Now we get to see if Draymond Green was right.
It was one of the most controversial moments of the NBA season. Back in November, Green got into a shouting match with free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant at the end of a tense L.A. Clippers game, allegedly shouting “We don’t need you!” at Durant. It was a bold statement considering Durant had won two Finals MVPs with the team and the season had only just started. Six months later, with Durant out for at least a week with a mild right calf strain, the Warriors will truly find out how bold Green’s declaration really is.
It could have been worse. Durant immediately glanced at his leg and grabbed his lower calf like he was holding something together; most observers feared a torn Achilles. That general manager Bob Myers felt he needed to follow him into the locker room spoke to the gravity of the situation. Fortunately for Durant, tests in the locker room revealed he didn’t suffer the same fate as his teammate DeMarcus Cousins did just over a year ago.
Soft-tissue injuries like Durant’s muscle strain are the ones that keep athletic trainers and sports scientists up at night. Many injuries are the result of fluke occurrences like banging knees, landing on someone’s foot or catching a wayward elbow. Those you can’t do much about. But non-contact injuries when a player pulls a muscle during a typical basketball action? These are the injuries that are closely linked to overuse or overtraining. In other words, they’re largely preventable if you prioritize … yep, here’s everyone’s favorite phrase … load management.
It’s not that Durant has never played this many minutes before. He has plenty of times. It’s that he hadn’t done it in months. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that significant jumps in training load among professional athletes lead to a sharp increase in probability of injury. To minimize risk of injury, the empirical guideline was to limit weekly training load increases to less than 10 percent. Go higher than that, and injury risk increases at a steeper rate.
The Durant ramp up wasn’t gradual. Here are Durant’s minutes since Game 5 in the L.A. Clippers series: 41, 42, 43, 44, 50, 43. His previous 10 games before that? 27, 21, 29, 37, 28, 18, 32, 34, 30, 38. Not a single game over 40, averaging 29.4 minutes over that span. From just under 30 minutes per game to well over 40 minutes. That’s not less than 10 percent. That’s nearly a 50 percent jump.
Beside that sudden surge in minutes, Durant was at a higher risk for a calf strain because studies show that a history of a previous calf strain is a top predictor of future calf strains. In January 2018, Durant missed three games with a right calf strain that sidelined him for about a week. It’s an area that more recently has given Durant problems as he missed two games with a right ankle injury in March.
But now the focus is about what’s next. Do the Warriors need Durant to win?
As I pointed out in November, Green actually had a point in his comments to Durant. This is a team that won 73 games without Durant, and they were still beating up teams in games and minutes without Durant since he joined in 2016-17. Heading into Wednesday’s Game 5, the threesome of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green playing without Durant had posted a net rating of plus-13.4 in 923 minutes, per pbpstats.com lineup database. How good is that? For perspective, the Bucks led the NBA with a plus-8.6 net rating as a team this regular season. That’s championship-level basketball.
Curry will see his touches go up and so will Thompson. Curry seemed to wake up after Durant left the floor in Game 5 and that aggressiveness should continue. In the regular season, Curry scored 35.1 points per 100 possessions on 24.2 field goal attempts per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor, per NBA.com tracking. That ballooned to 43.4 points and 34.2 field goal attempts when Durant sat. Thompson saw a similar boom in his numbers.
Expect the Rockets to try to tire them out by being even more physical off screens and hope the officials swallow their whistle. Curry kept his fouls down in Game 5, but don’t be surprised if the Rockets hunt Curry on that end of the floor to try to get him foul trouble. The Warriors can withstand Durant being out, but the Rockets are too good for Curry to be reaching in and risking quick fouls.
But who will see the biggest boost in minutes? Game 5 gave us a sneak peek. Kerr trusted Kevon Looney down the stretch in Durant’s place and that might be their best look. He finished with a plus-5 in Game 5 and saved the game by recovering a loose ball in the corner in the closing seconds and feeding Thompson the closing bucket.
Looney can handle his own switching onto the Rockets’ guards and has been strong on the boards. But he hasn’t played big minutes in Durant’s place. Entering Wednesday’s game, that lineup -- with Looney slotted in Durant’s Hamptons Five spot -- had barely played this season, logging just 18 minutes (postseason included) and a minus-9 on the scoreboard.
That’s not a huge sample size, but Looney offers the Warriors the best opportunity to turn their most glaring weakness -- keeping the Rockets off the boards -- into a strength. Going small with Shaun Livingston in Durant’s place gives them another ball-handler, but Looney’s size may give them an extra body to stave off P.J. Tucker’s offensive rebound attack.
But really, this is all about a reset to 2016. The Warriors can rally together on an infusion of nostalgia. Hey, even Andrew Bogut is back. They can remind themselves that they are collectively 30-10 in the 40 games that Durant has been sidelined since he joined in 2016. They don’t need Durant to win. Now, they just have to prove it.