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 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 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 (and especially All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) will take on greater 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 seven games. The Blazers' win in Game 4 tied the series at 2-2, so the series will not end before Friday's Game 6. If either team wins in six, Game 1 of the conference semis begins on Sunday. If it goes seven, Game 1 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 and Clippers go the full seven. 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 against either opponent, with both potential opponents located in the Pacific time zone via short flights.
A series with the Clippers looked very difficult at the time Curry's MRI results were reported, but the situation changed dramatically when Chris Paul broke his hand on Monday night in Portland. If Paul (and perhaps Blake Griffin, as well) misses at least as much time as Curry, then the Clippers will be fighting an uphill battle to get past the Blazers. As Kenny Smith noted on "Inside the NBA" Monday night, Paul "creates the style" to an extent Curry does not — it's possible to imagine Golden State playing generally the same way they do without Curry (and we have in the Houston series) but very difficult to imagine anyone in a Los Angeles uniform approximating what Paul does. That's true enough of his offensive impact, let alone the job he's done defending Damian Lillard in this first-round series. The Clippers would be in better shape if Griffin were in top form, but he has looked a little out of sorts since returning from a long layoff in early April and will probably be in worse shape after re-aggravating his left quadriceps injury minutes after Paul left Game 4.
The Blazers would likely be a more difficult opponent for the Warriors if only because they're not nursing major injuries. At the same time, Golden State would be able to rely on far more experience than its opponent and the knowledge that the path to beating Portland is well known — stop Lillard and C.J. McCollum and worry about the rest as it comes up. The Blazers showed in Game 4 that they can succeed with other players stepping up when the guards falter, but most teams would take their chances with that scenario. To be sure, the Warriors would be a vulnerable No. 1 seed in that matchup. But they'd likely enter as favorites.
They would likely maintain that position no matter the opponent 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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