The Golden State Warriors have no right to request more of Kevin Durant, but after Saturday's 126-121 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets, they may have to ask anyway.
Durant was electric in defeat, leading all participants with 46 points and upping his postseason scoring average to 35.6 points per game on a 51.5/43.8/91.7 shooting split. He ripped off 17 points in the third quarter, then scored 10 in the first two minutes of the fourth to seize the lead after Golden State trailed by as many as 13 points.
This shot capped the blitz.
Durant's scoring during these playoffs has him in rare air.
Unfortunately for Golden State, KD's virtuoso performance was mostly a solo act.
Sure, Draymond Green posted a triple-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists (though the Warriors lost their first ever game that included a Green triple-double), and Andre Iguodala chipped in 16 timely points and sturdy defense against James Harden. But Klay Thompson lost the scoring battle against Eric Gordon by a final margin of 30-16, the Warriors bench provided just seven points, and Stephen Curry had one of the worst games of his career.
Curry never found his shot from deep, hitting just two of his nine long-range attempts. Even more concerning, he was an identical 2-of-9 at the rim. And if you see one lowlight from this game over the next few days, it'll surely be the Warriors' two-time MVP getting hung on an ill-advised dunk attempt at a pivotal moment in overtime.
He finished with 17 points on 7-of-23 shooting, one of the worst efforts from the field he's ever had. As the game progressed and the stakes intensified, Curry did something worse than disappear: He was actively bad.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr wouldn't blame Curry's unusual struggles on the finger he dislocated in Game 2, telling reporters that "it just wasn't [Curry's] night."
And hey, sometimes it really just isn't your night. That's a fatalistic way to look at it, but that mindset would at least partially explain the bizarre aftermath of Curry's missed dunk, when neither he nor his Warriors teammates sought to foul the Rockets in the final 17.6 seconds of overtime. Golden State, still down only five points, simply let the clock run out, apparently convinced another few seconds of effort wasn't worth the struggle.
The Rockets, who dribbled out those last few ticks in celebration, had reason to enjoy the moment collectively.
Harden, unlike Durant, had help. He hung 41 points on the Warriors and hit dagger step-back threes and floaters repeatedly down the stretch, but the reigning MVP also got those 30 points from Gordon—not to mention five offensive rebounds apiece from PJ Tucker and Clint Capela, the latter finally showing up after two ho-hum efforts to open the series.
In fact, if this matchup has a signature highlight through three games, it's got to be Capela's two-handed denial of Iguodala's attempted tomahawk dunk in the first quarter.
Welcome to the series, Clint!
If you subscribe to the adage that series don't start until the home team loses, this fight hasn't officially begun yet. It seems clear, though, that the battle is being fought on Houston's terms.
As Saturday's tilt wound down, the game devolved into stagnant sets. Both teams would utilize the occasional high screen, but typically just to generate a switch. This isn't unusual for the Rockets, whose preferred offensive approach is some variation of "James, go at that dude." But it's weird for the Warriors, who'd rather zip around screens, flick passes all over the place and wait for the inevitable defensive breakdown caused by all that coordinated action.
This is where we come back to Durant, whose isolation game is at least as deadly as Harden's, and whose ability to succeed in stripped-down, standstill sets will only become more valuable.
You could certainly attribute Golden State's more stagnant late-game look to fatigue. Or to the ankle injuries that made both Curry and Thompson questionable to play as recently as Game 1 of this series. Whatever the combination of causes, the Rockets deserve credit for pulling the Warriors into the muck—where all that pretty off-ball movement and precise passing bogs down.
The Warriors won't ditch their principles. They're too tightly tied to the concept of beautiful team-first basketball. But there will be more times when they won't be able to play the way they want to. Houston will continue making things difficult, and even if Curry won't play as poorly as he did in Game 3 again, he's not the best weapon to utilize in the kind of series Houston wants to play.
He's been the Warriors' best player throughout these playoffs, and the groundswell of support for his status as the league's alpha is growing. More than that, he's exactly the kind of talent Golden State needs in a series like this.
Because when all else fails (and just about everything did fail in Game 3), Durant was the one player the Warriors could turn to for some success.
If Golden State is going to win this series, and if it's going to make a real run at its fourth title in five years, Durant will be the one leading the way.