Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said it as plainly as he could on Sunday, telling reporters that “there’s no way” two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry will be ready to return to the team in time for the start of the 2018 playoffs on Saturday, April 14. If you’ve ever watched him throw a no-look behind-the-back lefty pass in traffic, though, you know that Curry — doesn’t always listen to his head coach.
Stephen Curry says he hopes to prove Steve Kerr wrong and return for the first round of the playoffs pic.twitter.com/nBhAKsxeFy
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) March 26, 2018
“Based on what I’ve been told, three weeks is a good benchmark to re-evaluate and reassess where I’m at, my progress and whatnot,” Curry told reporters on Sunday before the Warriors lost to the Utah Jazz, 110-91, at Oracle Arena. “Mentally, for me, [I’m] staying positive, staying upbeat. Hopefully, I prove what coach said wrong and put myself in position to get back as soon as possible. But right now, who knows? Just try to do my job in the rehab process and get back as soon as I can, and control my presence with the team and everything. Help out any way I can when I’m not on the floor.”
After six games on the shelf following another sprain of his troublesome right ankle, Curry returned to action for Friday night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks. He looked great in his first action in two weeks, pouring in 29 points in 25 minutes of floor time in less than three quarters of work. With just over three minutes left in the third, though, teammate JaVale McGee fell to the ground after attempting to block a shot by Hawks center Mike Muscala and collided with Curry’s left knee, leaving the Warriors star limping and sending him straight to the bench in obvious pain.
After the game, which Golden State won 106-94, Yahoo Sports NBA insider Shams Charania reported that Curry had injured the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The Warriors confirmed that on Saturday afternoon, reporting that an MRI exam revealed Curry had suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his left MCL and would be re-evaluated in three weeks … which, as luck would have it, would be the day the 2018 postseason starts.
The good news, here: this is the same injury suffered by superstar running buddy Kevin Durant at just about this time last year, and he came back to be an absolute monster in the playoffs, playing LeBron James heads-up in Golden State’s five-game torching of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We’ve been through this, you know?” Kerr said Sunday. “We went through it last year with KD. […] 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, I mean … Finals MVP, you know, 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.
“And we also know that Steph has a history of coming back strong from injuries,” Kerr added. “There’s a good chance, if all goes well, he comes back during the playoffs at some point and we’re at full steam. That’s the goal, and that’s our plan.”
More cause for optimism, should you be searching for it: Curry said Sunday that this injury didn’t feel quite the same off the bat as it did two years ago, when he suffered a Grade 1 strain of the MCL in his right knee after slipping on a slick spot on the court during Golden State’s opening-round matchup with the Houston Rockets.
“It was a confusing one, because I didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said, according to Chris Haynes of ESPN. “I felt my MCL before with the thing in Houston, but I didn’t feel that same type of pain, so I didn’t know what it was […] it felt good to get back to the bench and just understand my knee is OK, stable, and figure out how bad the damage was in that sense and just stay positive through it. I didn’t feel like it was a season-ending or anything. I’ll be out for a little bit and get back to playing eventually.”
And, unlike two years ago, the 30-year-old guard has been through this before.
“I mean, obviously, it’s nice that I’m walking and not limited with crutches or anything like that,” he said. “So that’s a positive. It’s also helpful to know — I don’t remember the step-by-step approach that we had last time, but I remember the feeling of what an MCL sprain is like, and how to kind of work through the rehab process, and the pain and any sense of discomfort that you feel along that way. So nothing will be new on that front. It’s just a matter of dealing with the other knee and working through that process. As time unfolds, I’ll figure out what that means.”
We’d never suggest Steph stop believing in the power of positive thinking, but the average time on the shelf for a Grade 2 sprain is six weeks, according to Jeff Stotts of injury-focused site In Street Clothes. In the short term, then, what it likely means is what Kerr said: that the Warriors will be without their star point guard through the postseason’s opening round.
Golden State should, however, have the rest of its complement of All-Stars — Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — back in full force to start the playoffs, which would mean the Warriors would remain favored against just about any other team they’d wind up facing in Round 1. If the playoffs started today, that’d be the Jimmy Butler-less Minnesota Timberwolves, but that’s extremely subject to change, given the tightly packed Western playoff chase; just three games (two in the loss column) separate the fourth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and ninth-seeded Denver Nuggets.
While the Steph-less Dubs would likely remain favored in Round 1, there’d still be cause for concern. There’s a reason why Golden State’s 41-10 with Curry in the lineup this year and 13-9 without him, and why the Warriors outscore the opposition by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions with him on the court compared to a plus-4.3-per-100 mark when he sits. No matter how much other talent Kerr can call on, Curry’s still the centerpiece of everything Golden State does.
Curry’s shooting, attacking, ball-handling and off-ball motion put opposing defenses in perpetually compromised positions, making it all but impossible for them to summon the necessary resources to send help at Durant, Thompson or anyone else in a blue and gold jersey. Other Warriors get open dunks because defenders can’t dream of leaving Curry alone for even a second. When he’s not on the court, that changes.
Moreover, it’s hard to shake the image of Curry’s inconsistency after returning from the MCL sprain in 2016; while he was still able to muster magic, he struggled to reliably generate separation and explode past defenders. If Curry’s compromised, the Warriors can’t reach their ceiling. And if they can’t get to their best game, then the Houston Rockets — perhaps the fiercest in-conference competition Golden State’s faced during the Kerr era — could very well be good enough to keep them from reaching their fourth straight Finals.
You’ll be shocked to hear that the Warriors aren’t entertaining that notion. From ESPN’s Haynes:
“Everyone just needs to relax with all this s—,” Durant told ESPN on Friday night, after Curry left the Warriors’ game against the Atlanta Hawks with a knee injury. “We’ll be fine.” […]
“We’ve been through this,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after practice Saturday. “We know the formula.”
Be that as it may, the most important ingredient in the formula that has produced one of the most successful four-year runs in NBA history is the one that’s going to be sitting on the bench and rehabbing his left knee for a few weeks. Whether or not Curry’s able to prove Kerr wrong and get back in time for the postseason’s start, the degree to which he’s able to get back to his pre-injury form could well determine whether the Warriors are once again around for its finish.
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