OAKLAND – Though DeMarcus Cousins absorbed the majority of the heat for the recent defensive deficiencies of the Warriors, his coaches and teammates were trying to explain the unfairness of it all.
They repeatedly made the point that great defenses are driven by team concepts, and that the entire five-man starting unit was deserving of blame.
All five, then, deserve credit for their work on Friday, when the Warriors took the floor and immediately suffocated the Denver Nuggets in a 122-105 victory. The starting lineup was engaged and ferocious – nobody more than Kevin Durant.
“He was really locked in,” Andre Iguodala said Saturday. “It was a game-changer.”
Durant’s defensive energy found another level, and then yet another. His presence was a huge factor in the Warriors limiting the Nuggets to eight points in the first eight minutes, as Denver shot 2-of-12 from the field and committed six turnovers. With six steals and two blocks during that span, the Warriors quickly set a tone that permeated Oracle Arena.
Draymond Green brought defensive intensity, which is expected. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were hyperactive on defense, as was Cousins.
But Durant, with 6-foot-11 height and a 7-5 wingspan, was such a difference-maker because of his intellect and scrap. He was so connected to his man that several times multiple screens failed. That Denver forwards shot 9-of-30 from the field is largely testimony to the effectiveness of Durant and Green.
Because of his versatility, being able to check guards on the perimeter and sometimes centers in the paint, Durant’s defense is no less crucial than that of Green, who organizes things on that end, or Thompson, whose best attribute is his ability to pressure the ball.
“Kevin has it in him to be one of the top defenders in the league, whether it’s weak-side blocks or on-ball defending,” Iguodala said. “It’s kind of scary when he uses his length and is pressuring the ball-handler and they really don’t have too many options.”
Though Durant delivered typical offensive production, scoring 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting and adding six assists, his defensive commitment was visible. He was as “hot” on defense as Thompson (game-high 39 points, 13-of-22 shooting, 9-of-11 from deep) was on offense.
“Because of Klay’s great play, Kevin’s performance sort of went under the radar,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But when Kevin plays like that, with that type of efficiency offensively and that type of energy defensively – hustle – that’s truly when we’re at our best.”
The Warriors were atrocious on defense in their 33-point loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. The only regular starter to escape blame is Thompson, who was grounded with a sore knee. Everyone else was burned multiple times, in various ways.
Durant at times looked uninterested.
He and his teammates were fully interested Friday. The Nuggets shot 22.2 percent from the field in the first quarter, and 34.8 percent in the third, when the Warriors basically closed it out. Denver shot 37.9 percent for the game, and was forced into committing 18 turnovers.
With six blocks and three steals, Cousins provided the kind of numbers that speak emphatically on his behalf. There would be no scapegoating.
“When you look at the numbers, stats and blocks and it’s easy for you to say that DeMarcus had a great game,” Durant said late Friday night. “If somebody else tells you he didn’t play well, that’s what you will write. I don’t think anybody in our locker room was really blaming DeMarcus for anything. We all have our miscommunications out there, miscues, whatever you want to call it.”
Durant’s stats, two blocks and zero steals, don’t compare to those of Cousins. But KD’s focus was high. He was in shutdown mode.
Asked about the difficulty of being a dominant scorer and still making a major impact, as Durant did, Iguodala didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been able to do some of the things that he does,” he said. “But KD is a gamer. When he wants to send a message, I don’t know if there is anybody that can keep him from sending it.”
The message on Friday was to stop blaming Cousins for the team’s defensive shortcomings. Every member must contribute. And when Durant does so at the level he did on Friday, well, the complaints about Cousins or anyone else go quiet.