will miss at least two weeks with MCL sprain of his right knee, as first reported by The Vertical. The overwhelming championship favorites and 73-game winners will now be without the league’s top offensive weapon for parts of two series and could even enter the Western Conference Finals as underdogs.The first major story of the 2016 NBA Playoffs arrived Monday with the news that Golden State Warriors guard and presumptive back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry
The question is not just what the Warriors will look like without Curry, but whether his absence will doom a season that looked set to crown them as one of (if not the!) greatest teams in NBA history.
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It’s perhaps silly to look too far ahead when Golden State still needs to close out its first-round series with the Houston Rockets, but anyone who has watched that matchup should feel like a clinching win is more inevitability than likelihood. The Warriors hold a 3-1 advantage despite Curry having played all of 39 minutes, with the Rockets playing with the same inconsistency and lack of energy that typified their extremely disappointing season. Golden State has looked just fine without Curry, losing Game 3 by just a single point on the road despite a poor performance and taking control of Game 4 with a devastating second-half run after Curry had been ruled out. A few days off before Wednesday’s Game 5 should afford the Warriors a chance to focus on the task at hand and put themselves in position to advance to the next round.
The schedule for that Western Conference Semifinals series could go a long way towards determining how the Warriors fare for the remainder of the playoffs. If the Warriors win Game 5, they will have at least a few days of rest before the start of the next series, an important factor given that every player will take on new responsibilities in the absence of Curry. They’ll get a few more crucial days if their potential opponents in that next series, the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers, go six or seven games. The Clippers currently lead 2-1 after Saturday’s Blazers win and can take commanding control of the series with a win in Game 4 on Monday night. Game 5 is scheduled for Wednesday, and an if-necessary Game 6 would occur on Friday. If that series goes six, the Warriors wouldn’t start the conference semis until Sunday. If the Blazers take two of the next three, the next series starts on Tuesday.
It should be fairly apparent that the Warriors would really love to win Wednesday’s Game 5 at Oracle and have the Blazers push the Clippers to the brink. That would give them perhaps as few as three games prior to Curry’s reevaluation, a difficult prospect but a relatively fortunate turn of events under the circumstances. Golden State would also have an easy travel schedule for each series, with both potential opponents located in the Pacific time zone via short flights.
That’s not to say playing without Curry would be easy, especially if the Clippers advance as expected. Chris Paul controls the tempo and flow of a game like few point guards and could force the Warriors into an up-and-down style they can’t countenance without the most prolific open-court shooter the game has ever seen. Draymond Green would also have to check Blake Griffin for an entire series, a task that could take away from his ability to run the offense for 40-plus minutes. Plus, while the Clippers have a history of frittering away excellent opportunities in the postseason, they appear to have established new levels of resolve this season and would relish the opportunity to win a game or two in Oakland before Curry even considers a return to the court. It’s perhaps best to think of the Warriors as underdogs in this scenario, not just a vulnerable No. 1 seed. Curry is as valuable as “Most Valuable Player” suggests.
Yet all hope is not lost, because one of Golden State’s greatest virtues arguably becomes stronger in Curry’s absence. The Warriors did not win 73 games purely on the basis of tactical and strategic advantages — they did it because they cared enough to do it and slogged through a good number of substandard showings to pull out victories when most teams wouldn’t have. It was a quality readily apparent on Sunday, when the Warriors took the absence of Curry as a reason to stomp the Rockets into further irrelevance and break the NBA playoff record for most threes in a single game even though the best shooter in the history of the sport only had one. And it’ll probably show up again.
Not having the MVP is a big enough issue to overwhelm vague intangible strengths, particularly when the structure of the playoffs allows opponents to exploit advantages that would not loom so large on a Wednesday night in late February. Yet it’s worth believing in the Warriors even when they’re in trouble, because they’ve shown a remarkable ability to persevere through challenges all season. It would be too much to expect them to thrive without Curry, but they can certainly do well enough to treat him as an x-factor in return rather than a necessary savior.
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