When the Golden State Warriors schlep into the AT&T Center in San Antonio without Kevin Durant on Saturday night, just hours removed from a road game in Minnesota as life without their eight-time All-Star continues, the weight of an entire season will be bearing down on them.
Lose this Best-of-the-West battle as they did in a stunning season-opener 129-100, and the head-to-head tiebreaker that could determine the No. 1 seed goes to San Antonio. Lose a few more games from there, and the Warriors’ worst-case scenario could be realized in a way that could cost them the title so many expected when Durant came last July.
As hypothetical scenarios go, who would have thought the most likely option – the No. 2 seed Warriors v. the seventh-place Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round – would be the stuff of Russell Westbrook’s dreams and the Warriors’ nightmares? Just a few weeks ago, the prospect of them facing an overmatched eight-seed in the opening series – be it Denver, Portland, Dallas, or Minnesota – while fully healthy seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
It’s that kind of a daunting challenge at the moment for the Warriors, who are reeling at a time when they had hoped to be coasting. On Wednesday night, when Durant spoke publicly for the first time since suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee and a bone bruise on his tibia in a Feb. 28 game against the Washington Wizards, his frailty was symbolic of theirs.
Even with the internal optimism that he will return before the end of the regular season, it was striking to see him in such a vulnerable state. Durant entered the room with a walker, moving ever so slowly as he sat in a chair in front of the assembled room of media members. His spirits were high, but his expectations were low: straightening his leg was the day’s biggest accomplishment, right up there with hitting a few jumpers while sitting in a chair.
As the Warriors learned a year ago, there can be hell to pay if your stars are having to heal this time of year.
Steph Curry’s Grade 1 MCL sprain suffered in the first round had an undeniable effect on their failed title chase, one that still haunts them. Rhythm and swagger are hard enough to rediscover during the regular season, let alone in the middle of a pressure-packed playoff series where everything is on the line. Now, with the Warriors’ offense having disappeared without Durant (25th in offensive rating in the past five games) and the rest of the West smelling blood while they’ve lost three of their past five games, this is a familiar foe.
“Very similar injury,” Curry said when asked to compare his situation to Durant’s. “I was kind of, I guess, in a more urgent situation with us being in the middle of the first round and not knowing how long it would take for me to get healthy, one, and get a rhythm back, two.
“Obviously for him it’s not an ideal situation at all. But to be able to, hopefully, best-case scenario, have a week maybe or however long before the playoffs start, maybe get a couple games under his belt, to get his timing and rhythm back would be nice. I know he’s looking forward to taking his time and not rushing the process. That’s the biggest thing I want for him is that we’ll be ok, as long as he can get to 100 percent. Hopefully there’s enough time on the rest of the schedule before the playoffs to actually have that happen.”
But that’s the problem with the Warriors right now. For the purposes of Saturday night, they can only hope the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard doesn’t have yet another MVP-caliber performance planned. We’ll see come Saturday night at 8:30 ET on ABC.
The 25-year-old small forward seized the NBA spotlight in just 24 seconds on Monday night, when he buried a late three-pointer against the Houston Rockets on one end and unleashed a monstrous block of fellow MVP candidate James Harden’s layup attempt on the other. It was the Happy Meal version of what Leonard (26.3 points, six rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.9 steals per game) has been doing all season long, a well-timed reminder that the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year should receive serious consideration in what has become a compelling MVP race.