January 16, 2019

Back in February, when Golden State Warriors fatigue was sweeping the nation, I cautioned at Hardwood Paroxysm that NBA fans should enjoy the Dubs’ historic excellence while they could. The air of inevitability around their quest to surpass the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the best team in league history had seemingly worn thin on some observers, but as I wrote at the time, all it took was one freak injury to derail everything we thought we knew:

You can be upset about your favorite team being a long shot for a title run this year. Don’t take your aggression out on the Warriors, though. Embrace their greatness while you can, as there’s no guarantee we see another team like this anytime soon. Free agency, injuries and trades can wreak havoc on any team, including this Bay Area juggernaut. And on the off chance your favorite team does topple Golden State in the playoffs, wouldn’t it make the victory that much sweeter? Just ask Blazers fans about the euphoria they felt as Lillard went HAM in their team’s 30-point drubbing of the Dubs coming out of the All-Star break.

Two-and-a-half months later, upon learning Monday that Stephen Curry will be out for at least the next two weeks with a Grade I MCL sprain in his right knee, it feels appropriate to say I told you so.

The Warriors did manage to surpass those 95-96 Bulls in the regular season by finishing 73-9, breaking one of the league’s most unbreakable records in the process. They entered the playoffs as the prohibitive favorite to walk away with their second straight Larry O’Brien Trophy in June, despite what the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Cleveland Cavaliers had to say about it. A title would have cemented them as one of the top two or three teams in league history, if not the best ever, depending on how easily they breezed through the playoffs.

Instead, thanks to a puddle of sweat on the court at Houston’s Toyota Center, we’re left to wonder if this historically great Warriors squad is about to be undone by some ill-timed misfortune.

Just before halftime of Game 4 on Sunday, Curry slipped while guarding Trevor Ariza, contorting his right knee awkwardly on the way down:

According to ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins, “Curry returned to the court after halftime and moved laterally to test the joint, but he stopped and shook his head toward the bench. Shortly thereafter, he headed back to the locker room and was ruled out just after the second half began.” After the game, neither Warriors head coach Steve Kerr nor Curry’s teammates sounded optimistic about the reigning MVP’s short-term availability, and their fears proved prescient upon the results of his MRI being revealed Monday.

Even without Curry, Golden State managed to blitz the Rockets 65-38 in the second half en route to a 121-94 victory, putting them up 3-1 in the series. Despite being without their star point guard for the near future, the Warriors should have little trouble sending Houston fishing in Game 5 on Wednesday, barring a volcanic eruption from both James Harden and Dwight Howard. From there, though, the road becomes significantly more difficult.

As Rotowire’s Jeff Stotts noted, low-grade MCL sprains this season tended to cost players an average of 15 days. The wording of the Warriors’ statement is noteworthy in that regard, as it didn’t say Curry will return in two weeks; it says the team’s medical staff will re-evaluate him in two weeks. As former NFL team physician David J. Chao tweeted Monday, that two-week timetable “is a good target” for Curry, but he cautioned that “healing is not like a ‘light switch,’ more ‘gradual sunrise.'” In other words, Curry won’t wake up one day and suddenly be fully healthy. He may in fact push to return before his healing process is complete, provided he’s placing himself at no further risk to exacerbate the injury. Either way, the odds are firmly against him returning before the latter half of the conference semifinals at the very earliest.

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No matter who emerges from the Los Angeles Clippers-Portland Trail Blazers series, Curry’s injury now casts serious doubt over the Warriors’ once-preordained romp to the title. Both Chris Paul and Damian Lillard are plenty capable of singlehandedly taking over games and eviscerating opponents, and without Curry’s sneaky-good defense, the Dubs will be forced to jumble their defensive rotations until he returns. On the other side of the court, without Curry’s limitless three-point range drawing defenders away from his teammates, the Dubs could find it more difficult to generate their typical plethora of open offensive looks. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson will likely be forced to take on larger ball-handling roles, which could push them a bit outside of their respective comfort zones, while Harrison Barnes and the Warriors’ bench can ill afford a no-show with Curry sidelined.

ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton estimated “only a 5 percent to 10 percent chance of the Warriors winning the title, depending on matchups, if Curry doesn’t return at all.” When discussing a potential Warriors-Clippers series, Pelton wrote, “Even without Curry, I project a nearly 50 percent chance Golden State would win the first two games at home. But the Clippers would be favored to win their home games if Curry is out, something that wouldn’t likely be true if he were available.”

There’s no guarantee the Clippers even survive the first round, of course. They’re currently battling a plucky Portland team that made this into a series with a 96-88 win in Game 3 on Saturday. Regardless of who advances, the Warriors can only hope the Blazers pull off at least one more win to ensure the series goes six games, if not seven. Every additional day of rest now takes on heightened importance, both for Curry’s ongoing healing process and for his Warriors teammates who will have to carry the torch temporarily without him.

If the Warriors do survive against the Clippers or Blazers and advance to the conference finals, they’ll almost assuredly be greeted by either the Spurs or Thunder, both of whom proved plenty capable of playing the Warriors tight with Curry in the lineup. A Curry-less Warriors team would likely enter that series against San Antonio or Oklahoma City as the underdog, as implausible as that would have sounded even a week ago. Seeing as the conference finals are set to start no later than May 17, that gives Curry a little more than three weeks to recover in a best-case scenario.

As ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe tweeted Monday afternoon, Curry’s injury is just the latest reminder of how even the best-laid plans can quickly go awry in the NBA:

Two weeks ago, the Warriors appeared destined to be crowned as perhaps the greatest team in NBA history. Now, thanks to a Donatas Motiejunas sweat stain, Golden State’s air of inevitability has begun rapidly taking on water.

Let Curry’s injury be a reminder to us all: When witnessing a historical feat, enjoy it while you can. Destiny has a funny way of taking hard left turns at the most unexpected times.

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Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin' about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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