahoma City Warriors more than Golden State Warriors. The ball isn't moving, and head coach Steve Kerr knows it. During Game 5, the TNT broadcast showed Kerr pulling Kevin Durant aside in an early timeout and giving him a history lesson about trust, citing Kerr's former teammate Michael Jordan.
"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game, and he kept trying to score," Kerr said. "And he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said, 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"
Kerr was undoubtedly referring to the 1993 NBA Finals moment every NBA fan has seen—when Jordan passed to Paxson for the title-clinching three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left in Game 6. Interestingly enough, Kerr wasn't on that Bulls team.
"I want you to trust your teammates early—early. What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit 'em. I want you to trust the first guy and then move."
Durant wiped his face with a towel and nodded his head. This speech was hardly random; Durant took seven shots before Stephen Curry got his first field-goal attempt at the 4:20 mark in the first quarter. As Durant turned his back and walked back onto the court, Kerr gave him a parting message.
"Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"
The lesson didn't exactly hit home for Durant. He finished the game with zero assists and just 23 passes. Per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com, it was Durant's lowest number of passes in any game this postseason.
As it was in Game 4, the fourth quarter was a disaster for Durant and the Warriors Thursday. Durant misfired on all four of his shots in the frame, rarely trusting his teammates when he was double-teamed. After reviewing the film, Durant passed the ball just four times in the entire fourth quarter. When he did move the ball, however, good things happened—a fouled Klay Thompson three-pointer; a Draymond Green layup (which he missed and put back); a hockey assist leading to a Green three; a potential hockey assist to Quinn Cook's pivotal missed three. (Note: A hockey assist is when a player passes to the player logging an assist).
If Cook hits with 42 seconds left to put the Warriors up one, it might have become Durant's Paxson moment that Kerr had envisioned. Running in transition with under a minute to go down one, Durant could have taken Trevor Ariza one-on-one and tried to win it himself, but he instead flipped the ball to Green, who drove and kicked out to Cook. The 25-year-old flubbed the pass and hit iron on his attempt.
As admirable as Durant's demonstration of trust was, the moment was an anomaly. The Rockets have switched shorter, stouter players like Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker to guard Durant this series rather than opt for longer defenders like Luc Mbah a Moute and Clint Capela. Tempted by the height advantage, Durant often has shifted into one-one-one mode like he did in OKC.
Curry gave the Rockets credit for setting the tone defensively.
"We talked about a lot, a lot has been said about what's wrong with us, but they're a 65-win team for a reason," Curry told reporters after Game 5. "They have formulated a roster that can switch and try to push you out."
In Game 5, Durant tallied 10 isolations, per Second Spectrum tracking, to bring his series average to 11.6, which is three times his average (3.6) in the regular season. The Warriors have averaged 19.2 isolations per game against the Rockets, uncharacteristic of a team that averaged 6.9 isolations in the regular season.
That has to be concerning for Kerr and the Warriors. They're averaging fewer assists (19.4) in this series than the Minnesota Timberwolves (22.4) and Utah Jazz (20.6) did against the same Houston defense. Not moving the ball is the canary in the coal mine for the Warriors, who pride themselves on their pass count. Kerr has set a goal of 300 passes per game for the Warriors, per USA Today's Sam Amick, because of in-house research that showed its importance.
"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," Kerr told USA Today. "So we looked at the passing totals, and … (300) was a really key number for us."
Entering this series, the Warriors were 8-0 this postseason in games in which it has exceeded 300 passes, per NBA.com tracking. The Warriors haven't eclipsed the 300 mark even once against the Rockets, and, overall, are 2-5 in the playoffs when not hitting that benchmark. In Game 5? Golden State threw only 257 passes, 103 fewer than they tallied in the Game 5 win against the Pelicans.
And here we all thought Durant had left OKC.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Durant's decision to leave the Thunder for the Warriors in 2016—beyond the fact that he was jumping to a 73-9 squad—was that the two teams were a study in contrasts. In 2015-16, the Thunder famously engineered their offense around Russell Westbrook and Durant making magic on their own, ranking last in passes per game. Inspired by Gregg Popovich's Spurs, Kerr's Warriors were more egalitarian, ranking seventh in passes and first in assists in 2015-16.
But the tables have turned against this Rockets defense headed by Mike D'Antoni and assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik. The Warriors in this series are averaging 269.8 passes, far closer to the Thunder's rate of 260 passes per game in the regular season than the Warriors' 324-pass mark. Entering this series, the last time Durant failed to log an assist in a playoff game was six years ago in the 2012 NBA Finals. In this series alone, he has posted two such games. That wasn't supposed to happen in Kerr's offense.
Perhaps more astounding is how Durant and Curry appear to be working opposite each other rather than together. Durant passed to Curry just five times in Game 5, per NBA.com data. In last year's Finals in the same number of games, Durant passed to Curry 68 times, an average of 13.6 passes per game. Also in that five-game series against Cleveland, Curry delivered 20 assists to Durant buckets; in this series, that total is eight.
After winning those Finals last year, a champagne-drenched Kerr was asked about all the outside scrutiny saying Durant and Curry couldn't co-exist.
"I mean, come on, you got a bunch of guys who are talented and can shoot and pass and dribble, and they're unselfish," Kerr said. "There was never any question in my mind that this was going to work."
If the Warriors fall in Game 6 or in this series, there will be no question why they lost. It'll be because they lost themselves.
Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full-time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Count The Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back To Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.