How Kevin Durant injury opens door for Rockets

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of a taking a 3-2 series lead over the Houston Rockets Wednesday night, the Golden State Warriors received a major scare.

Two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant went down late in the third quarter with what seemed to be a serious lower-body injury. After the game, it was announced by Warriors head coach Steve Kerr that Durant suffered a strain to his right calf.

That was confirmed on Thursday. Durant will now be evaluated some time next week, meaning that he’ll miss the remainder of the Rockets series.

This could have a wide-ranging impact as the series heads back to Houston for Game 6. Here’s how.

Can’t duplicate Kevin Durant: Whatever the Warriors do, they are missing the game’s best player.

  • Durant heads to the shelf having averaged a league high 34.2 points per game in the playoffs. He’s taking an average of nearly 22 shots per game.
  • There’s simply no replacing this type of production. Golden State will now have to change its game plan in a big way.
  • That’s going to include going back to the pre-Durant era and relying a whole bunch more on Stephen Curry. It’s something we saw towards the end of Game 5.

It’s about more than offense: Durant’s defense is among the most underrated aspects of his game.

  • Throughout this series, we’ve seen Durant go out to the perimeter and guard each of the Rockets’ future Hall of Fame guards.
  • James Harden and Chris Paul are shooting a combined 37% when guarded by Durant in isolation.
  • With Durant out, the onus falls a lot more on Klay Thompson defensively. That could have a major impact on his offensive performance. Prior to Game 5, he had struggled big time shooting the ball. Add in Curry’s struggles, and this is magnified.

Rockets major advantage: Without Durant, Houston can exploit major mismatches.

  • This is the biggest key to everything. We’re going to assume for a second that Shaun Livingston joins Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup.
  • That means Livingston will be forced to guard either Paul or Harden on switches. Banged up himself, the veteran might not be up for the task.
  • Livingston will also be on a minutes restriction. This forces lesser defenders in the form of Alfonzo McKinnie, Quinn Cook and Jonas Jerebko in the defensive rotation against Houston’s back court.

Switching side: Houston can now force switches in isolation.

  • Isolation is Harden’s game. It’s what led to Houston’s narrow Game 4 win. It also caused the team major issues Wednesday night.
  • With a day to plan for Durant’s absence, the Rockets are going to be in a better position to force switches. That’s going to make Harden a walking mismatch against lesser defenders.
  • The Warriors’ starters have logged a ton of minutes in the series. They seemed tired Wednesday night. With Durant out, this will test them even more.

For Golden State, the task at hand is rather simple. If it is able to win one of the final two games in the series, Durant will be back early in the Western Conference Finals.

That’s easier said than done. Houston took both games at home earlier in this series. Durant averaged 40.0 points in those outings. Without him in the mix and with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson banged up, Game 6 in Houston could turn into a nightmare.

This gives the Rockets a real opportunity to steal Game 7 in Oakland on Mother’s Day. It’s really the exact opposite of last year’s Western Conference Finals when Chris Paul went down to injury as the Rockets took a 3-2 series lead at home. Golden State ended up winning that series on the road in Houston in Game 7.

Could we see a similar thing happen this year? It’s more likely now that Durant is sidelined.