The Warriors that open the NBA Finals on Thursday against the Toronto Raptors, though, won’t have Durant, who strained his calf in the second-to-last game of the Houston series on May 8. In what may be a preview of a permanent condition, they’ve hardly been worse for his absence. Curry has regained his MVP form, Green has averaged nearly a triple-double, and Golden State finished off the Rockets in six games before sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers 4–0 in the Western Conference Finals. With the timetable for Durant’s return still unclear, the Warriors remain the favorites to win a third straight title, but the postseason has lately taken on the feel of a referendum: on who drives one of the most dominant teams in NBA history, and on how much one of the league’s best players actually means to it.
“I think they are harder to guard [without Durant],” Seth Curry, Stephen’s brother and a backup guard for Portland, said after the Warriors won Game 1 of the conference-finals series. “They move around faster when he’s not out there. They’re definitely not a better team, but they’re harder to guard.” The comments echoed a sentiment common among basketball fans, that Golden State gains something—strategic or aesthetic, in function or fun—when their nominal best player is missing. The 2015 champion Warriors, it is hard to remember now, could be credibly thought of as an underdog, their jump shot–heavy approach unlike the traditional style of title-winning teams. And they played with an underdog’s panache, all joyful interdependence and long-range daring.
This Durant-less stretch has seen a return of that spirit, and it began, as it did back then, with Curry. In the clinching game against Houston, Curry made up for a scoreless first half with a 33-point second, canning an off-balance three-pointer with a minute and a half left to put the game out of reach. Against Portland, he scored more than 35 points in each of the four games and averaged more than eight rebounds and seven assists. Even more than the totals, the particulars of Curry’s style of play—his constant trotting to this corner or that wing, the way a series of gyroscopic crossovers gives way, in an instant, to the letting go of a jumper—set the Warriors in motion. “Steph has got the defense so extended—35 feet away from the basket, that’s unheard of,” the Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen said after the series—“how do you defend that?”
Without Durant, the secondary stars returned to comfortable roles making use of the space Curry creates. Thompson, who spent the first few weeks of the postseason shooting poorly enough to prompt rumors about his unhappiness with the team, became his old self against Portland, blanketing the Trail Blazers’ best players on defense and knocking in whatever open shots came his way. Green, the team’s emotional bellwether, was a blur: hauling in rebounds, pacing fast breaks, picking out open cutters, propping up discouraged teammates. “He was like a wrecking ball out there,” Kerr said after Game 3, in which Green scored 20 points to go along with 13 rebounds and 12 assists. “He was destroying everything in his path.”