Well, that was quick. The Warriors’ season went from “can they win 70 games?” to “will they stay No. 1 in the West?” faster than LeBron James chased down that Andre Iguodala layup.
As you might imagine, these are somewhat fearful times with the Dubs, given the Kevin Durant injury situation, and as such, projections of dominance are being nervously appealed. The aura of invincibility is gone, if only temporarily, and suddenly we have suspense near the top of the Western Conference.
The five-alarm fire was sounded recently when the Warriors lost two straight games — oh, the horrors — for the first time in what seemed like decades. Nevermind that the Warriors still employ a rare NBA Big Three, and that Iguodala looked downright frisky Monday night in Atlanta by reminding folks he was once Finals MVP, and that coach Steve Kerr still pushes all the right buttons.
With Durant fretting over an MCL sprain and bone bruise that could cost him a few more weeks, vulnerability has been sensed and a clear highway to another conference title isn’t so automatic for the team that has ruled the West two years straight but hasn’t frightened anyone lately.
Yet, should that be the big concern here for Golden State? Should Kerr and company sweat the shadow of the San Antono Spurs, who are quietly pitter-pattering on the Warriors’ heels? Or even the Houston Rockets, the only team in the league who can match Golden State’s gunpowder? How much does best record in the regular season mean anyway, other than hosting a Game 7 if a playoff series comes down to that?
Well. What happens between now and mid-April, when the season ends, is one thing. What happens once Durant returns — assuming he does return — is another.
The Warriors are a big-picture team, built for June, laser-focused on a third straight trip to The Finals, hell-bent on avenging the infamous blown 3-1 lead, and deathly afraid of getting punked on by a basketball nation if they somehow come up short. In that sense, losing the best record to Houston or San Antonio is No Big Deal.
Seeing KD struggle once he returns — again, if he returns — is a Very Big Deal.
The schedule brings the Celtics to Oakland on Wednesday (10:30 ET, ESPN), the appetizer before the trip to San Antonio, where a pulse-checking showdown with the Spurs await. The Warriors have another trip to the Spurs later this month and by then the order of the West could look different.
By all indications, though, this is a team that carries no sense of panic. Stephen Curry seems ready to raise his game, maybe not to two-time MVP level but close enough. Klay Thompson is prepared to accept some of the scoring load lost to Durant. Draymond Green is aiming to minimize the loss of Durant and if you doubt his confidence, just ask him, as always.
“This team knows what (it’s) capable of doing,” Green said. “We’ve proven ourselves before.”
With Durant in the lineup, Curry could have a handful of so-so shooting nights and no problem, Durant could take up the slack. That, more than anything else, is the big change from then until now. There’s an urgency for Curry to be more efficient because the Warriors’ offense once again leans mainly on his jumper.
It’s almost unfair to ask Curry to be the player he was a year ago, when he was the first unanimous MVP. That’s a stretch for anyone. Curry destroyed all 3-point records and also joined the exclusive 50-40-90 club, the shooting percentages from the floor, 3-point line and free throw line. Over the last three seasons, he raised the bar for himself and broke new ground for long distance shooters, and also broke the spirits of defenses in the process.
Rare is the night when Curry doesn’t make at least five 3-pointers and struggles overall, but those kind of nights have been more frequent this season. Before shooting a respectable 11-for-28 from deep in the last two games, Curry went 4-for-31 in the previous three, including the infamous 0-for-11 in Philadelphia. His pre-game routine hasn’t changed, just the results, to an extent. The video of Kerr engaged in a calm discussion with Curry on the bench a few days ago in New York, as Curry’s misfires continued, was telling. Kerr told Curry not to worry, to trust his talent and then hilariously to “carry on, my son.”
Partly because of the presence of Durant, Curry isn’t as prominent on MVP-watch lists, but his dip in shooting has also hurt those chances.
Another issue is rest. Normally, Kerr would begin the process of reducing playing time for his important players or sitting them altogether. But does he have that luxury now, with Durant out and a conference title at stake? Again, Kerr prefers to honor the big picture and plans to give rest as needed, regardless of how many or how few games the Warriors are ahead in the standings.
“We’ll keep an eye on everybody,” he said. “If we have to rest certain guys, we’ll rest them.”
Yes, preservation is the goal, ahead of getting best-record in the conference. Not that the Warriors wouldn’t mind having both. But they’d rather not take risks and be shorthanded times two. That’s the approach the Spurs take every season. Gregg Popovich, the king of resting players and preparing for the playoffs, isn’t changing that philosophy now, with the Spurs within reach of the Warriors.
“We don’t try to catch anybody,” Popovich said recently. “We just play. Where we end up, we end up.”
Durant will be evaluated over time. He has told friends he hopes and expects to return to the lineup before the season ends, although it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Warriors put the brakes on that scenario. One: They don’t need him, especially if Iguodala, whose minutes have increased, raises his game. Two: Getting best-record suddenly isn’t such a must-have. Three: Golden State wants to diminish, as much as possible, the chances of a relapse, similar to what Durant experienced three years ago when he hurt his foot in Oklahoma City. Four: They’d probably be able to handle their first-round opponent without Durant if necessary.
“We’re just going to go out there and play our game, just like normal,” said Curry, even though this isn’t a normal situation for the Warriors.
For a team coming off a 73-win season and added one of the five-best players in the world and ruled the NBA the first four months of 2016-17, it’s all about survival, a word commonly used with the less fortunate teams in the NBA.
To be clear, the Warriors are very fortunate even without Durant. But check back in April and May, if Durant’s health and status is still an issue.