SAN ANTONIO — Kevin Durant and Draymond Green sat just a locker stall away from each other on the Golden State Warriors‘ Texas trip from hell. A few days after an emotional blowup in Los Angeles that caught the entire league’s attention and caused many to speculate about their futures, there the All-Star teammates were prior to Sunday night’s latest setback, doing exactly what the basketball world thought they would be doing.
Well, not exactly.
Instead of the iciness many predicted following the ugly episode on Monday, Durant and Green found themselves having the same conversation that many sports fans were having all across the country: They were discussing Alex Smith’s gruesome leg injury during Sunday’s game between the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. Durant, an ardent Redskins fan who wears the team’s hat during many of his postgame news conferences, and Green were just as surprised as any other fans when told that the injury occurred 33 years to the day after Joe Theismann’s brutal injury on a Lawrence Taylor hit on Monday Night Football.
It was an entirely normal exchange in a week that has been anything but for a franchise that has lived a charmed life during Steve Kerr’s four-plus seasons.
“I just think if we would have won these past two games, nobody would be talking about it anymore,” Warriors backup point guard Quinn Cook said of the Durant-Green incident. “I think we just got to be better on the floor, and nobody will remember this once we start winning again.”
If there were still awkwardness between Durant and Green, Cook would know. Cook was the one whose locker stall sat between theirs on Sunday, and he’s the one who has known Durant for years, dating to when they were both growing up in the D.C. area. The Warriors all understand that they must foster an environment for both men to build their relationship back up throughout the season. But even after losing four of their past five games and dealing with all the issues of the past week, Cook and his teammates remain confident in Green’s and Durant’s ability to make things work as they chase another championship together.
“He’s good,” Cook said of Durant. “Obviously, he wants to win every game. But it’s his 12th year. There’s no need to panic. We’re following his lead, and everything will take care of itself.”
The real issue for the Warriors in the short term isn’t how Durant and Green will coexist. It’s how the team can find success without Green and Stephen Curry on the floor.
After an 11-2 start to the season, the Warriors have stalled over the past week because their offense isn’t running as well without two of its main cogs, and the defense has slipped. Warriors coach Steve Kerr acknowledged that both Durant and Klay Thompson are pressing a little while they wait for Curry and Green to get healthy. For a team that prides itself on finding clean looks all over the floor, the Warriors are a combined 18-for-77 (23.4 percent) from beyond the arc during their current three-game skid.
“We got to execute better,” Kerr said. “I think there were a lot of possessions tonight where we were taking quick shots. We needed more execution, more organization. We got into our spots and called a set, and I thought we had a lot of random possessions with quick shots. A lot of times, guys get frustrated, and they want to shoot their way out of it. I’m talking about the whole team — I’m not talking about Klay in particular — I’m just talking about everybody. We’ve got to move the ball. We’ve got to trust each other. That’s the hallmark of our team. We’ve got playmakers all over the floor. We’ve got guys who can dribble, pass and shoot. And what we’ve done the last few years is we’ve shared the ball. The ball has moved, and we’ve gotten each other great shots. We’re not getting great shots right now. We’re taking a lot of contested shots.”
Durant noted that at least part of the issue is that the Warriors are still trying to get younger players such as Kevon Looney, Damian Jones, two-way contract Damion Lee and new addition Jonas Jerebko into the flow of the system early in the season. Golden State started the same lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Jones in its 10-1 start. During this 2-5 stretch, the Warriors have used six starting lineups, with none of them featuring both Curry and Green.
“We’re playing different lineups,” Durant said. “There’s less space out there on the court. So we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way for us to get good shots. I think Coach is trying to figure that out too.”
Kevin Durant reacts to the Warriors’ third straight loss and explains how Steph Curry’s and Draymond Green’s absences are affecting the team.
Durant’s assessment echoes what Green said last month when discussing how Jerebko and the rest of the new players would fit into the championship group.
“This isn’t the easiest system to fit into — contrary to popular belief,” Green said. “It takes some time getting used to this system, so I know as time goes on, he’ll get better and better.”
Green’s point all along was that the way Kerr and his staff run their system is much more difficult to pick up than most give them credit for. The intricacies are even more apparent without Curry and Green on the floor and with several young players doing their best to fill their roles.
“The whole NBA stands. Wait for the ball,” Green said. “That’s like a cardinal sin here. And whatever you’re ready to do, whether you’re ready to catch and drive, catch and shoot, catch and pass, usually if you’re standing there waiting on a catch, it’s the time to cut. If you’ve been in this league for a while, it’s kind of different than what you’ve learned. So just figuring all those things out. And then also the reads. We don’t call a ton of plays. A lot of it is just reads, so figuring those reads out — it’s kind of like a wide receiver learning the audibles.”
Steve Kerr says the Warriors have been in a “charmed” existence the past four years, and this has been their toughest stretch yet.
In the midst of their recent struggles, Kerr remains publicly optimistic at every turn. He knows he has the talent to turn things around quickly, and he is leaning on a mentor’s example while navigating what he called Sunday the toughest regular-season stretch he has been through in his four-plus years as coach of the Warriors.
“I always noticed that Pop was actually better in crisis,” Kerr said of his former coach with the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich. “And more relaxed and more, just more ready to coach in crisis. And when things were going well, that’s when he would be more on edge because he didn’t want us to get lazy. So we would win five in a row, and he’d yell at us, and then we’d lose a few in a row, and he’d take us out to dinner. That’s a pretty good philosophy for coaching, when you think about it. You got to keep the train going forward, and nobody does that better than Pop.”
Popovich’s and Kerr’s respect for each other has been well-documented through the years. Kerr will serve as an assistant on Popovich’s Team USA staff as it prepares for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But at this moment, when the Warriors badly need a steady hand to guide them, the Spurs coach believes Kerr can get his team going in the right direction again.
“The same as in any endeavor,” Popovich said of pulling a team out of internal strife. “It’s about people and about relationships and about character. But I’m sure that no matter how you all think or write or talk about it, it’s not as big a deal as you’ve all made it.”
Over the past week, even in Warriors world, it’s been a pretty big deal, regardless of the extra media hype surrounding anything the back-to-back defending champs do. The verbal exchanges between Durant and Green shook the proud group’s core, but it’s worth noting that Popovich agreed with Kerr’s notion that the Warriors have an ace in the hole much the same way he did over the past two decades. They have a calming influence who has clout in the locker room to make things run smoothly even at their most dysfunctional point. On Thursday, Kerr called Curry “the short Tim Duncan,” in regard to his leadership. On Sunday, Popovich agreed with his protégé’s assessment.
“It’s every day,” Popovich said. “Attention to detail. Neither one of them are towel wavers or that kind of thing. The discipline that they exude on a day-to-day basis and the way they prepare is something that becomes an example for everybody. And Steph does that very, very well.”
With Curry present and feeling better each day, there is no panic in the Warriors’ locker room, despite the angst the past week has caused. Still, the Warriors find themselves in an unfamiliar place on a number of levels.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first instance — after games played on the Sunday before Thanksgiving — of at least eight teams being within two games of the same conference lead since the NBA adopted its current conference format in 1970-71.
As the outside world tries to decipher how many cracks there are in this group’s sterling facade, the players and coaches continue to move forward in what they know is a long season. The feeling permeating through the locker room is one of hope about what will come, not despair about Green and Durant’s incident and events that can’t be changed.
Give it time…
– Shaun Livingston (@ShaunLivingston) November 19, 2018
“This team is battle-tested,” Cook said. “If you look around the room, you see guys who’ve been down 3-1, who won Game 7s on the road, who have been playing in big games and been on great teams their whole career. It’s not going to be easy, especially when you have guys out, but we believe in each other. It’s hard to win in the league. I just think we’re ultra-confident because we believe in each other. I know for a lot of us coming back, we kind of went through this right before the playoffs last year. I’m confident in everybody in this room. Everybody is confident in each other, and we’ll be good.”