OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors spent the first four-plus months of this 2016-17 season on cruise control. With a roster featuring four all-stars, Golden State put its foot on the gas when it needed to, but otherwise acted like a team that knew its fate would be decided once the calendar turned to May and June. Chasing a first championship two years ago, and then 73 wins last year, left the Warriors knowing regular season glory means little if it isn’t backed up with postseason hardware.
All of that, however, was before Kevin Durant went down with a MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise last week in Washington. Suddenly, after three losses in five games, a season that was once devoid of drama for Golden State is now overflowing with it. Rotations are being questioned. So, too, is the depth of the roster, and the ability of Stephen Curry to recapture the form that turned him into the NBA’s two-time reigning most valuable player.
That’s what happens when, over the course of nine days, what was a seemingly insurmountable four-game lead over the San Antonio Spurs has suddenly shrunk to one after the Spurs recovered from a 28-point deficit — with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge sitting — Wednesday night to beat the woeful Sacramento Kings to win their ninth straight game, while the Warriors suffered a fourth quarter collapse to lose, 99-86, at Oracle Arena to the Boston Celtics.
Now the Warriors find themselves faced with heading to San Antonio for a game Saturday night — on the second half of a back-to-back, mind you — that, if they lose, will mean they are tied in the loss column with the Spurs and they will have surrendered the tiebreaker in the season series to their Western Conference rivals to boot.
Life comes at you fast in the NBA, and Golden State is learning that the hard way.
It needs to be said that none of this means all hope is lost, or that the Warriors can’t win the championship. If Durant is able to come back without incident by the start of May — as he’s expected to, even if Durant himself wouldn’t put a timetable on his return when he spoke to the media before Wednesday night’s game — Golden State will deservedly return to being favorites to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy this season.
The difference, though, is that Durant’s absence could lead to Golden State’s potential path to winning the championship is on the verge of getting vastly more difficult.
Since Durant got hurt, Golden State has insisted the star forward is going to be handled extremely cautiously. Part of that calculus was undoubtedly coming with the expectation the Warriors would remain as the top seed in the Western Conference — meaning a first-round series against the eighth seed, which would come from one of the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks or Minnesota Timberwolves. All of those teams are going to finish the season well below .500 and would be cannon fodder for the Warriors in the first round, allowing them to ease Durant back into action, and have him ready for a second round series against likely either an offensively-challenged Utah Jazz team or a Los Angeles Clippers squad Golden State has now beaten 10 times running.
Falling out of the one seed, however, opens up a series of potential pitfalls for Golden State. The obvious is a much better opponent in the first round — likely either the Memphis Grizzlies, who have beaten the Warriors twice this season, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who the Warriors have now handled comfortably three times but who also would come with a level of intensity unlike any first round series in recent memory.
Imagine if the Warriors drew the Thunder in the first round. Think Durant would be content to sit that series out, or to ease his way back in by playing on some kind of a minutes restriction? Good luck with that. And a potential series with the bruising Grizzlies could lead to far more wear-and-tear on the Warriors than would take place against a team like the Nuggets or Trail Blazers.
The even bigger problem, however, would come later, as the Warriors would very likely have to face the Houston Rockets in the second round. While Golden State would be favorites to win such a series, the fact the Rockets are chucking up over 45 threes a game since the all-star break (and Coach Mike D’Antoni has said he wants them to average 50 attempts per game the rest of the season) makes them the kind of high-octane, high-variance offense that even the Warriors at full strength could struggle to keep up with if Houston is knocking down shots.
And, even if the Warriors get past the Rockets, they’ll likely have the Spurs — with home-court advantage, no less — waiting for them in the Western Conference finals.
So it’s imperative for the Warriors to hang onto that top seed for a variety of reasons. But, to do so, Golden State is going to have to solve a few problems. The most glaring issue is the team’s lack of offense. In the five games since Durant got hurt (including the Washington game), the Warriors have scored less than 100 points twice. In the 59 games leading up to Durant’s injury, the Warriors had scored less than 100 points twice.
Some of this comes back to Golden State simply missing shots, which is fair. The Warriors went 6-for-30 from three-point range Wednesday, and are now shooting 31.5 percent from three-point range over the past five games. But part of this comes back to a problem that can’t change: the team’s lack of scoring outside of its stars.
The Warriors arguably have more depth this season than last. But last year’s Warriors had a pair of players on the bench in Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa that could come into a game and occasionally get them 15 points in a quarter. Their primary replacements this season — David West and Patrick McCaw — are at least as talented, but are bench players more in the mold of the team’s top two reserves, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. All four are heady players, good ball movers and solid defenders. None, however, are likely to provide the instant offense Speights and Barbosa were capable of supplying.
This wasn’t a problem when Durant was healthy. With him hurt, though, that lack of scoring becomes a more glaring weakness with each passing game.
So, when Curry found himself on the court while Draymond Green and Klay Thompson spent a few moments on the bench in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, the Celtics blew the game open because the Warriors couldn’t get anything going offensively. Warriors Coach Steve Kerr deflected questions about his rotations and the second unit Wednesday night, but it’s no doubt something he’s well aware of.
Meanwhile, Curry was expected to return to the MVP version of himself when Durant went down, but instead has stayed about the same. That version of Curry is still one of the best players in the league, and one who is feared by any team he plays. But that version also isn’t one that can do superhuman things, one that lifts his teammates and the Oracle Arena crowd to new heights. And, with Durant sidelined, the Warriors need the MVP version of Curry more than ever.
The halcyon days of last Monday in Warriors World are gone. In their place are the first signs of drama in a season that, until the last few days, was surprisingly boring for a team that was supposed to become the new rock stars of the NBA. Durant’s absence has changed all of that. And, if the Warriors don’t right the ship soon, the path to the championship everyone in the organization knows is the only acceptable outcome for this season could soon be dramatically more difficult no matter when he makes his eventual return.