OAKLAND -- Joining the Warriors after nine seasons in Oklahoma City put Kevin Durant in foreign territory, which explains much what he has been saying, often unprompted, ever since his July arrival.
He is watching and learning and listening. He is receptive constructive criticism, eager for give-and-take with teammates and coaches. Durant is that superstar that clearly wants everyone to understand he embraces feedback.
The Warriors, he is discovering, are willing to provide it.
If the Warriors are to win a championship -- the only goal this season -- Durant will have to break the “iso” habit that has made him one of the NBA’s top five players.
Isolation offense, last seen falling flat Friday night in the fourth quarter of a stunning overtime loss to Memphis, must be pushed to the rear of Durant’s closet, to be pulled out only in rare instances, such as back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry being off the floor.
If Curry is on the floor, he gets dibs on the ball and decides where it should go.
This may not be easy for Durant. “Iso ball” has been good to him, helping him become a four-time scoring champion and the winner of the 2014 MVP award.
“Iso ball” also has been bad for Durant, hurting chances to win a championship in Oklahoma City, where Durant and the Thunder once reached the NBA Finals and thrice reached the Western Conference Finals. All four series ended in defeat.
Durant came to the Bay Area get a ring. There will be no ring if the Warriors can’t figure out to best utilize their talent in the closing minutes of a close game. Through 37 games this season, “crunch time” has been the tack in their shoe. It’s the area with which they stumble mightily, partly because they’re trying to accommodate Durant and partly because Durant reverts to habit.
“It’s all a learning experience,” Durant says. “I’m glad it’s happening now, rather than later in the season or in the playoffs.”
The Warriors generally have no great need for clutch plays. They’re 31-6 and they’re winning by an average of 11.9 points, the largest difference in the league. They’ve won 19 games by double digits, 11 by at least 20 points. They’re able to find time and space to tinker and experiment without sacrificing games.
But the Warriors’ Christmas Day loss at Cleveland exposed the troubling issues and the loss to the Grizzlies served to shine a brighter light on exact problem. There was an abundance of uncertainty and a shortage of assurance. The result? Offense adrift.
Which brings us back to Durant. His late-game numbers are surprisingly feeble, much more so than those of Curry. Since coming to the Warriors, Durant, according to NBA.com statistics, is shooting 28 percent in the last five minutes of close games -- defined as defined as within five points -- while Curry is at 47.1 percent. Durant is 1-of-11 from deep, Curry 6-of-18.
The numbers suggest Curry should, at least for now, keep his job as the team’s closer. He earned it two years ago. He’s not putting up MVP numbers, but the Warriors operate best when Curry is the catalyst. He doesn’t always have to take the shot, but he should have the ball. Then, too, he is more likely than Durant to find the open teammate.
This trial-and-error phase the Warriors are going through this season is at times painful, resulting in losses they have no business taking. Is Curry the go-to guy? Is it Durant? And while both are wondering how this is supposed to work, coach Steve Kerr is allowing both the room to figure it out.
They haven’t. Yet.
“We’re not even halfway through yet, and we’re incorporating Kevin into a group that’s been here for a couple years,” Kerr says. “And we’re not used to the fourth-quarter struggles. We’ve really closed teams out well the last couple years. So it feels different. It feels weird.”
Kerr wants to see as much ball movement as possible, for as long as possible. So does Curry. So does Draymond Green. So does Andre Iguodala and, well, pretty much everybody on the roster.
And while Kerr will allow opportunities to use the pick-and-roll, knowing it can be highly effective, the foundation of the offense is movement of the ball and the players, in search of the best possible shot. It worked beautifully last season and during the Warriors’ championship season two years ago.
It works beautifully this season, too, except in those instances when the Warriors get away from it. They have to stay with it. And Durant has to find his place within it. And, boy, is there a place for someone with his skills.
“We still have to get better,” Curry says. “There’s no denying that, with the looks we want to go to, the flow and timing and aggressiveness of executing those plays, and just being sure that we know what we want to get out of every possession.”
If Durant is as adaptable as he says, they’ll get it right, maybe within weeks, certainly before April. Hey, LeBron James lets Kyrie Irving go to work in Cleveland. Durant endorses letting Curry go to work. Let him.