OAKLAND — If the Warriors aren’t being told they’re a better team without Kevin Durant, they’re hearing they can’t win another NBA championship unless their star forward returns from his calf injury.
“If we don’t play with a basketball, it could be called soccer,” center Andrew Bogut said with a mix of sarcasm and annoyance. “End of the day, the don’ts and the do’s with this team, even when I was here last time, we’ve dealt with that kind of stuff all the time and we don’t really worry about it.”
The Warriors open the NBA Finals on the road Thursday against the winner of the Eastern Conference series between Toronto and Milwaukee. They don’t figure to have the 6-foot-11 Durant for at least Game 1, just as he missed Game 6 of their series against Houston and all four games vs. Portland in the Western Conference finals.
Of course, they won all five of those games, sparking the narrative that maybe they play better without the reigning two-time NBA Finals MVP.
The flip side is the argument that the Raptors (with Kawhi Leonard) or the Bucks (with Giannis Antetokounmpo), would present the KD-less Warriors with too much size and length inside. The Warriors also are awaiting definitive word on whether center DeMarcus Cousins, sidelined since tearing his left quadriceps muscle on April 15, will be available for Game 1.
“Injuries happen,” Bogut said. “Obviously, we want KD and DeMarcus fully healthy. But they’re not at the moment and we have to make adjustments.”
Coach Steve Kerr and his staff had made those adjustments, using a mix-and-match lineup recipe that includes Bogut, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney up front.
“We’d like to have everybody healthy, that’s for sure,” Kerr said. “If not, our guys have done a great job of finding ways to win. We have a very deep team and a lot of guys who have played in the championship round.”
Looney, in particular, has been consistently productive. In the five games the Warriors have played without Durant, he’s averaging 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting better than 77 percent from the field.
“I said this the other day, he’s one of our cornerstones now,” Kerr said of Looney, who becomes an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. “Going forward, I expect him to be one of our mainstays over the coming years. I hope his next contract reflects that.
“I’d love to see him get a long-term deal that pays him when he deserves because he’s a hell of a basketball player and he’s earned everything. We’re going to rely on him in the finals and, hopefully, for many years to come.”
Because the Warriors own Looney’s so-called Bird Rights, they can re-sign him at any price without worrying about going over the salary cap.
Looney has said he’d like to remain with the franchise but for now his concern is winning four more games and a third consecutive championship. Looney understands the Durant variable is significant.
“Without having KD, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “But we’re a resilient team and we’re good at figuring out ways to counter that and play without him. We’ve won big games before but the Finals are different.”
The Warriors expect Durant on the court at some point in the Finals, but no one knows exactly when that will be.
Given all the talk of recent days debating Durant’s place with the team — now and long term — will he find extra motivation when he does return to action?
“I expect him to be himself,” Looney said. “We know we’re better with him on the court. That’s why we brought him in. We know to win a championship, we need a guy like that to be on the court with us.
“It’s not like he missed the whole season . . . he’s only missed five games. He’s a difference maker for us. He’s the best closer in the league and to have him in the Finals would be great.”