NBA Playoffs Star Index: Steph Curry vs. Kevin Durant debate rages on; Kawhi Leonard limping into vindication
Also, LeBron James is showing public support for the Lakers, but how long will be be happy in this mess?
Welcome back to the NBA Playoffs Star Power Index -- a weekly gauge of the players who are controlling the postseason buzz. Note: Inclusion on this list isn't necessarily a good thing. It simply means you're capturing the NBA world's attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they're generating. This column will run every week through the end of the Finals.
The Steph Curry vs. Kevin Durant debate rages on as the Warriors are now 5-0 in these playoffs with Durant on the shelf. That mark is actually 6-0 as the Warriors were losing when Durant went out in Game 5 against the Rockets before Curry and Co. led a second-half comeback. The Warriors are now 31-1 in their last 32 games in which Curry plays and Durant doesn't, and since Durant arrived in 2016, they are 34-4 in such games.
In the four-game sweep of Portland, Curry averaged 36.5 points on 48-percent shooting including 42.6 percent from three. He has scored 33 or more in every game Durant has sat. He is back to being the primary playmaker, stretching defenses in the way only he can with the ball in his hands, and it looks like the old Warriors now with Draymond Green and Co. taking advantage of that space and the extra ball movement to find their own rhythm.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the bench is suddenly playing better. Klay is back to shooting the ball like his old self. More players are involved and in rhythm -- part out of necessity due to Durant's absence, but perhaps also, in part, because of it. How much does KD take control of the offense when he's in there? Curry's usage rate, which has been in the low-to-mid 30s at points, was in the low 20s before Durant went out. That's how much Durant was controlling things with Curry relegated to a running-off-screens supporting act.
This is, of course, leading to a large contingent of people who believe the Warriors are actually better off without Durant. This sounds crazy, and in some ways I believe it is. Durant makes them better at the end of shot clock and particularly defensively and from a pure depth standpoint. Durant in a way, is the greatest insurance policy in NBA history. He makes it so Curry doesn't have to be Superman for the Warriors to win titles. But when Curry IS Superman? Well, if they're not better without Durant in those games, it's certainly becoming more and more difficult to argue that they actually NEED him.
It's two different things, by the way. If the Warriors are capable of winning a championship without Durant, they don't, by definition, need him. But that doesn't mean they aren't better with him, that his presence simply widens the gap. None of this matters as long as they are on the same team, except from an entertainment standpoint; there is little doubt the Warriors are, at the very least, much more fun to watch when Curry is unleashed.
But personally, I believe the core of this debate lies in the assumption that Durant is going to leave Golden State this summer, and people are trying to figure what the Warriors will be in his absence.Here's a hint: The'll be pretty damn good. Perhaps still the best team in the NBA.
LeBron showed up at new Lakers coach Frank Vogel's introductory press conference, if only for the optics, and what a drama show that turned out to be with Rob Pelinka answering more questions about Magic Johnson's backstabbing-and-betrayal claims than Vogel was asked about, you know, coaching basketball.
The Lakers are a mess right now. There's no real way to debate that. But LeBron, according to Joe Vardon of The Athletic, is still committed to the purple and gold -- or he's at least committed to living in Los Angeles, and is thus committed to the Lakers by extension. From Vardon on this week's "Tampering" podcast:
"He is so happy to be living in Los Angeles," Vardon said. "This is where they want to be. LeBron does not want to play anywhere else. I would be shocked if at any point for the remainder of his career, so long as LeBron James Jr. is in high school in Greater Los Angeles, that he would have any interest in playing anywhere else."
If the Lakers don't sign a max free agent and aren't able to reel in Anthony Davis or another big fish in a trade, and Frank Vogel doesn't mesh with LeBron, and the front office continues to spiral, and the Lakers continue to lose, we'll see if that commitment stays firm.
Kawhi is playing on pure guts right now, and he has the Raptors right back in the Eastern Conference finals vs. Milwaukee with the series tied 2-2 heading into Thursday's Game 5. Kawhi is obviously hurting, though there is no official report of any injury and all the notoriously tight-lipped Leonard will say is "I'm feeling alright" and "this is playoff basketball, everybody is hurting."
Suffice it to say, Kawhi is hurting a little more than most. At times it looks like he can't bend his right leg. On one dunk, he noticeably hung on the rim for an extra beat to make sure he could come down soft on his leg. From Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:
He's injured. He has to be. For two games Kawhi Leonard has dragged around his right leg like there was a nail hammered into it. The Raptors won't admit there's a problem. Nick Nurse says he's fine. Leonard's face says different. In the third quarter of Toronto's Game 4 win, Leonard elevated for dunk, colliding with Giannis Antetokounmpo in mid-air, that right leg refusing to bend when it hit the floor.
He winced, looking down at the leg. For the stoic Leonard, it was the equivalent of a scream.
If it is the right leg, is this the same quad injury that kept Leonard out for all but nine games last season? The quad injury that had plenty of people, even come of his own Spurs teammates, questioning whether he was even actually all that hurt? Danny Green, who played with Kawhi in San Antonio and is now with him in Toronto, seemed to imply as much after Game 4. Also from Mannix:
"He's playing through pain," Danny Green said to a handful of reporters, long after Leonard left the locker room. "He can't even celebrate baskets because of how painful it is. You dunk on a guy like Giannis and you are worried about your knee, it shows you that he's fighting.
More Danny Green quotes to reporters after Game 4:
"It was a year later and it was still something that he had to manage throughout [this] year," Green said of Leonard's quad injury. "For good reason. Now he's playing a ton of minutes and as you see, some of it still lingers, is still coming back. It's an injury that you have to be very careful with and it just shows you that he would fight through it if he could, and he is doing it now."
If this is the same injury Kawhi has been dealing with for more than a year, this is clearly some vindication that it was a really serious thing all along. Even if it's another injury, he's clearly in real pain and yet he still played 52 minutes and posted 36 points, nine boards and five assists in Toronto's pretty much do-or-die victory in Game 3. In Game 4, he looked even more hobbled and managed only 19 points on 13 shots. There is no way he won't be playing in Game 5, but how much he has left to give remains to be seen.
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