After dispatching the Golden State Warriors’ small ‘Death’ lineup to great effect over the course of the past four seasons, Steve Kerr provided the world with a glimpse of what his vaunted ‘Hamptons Five’ lineup could do from the start of a game.
For all of the games Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala have scrambled and finished together, but never before had they been sent onto the floor as a starting unit.
The New Orleans Pelicans with Kerr had restrained himself, because with that group on the floor Sunday afternoon for Game 4 of this Western Conference semifinal, the Warriors crushed the spirit of the Pelicans early as they smashed their way to a 118-92 win and a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
Game 5 is Tuesday night at Oracle Arena, where Kerr promised to give the Warriors’ home fans a chance to see what the rest of us witnessed at Smoothie King Center.
That devastating combination of speed, athleticism, playmaking and scoring ability overwhelmed the Pelicans immediately. The Warriors had a 17-4 lead before the crowd could catch its collective breath and the outcome was never in doubt from there.
Durant made absolutely sure of it. He knocked down two jumpers in the first 90 seconds and the tone was set. It wasn’t the lineup, Kerr insisted, but the force with which that group started the game that was the difference, Durant in particular.
“He was attacking tonight right from the beginning,” Kerr said. “And he was brilliant. There’s not much you can do because he’s so tall and long and he’s going to be able to get his shot off over you. But I just thought he found better spots on the floor with his aggression and created easier shots for himself.
“And then our movement the first quarter was much better. The other night we were standing around. Tonight, after they made their first stand on the defensive possession, we just kept playing. And that’s kind of who we are, multiple playmakers, move the ball and let the next guy make a play and don’t force anything. I think we had one turnover in the first quarter. It just set a great tone.”
The Warriors indeed got punched in the mouth in Game 3 Friday night and Durant made it his mission to ensure it didn’t happen again. The Warriors led by 18 in the first quarter, by 23 after the third and the starters were able to rest down the stretch.
Durant sensed the mood around his team at practice on Saturday. He went to work on his game, examining all of the things he would need to do to be at his best to outplay Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis.
Their performances on this day were an intriguing study of a player who has gone to that next level time and time again on the big stage and one who is just now learning what it takes to make that leap.
Durant, the reigning Finals MVP, was ruthlessly efficient, finished with a game-high 38 points (on 15-for-27 shooting), nine rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block in just 36 minutes of action. He took advantage of Pelicans defensive ace Jrue Holiday, six inches shorter than him, and anyone else the Pelicans sent his way.
Davis, in just the eighth playoffs game of his career, scored 26 points on 8-for-22 shooting, and grabbed 12 rebounds. But, he also had six turnovers and spent long stretches without so much as calling for the ball on offense as his team was dismantled.
The gulf between him and Durant, right down to a hoodie-wearing Durant showing up to the postgame presser by himself, and Davis not speaking at the same time in the hallway outside of the home-team locker room, was striking.
If you’re going to take on the pressure and responsibility that comes with being ‘the man’, you have to do it during the good times and the bad.
And you have to light that fire for your team from the opening tip, the way Durant did.
“KD … he was just KD,” Iguodala said when asked what led to the Warriors’ explosive start. “He got to his spots, got to his shots. It kind of reminded me of like 90s basketball; you got a scorer and they take the ball and get one dribble and get to their spot and the defense can’t do anything about it. It kind of reminded me of MJ [Michael Jordan], and I don’t like to make that comparison, but he got to his spots and there was nothing you could do about it. And when you see that look in his face it carries over to the rest of the guys and then you take that to the defensive end and you get stops, you know it’s right … the mentality is there.”
The Warriors have always had a keen understanding of just how dangerous their small lineup can be. But it doesn’t suit them all the time. Sometimes Kerr’s hands are tied based on the matchups.
But they knew this series would provide opportunities to go there. And once they got rocked in Game 3, Kerr knew exactly what his counter would be.
“You know we’ve known all along this is a small series, and so you know we played it a little differently than last game with Steph just coming back for the second game and trying to buy us some minutes here and there, and obviously we got our tails kicked,” Kerr said. “So, anytime we’ve been in any danger over the years, we’ve sort of gone to this lineup. Whether it’s as [the] starting group or extra minutes, and obviously the lineup worked or whatever, but it’s not about the lineup. It’s really not. It’s about how hard guys play and how focused they are. The effort on both ends tonight was night and day from Game 3, and I thought our guys were just dialed in.”
It didn’t require much in the way of pep talks or reminders of what he needed from his stars. Just having those five names together on the white board in the locker room let the Warriors know what time it was.
“My discussions with Steph and KD were more strategic,” Kerr said. “They already know. They’re superstars. Stars have to be stars in the playoffs. Steph and KD don’t need to be told that. But my job as a coach is to try to help them strategically, so I talked to both of them about how I thought they could attack and get better shots. And we just did a much better job executing offensively.”
Obviously, it helps to have five players as versatile and skilled as the ‘Hamptons Five’, a moniker given to that five-man group after the other four had ramped up their recruitment of Durant during a visit to the Hamptons in the summer of 2016.
Kerr didn’t want to acknowledge the nickname. But you can call it whatever you want when a player like Durant is added to an already championship mix.
“Now that’s the group that has two banners hanging in the rafters,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said as he walked through the door for his postgame media session.
It’s the group that needed every bit of what Durant provided in The Finals last year, when he outshined Cleveland’s LeBron James to help the Warriors win that series in five games, collecting his first title and Finals MVP hardware.
That slender assassin who was on display in all five of those games was back at it against the Pelicans Sunday.
“I just tried to tell myself that I’m at my best when I don’t care what happens after the game, the outcome or anything,” Durant said. “I’m just my best when I’m free and having fun out there and forceful, I think that was the thing. To play with force no matter if I miss shots or not, just try to keep shooting, keep being aggressive, and you know I just tried to continue to tell myself that over the last day and a half. Today we went out there and knocked down some shots.”
The same mentality will be required Tuesday night. Close-out games require the best an aspiring championship team can muster, even one that’s already been vetted twice in the past three seasons the way the Warriors have.
But it’s especially important to Durant and the rest of the Hamptons Five. Because they know what’s on the horizon. They have the muscle memory left over from the same journey a year ago, with a group so devastating that they can take apart any other team in basketball when they are at their very best.
“Yeah, just the experience. Guys have been there before. Just an IQ for the game,” Durant said of the most diabolical five-man unit in basketball. “You know, you got most of the guys that can penetrate and make plays. It’s good for scorers like Klay, Steph and myself. You know Andre and Draymond do all the utilities stuff like driving to the rim, getting stops, getting rebounds, and you know they were knocking down shots when they got the opportunity to shoot ‘em. I think we played off each other well. We’re going to need it even more at home for Game 5.”