The story of Tuesday night’s contest between the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors is the status of Kevin Durant, who suffered a potentially serious knee injury after less than a minute of game time and went straight to the locker room. Durant’s status could determine the Warriors’ ability to win a second championship in two years — the results of his MRI could shift the NBA’s balance of power for the rest of the season. Under such circumstances, the last 47 minutes of a late February game can only matter so much.
Nevertheless, what transpired after Durant’s injury rates is worth every basketball fan’s attention. The Wizards’ 112-108 win was fun, dramatic, and more generally a worthwhile example of two good teams matching each other big play for big play. Durant’s injury set a dark tone early and in the aftermath of the Warriors’ loss, but the game itself thankfully offered the best of what the league has to offer.
It did not necessarily look likely to go down as classic in the first half. Durant’s quick exit to the locker room threw off the Warriors for most of the first half, and the Wizards took full advantage. A 40-26 first quarter played out as the score would suggest — Washington flew up and down the court thanks to stellar playmaking from John Wall (six assists), 16 points from Bradley Beal (6-of-7 FG, 3-of-3 3FG), and a bevy of shots at the rim. The Wizards converted six of their eight looks inside and looked in total control.
The Warriors managed to out-score the hosts by two points in the second quarter, but the general dynamic of the matchup did not change in any meaningful way. Stephen Curry continued his poor 0-of-11 shooting on threes from Monday’s win at the Philadelphia 76ers and missed his first three attempts on Tuesday, an especially tough development with Durant out. Klay Thompson was the only Warrior to make a three-pointer in the first half, and his 3-of-7 showing looked less impressive than that line indicates. Golden State would have been in big trouble if not for 28 points from the bench, and either way the best team in the league entered halftime down 61-49.
It became clear early in the second half that the rest of the game would not proceed along the same lines. The Warriors came out with renewed focus and vigor, opening the half on a 10-2 run to cut the lead to just four points. The game stabilized there — the Warriors tied it at 85-85 to end the quarter and never trailed by double digits again.
The change was most evident in the play of Curry. With his jumper rarely falling — he finished just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc — Steph attacked the rim and did not shy away from contact. Unlike in the performances he’s become most famous for, this game did not find Curry effortlessly shedding defenders and draining shots only he would think to take. He had to show his work to get to his team-high 25 points.
Steph Curry last two games:
14-23 from 2
2-20 from 3
— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) March 1, 2017
From that quarter-opening run on, the game depended less on a consistent narrative and alternating runs than both teams trading terrific plays. Players up and down each team’s rotations showed up — Otto Porter for the Wizards, Shaun Livingston for the Warriors, and many others. The final four points for Washington came at the line, with Porter breaking the tie at the 0:17 mark and Markieff Morris nailing the game-clinching shots with three seconds left.
As in the Wizards’ loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers three weeks prior, this was a high-level game in which every play added to the feeling of excitement. No one left the court as a goat. It was possible to quibble with Curry’s decision to take a very long three-pointer as an answer to Porter’s free throws, but he’s made those shots before and understandably wanted to go for the win on the second night of a road back-to-back.
Even if the Wizards hadn’t won, though, their perseverance after the Warriors’ comeback stood out most. The team has made great strides since a 6-12 start to the season, with players finding their grooves despite a weak bench. It also helps that Wall has developed into a no-doubt star — his 19 assists on Monday were just part of his latest terrific performance.
The moral victory for the Warriors was certainly not enough to make up for the pain of seeing Durant go down in the opening minute. Golden State can’t fall back on progress. They have to win, or else it’s all for nothing.
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