The Golden State Warriors have been here before.
It was just two years ago that the defending champions were the heavy favorites to win yet another title before Stephen Curry suffered an MCL sprain in the first round of the playoffs. He returned to the lineup for good in Game 4 of Golden State’s second-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers, though he never quite returned to the form that made him the first-ever unanimous MVP winner.
With the 2017-2018 NBA regular season coming to a close, it’s once again Curry’s knee that’s an issue. In his first game back from an ankle injury Friday night, the sharpshooter suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain that will sideline him for a few weeks. He’ll be re-evaluated on April 14 when the postseason begins.
Thankfully, for the Warriors’ sake, this injury occurred a month earlier in the season than Curry’s 2016 MCL sprain, though the circumstances surrounding it are nearly identical. The point guard hurt his knee in Game 4 of the team’s first-round series upon returning from an ankle injury that he suffered in the series opener.
Golden State’s 2016 season ended when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 series deficit and won Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Likely still not completely recovered from his injuries, Curry was stifled by Kevin Love as he looked to tie the score in the contest’s final minute, just two months removed from putting up one of the greatest offensive seasons ever.
Head coach Steve Kerr knows how important Curry is to the team, and he wants to make sure his star is 100 percent when Golden State needs him the most. That apparently means keeping Curry out for at least the first round of the playoffs.
“Oh, there’s no way he’s playing in the first round,” Kerr told reporters Sunday. “There’s no way. So yeah, we have to be ready to play without him and see how he’s coming along. The good thing is, we’ve been through this. We should feel good about our ability to play through this stuff.
“We also know that Steph has a history of coming back strong from injuries. So there’s a good chance, if all goes well, he comes back during the playoffs at some point, we’re at full steam. So that’s the goal and that’s our plan.”
Even with a lineup that includes three other All-Stars and probably the NBA’s second-best player, the Warriors would be hard-pressed to win a title without Curry. He’s the team’s most important player, and it shows when he’s unable to suit up.
When Curry has been on the court this season, Golden State has outscored their opponents by an average of 13.7 points per 100 possessions. That number goes down to just two points per 100 possessions when the guard is on the bench.
By comparison, the Warriors have a +8.0 net rating when Kevin Durant is on the court and a + 7.1 net rating when the forward is on the bench. The on/off stats for Draymond Green (+8.2/+6.9) and Klay Thompson (+9.2/+5.1) don’t compare to Curry’s either.
With Curry in the lineup and Durant sidelined this season, the Warriors are a perfect 8-0. Golden State has gone 12-5 with their roles reversed.
With news that Steph Curry will likely miss the remainder of the regular season, here's a look at how the Warriors have done this season with and without him.
Spoiler alert – they're better when he plays. You should still read the graphic though. pic.twitter.com/35uo6eFAKS
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 24, 2018
Durant’s presence makes Golden State much better equipped to handle a Curry injury than they were two years ago. With Curry out or at less than 100 percent, the Warriors can rely on three All-Stars instead of two, including last year’s NBA Finals MVP.
In the 2016 playoffs, it was Durant that almost prevented the Warriors from even reaching the NBA Finals. Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder took a 3-1 series lead over Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, only to lose in seven games.
In the 2018 playoffs, it could be the Houston Rockets that will stand in the way of Golden State and yet another trip to the finals. This time around, however, it’ll be the Warriors’ opponent that will have home-court advantage and the runaway MVP winner.
James Harden is having a 2016 Curry-like season, leading the league in scoring (30.7 ppg) and ranking third in assists (8.7 apg). He’s averaging 1.67 points per field-goal attempt and grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game for good measure.
Harden is joined in the backcourt by veteran point guard Chris Paul, who might now be the most underrated player in all of basketball. Clint Capela is a walking double-double and leads all players in field-goal percentage.
That’s certainly a team that can defeat a banged up Warriors’ team.
LeBron James and the Cavs are the favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals, once again. They would be significant underdogs against Golden State, and it’s hard to believe anyone else in the conference could truly threaten the defending champs.
Golden State is still the odds-on favorite to win a third title in four years because of their depth.
Just look at what happened a year ago when Kevin Durant hurt his knee. The forward missed 19 of Golden State’s last 22 regular-season games, as well as Game 2 and Game 3 of their first-round playoff series.
None of it mattered, as the Warriors went 16-1 in the postseason and Durant played arguably the best basketball of his career.
“The good thing is we’ve been through this,” Kerr said. “We’ve went through it last year with [Kevin Durant] … It wasn’t exactly the same timeline, but it was a similar injury and similar circumstances where we had to play without one of our best players. And we felt that appropriate fear and turned it up and got it going — and then when KD came back, Finals MVP after missing six weeks. So, there’s a lot of similarities here, and I think we should feel good about our ability to play through this stuff.”
Each one of Golden State’s stars is recovering with the playoffs approaching. Durant and Green have missed recent games with minor injuries. Thompson hasn’t played the team’s last six contests, and he’s expected to miss more time with a fractured right thumb.
All three players are expected to be ready for the start of the postseason, and Curry hopes to be right alongside them when the playoffs begin.
“Hopefully, I prove what coach said was wrong and put myself in position to get back as soon as possible,” Curry told reporters. “But right now, who knows? Just try to do my job in the rehab process and get back as soon as I can.”
In an ever-changing Western Conference postseason picture, Golden State is currently slated to face the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round.
Curry is averaging 26.4 points, 6.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game. He’s first in the league with a 67.5 true shooting percentage.