The Golden State Warriors are now 3-5 since Kevin Durant suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain and tibia bone bruise.
A four-game lead atop the Western conference has been whittled down to 0.5 after a 22-point drubbing at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. If it weren’t for a fourth-quarter rally against the Philadelphia 76ers last night, the Warriors would be trailing the Spurs.
The Warriors seem unperturbed by this, a conditioning perhaps precipitated by events last year that saw them sacrifice a fair deal in pursuit of 73 wins, but left them short of the ultimate prize.
“I think it’s for us to be better down the stretch; for us to get a little rest and get back in a groove,” said Draymond Green, the fulcrum of both the Warriors offence and defence. “You’re more or less saying we don’t care if we win or lose this game tomorrow.”
After Steph Curry looked a shadow of himself in the NBA Finals following a sprained knee in the Conference Semis and landing on his elbow after a fall in the Conference Finals, the Warriors are taking no chances. They have every right to believe they are the best team in the league at full-strength, and so health should be a top priority.
What has become abundantly clear is that unlike the past two years, the Warriors can’t rely on their role players in the manner they used to. At least for the regular season, health has been by their side, and as a result, role definition and rotations have never been an issue.
Barbosa and Speights were both veterans that fit the Warriors mould perfectly, stepping up when the Warriors needed a spark, and doing it in a way that maintained Dub Nation’s style of play. Steve Kerr, his coaching staff, and the front office must have thought Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala would have been able to concoct a similar spell with Ian Clark, David West, and one of the Warriors stars that would stagger over, but it’s the one alpha that has altered the dynamic.
The beauty of the Warriors for the last two seasons was that there was an unerring flow to their offence. No matter who stepped in, their style of play never altered. Their style now is much more star-centric, and leaves them searching for an identity with one now missing.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I kind of like it,” Kerr said. “I think you need some adversity. We obviously have some, probably for the first time in two and a half years, in the regular season.”
Below is an example of Steve Kerr trying to cope with some of that adversity:
What was once a successful component of his lineup rotation has faltered when the only adjustment is Green for Durant. While Green’s presence is enough to maintain a similar defensive rating, the offence has completely fallen apart. With Durant in this lineup, Golden State has two excellent outside threats that enable ideal spacing. Green replacing Durant leaves Klay Thompson as the only credible three-point threat, and makes defending this lineup that much easier.
Kerr appears to have stumbled upon this by accident, as he was forced to replace Livingston (rest) with Ian Clark in this unit for the game against Minnesota. Clark has shot 42.1% from beyond the arc this season on 126 attempts, and once again gives this lineup two strong three-point threats. 13 of this unit’s 15 minutes came against the Timberwolves, and yielded results much more in line with what the unit accomplished with Durant.
These units usually feature early in the second and fourth quarters, playing approximately 10 minutes per game. It will be interesting to see if Kerr sticks to Clark going forward.
Adjust as Kerr might, the possibility of a second seed has never looked stronger. 11 of Golden State’s final 16 games will be played in the friendly confines of the Oracle Arena. The Spurs will play 11 of their final 17 games at home, including a pivotal matchup against the Warriors on Mar. 29. If the offence continues to struggle, that two-seed looks ever more likely and will present a much more arduous ascent to the top.
As of today, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies are locked in a battle for seventh, and each presents their own set of challenges. The Thunder will still be considered heavy underdogs with or without the presence of Durant, but will can wear the Warriors down mentally more than any other conference opponent.
Memphis has already defeated them twice this season and will face them a fourth and final time in the regular season on Mar. 26. The Grizzlies are not your prototypical seventh seed, and have the tools to make life difficult for a Durant-less, or even Durant-lite, Warriors. They know how to grit and grind, and can physically pound the Warriors. Win either series, and Golden State will still likely have to contend with the Houston Rockets in the second round.
Finally, you also have to wonder just how long Durant will be affected by the injury. As mentioned earlier, the former MVP is dealing with two separate issues; a sprained MCL and a bone bruise. When asked about what stands in Durant’s way when he returns, New York City orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Armin Tehrany, had this to say to United Press International:
“Some bone bruises can take longer than we hope to allow the player to play pain free. He might still be able to play, but he might have a little bit of pain lingering from the bone bruise.”
These are little things that can impact the confidence of a player, and prevent one from playing to the best of their capabilities. Durant will also be entering free agency once again this year, and will be wary that re-injury could impact his future.
Life without Kevin is already proving difficult, and while the initial fear of months was reduced to weeks, the impact on the pursuit of the ultimate goal may be just the same.
- All stats obtained from NBA.com/stats