The Rockets didn't have an answer for Kevin Durant in the opening games of the Western Conference Finals. After leading the way for the Warriors with 37 points in Game 1, the nine-time All-Star scored 38 points in Game 2, giving him a total of 75 points through two games of the series. The next highest scorer for the Warriors in those games was Klay Thompson with 36 points, followed by Stephen Curry with 34. Outside of them, nobody on Golden State's roster combined to score more than 16 points in Games 1 and 2.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr had nothing but praise for Durant after his Game 1 performance, saying he is the "ultimate luxury." Durant's teammates then credited him with being the only player who showed up in Game 2, when Houston tied the series at 1-1 by blowing Golden State out by 22 points.
Even so, how Durant scored all of those points was decidedly un-Warriors-like. Not only would his 37.5 points per game be the most he has averaged in a series since moving to Oakland - surpassing the 2017 NBA Finals, when he outplayed LeBron James to win Finals MVP - Durant's usage rate has never been higher, not even when the Warriors were without Curry in their first round matchup with the Spurs in these playoffs. It's resulted in Durant taking 24.5 shots per game, up from 20.7 in the first two rounds and 18.0 in the regular season.
|2016-17 Regular Season||27.6%||25.1||8.9||16.5||53.9|
|2017 Conference Quarter-Finals||28.0%||21.0||8.0||13.5||59.3|
|2017 Conference Semi-Finals||28.5%||24.5||8.8||17.5||50.3|
|2017 Conference Finals||27.3%||28.0||9.5||15.8||60.1|
|2017 NBA Finals||28.5%||35.2||12.0||21.6||55.6|
|2017-18 Regular Season||29.9%||26.4||9.3||18.0||51.7|
|2018 Conference Quarter-Finals||33.5%||28.2||9.6||20.0||48.0|
|2018 Conference Semi-Finals||28.9%||27.8||10.8||21.4||50.5|
|2018 Conference Finals||37.9%||37.5||13.5||24.5||55.1|
Durant's previous career-high in usage came in the 2016 playoffs, when he used 34.6 percent of the Thunder's plays during his time on the floor against a Mavericks team that didn't have the size to match up with him.
While the Rockets are much better equipped to defend Durant, he's still generating a lot of his scoring against mismatches. With the amount the Rockets switch on defense - the Warriors didn't even switch as frequently as the Rockets did in the regular season - Durant has already taken at least four shots against five different Rockets defenders. James Harden and Trevor Ariza have been on the receiving end of most of those shot attempts, but PJ Tucker, Clint Capela and Chris Paul have each found themselves on an island with Durant on a number of occasions.
Three of those defenders have something Durant can easily exploit in isolation. The most limited defender of the group, the Warriors are wise to attack Harden at every opportunity possible to prevent him from conserving his energy for offense. Paul is a much better all-around defender than Harden, though being a foot shorter makes it almost impossible for him to effectively contest Durant's jump shot. Capela has the opposite problem, being long enough to get a hand in Durant's face but not quite quick enough to keep Durant in front of him off the dribble.
It's why the Warriors have been comfortable clearing the floor for Durant whenever one of them switches onto him, giving the four-time scoring champion the space he needs to create a shot for himself in isolation.
Of greater concern for the Rockets is everyone else on the court. Knowing there's nothing that can be done to stop Durant, they've shifted their focus not letting Curry and Thompson get open looks by helping less than they normally would against a dominant isolation scorer. It comes at a cost - 37.5 efficient points per game - but Durant hasn't created many scoring opportunities for his teammates, having handed out only one assist and five potential assists in two games.
Watch Durant's post-up against Paul from Game 2, and you'll notice Ariza and Harden face-guarding Curry and Thompson, not honed in on the obvious mismatch several feet away from the basket:
That wasn't an isolated incident, either. Just look at where Gerald Green is on this possession from Game 1:
And how locked in Tucker and Capela are compared to Paul and Ariza, defending the two weakest shooters in the "Hamptons Five" lineup, here:
It didn't end up mattering in Game 1, when the Warriors got 37 points out of Durant and 46 points out of Thompson and Curry, but the Rockets suffered far less defensive breakdowns in Game 2, so much so that it took the Warriors out of their normal free-flowing offense. In addition to Durant's passing numbers being low, the Warriors are averaging 277.5 passes per game as a team against the Rockets, down from 322.7 passes per game in the regular season. According to USA Today's Sam Amick, Game 1 was the first time the Warriors won a game in these playoffs while completing less than 300 passes.
If the Rockets can hold them to that number again, they might be able to make this series interesting, even if it means Durant continues to average close to 40 points per game. As crazy as letting one of the best scorers in NBA history cook sounds, it might just be crazy enough to work, as we saw in Game 2.