OAKLAND, Calif. — For most teams, losing a superstar talent such as Kevin Durant for several weeks would leave them scrambling to find their equilibrium. Most teams, however, are not the Golden State Warriors, who have three other all-NBA players — including Stephen Curry, the league’s two-time reigning most valuable player.
So when Durant suffered an MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise in his annual return to Washington on Feb. 28, the expectation was that while losing Durant would certainly be detrimental, an increase in production from Curry (along with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) would compensate. After all, that trio was the backbone of a team that had won 140 games, a championship and made another NBA Finals appearance the past two seasons.
Instead, just when the Warriors have needed Curry the most, the greatest shooter in NBA history has seemingly lost his stroke.
Sure, Curry had 29 points on his 29th birthday Tuesday night, including 12 in the fourth quarter as Golden State erased a 12-point deficit to avoid a humiliating home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. A defeat would have been Golden State’s fourth in a row.
But the uptick in his performance in the fourth quarter still made for an ugly stat line, particularly by Curry’s standards: 8-for-23 shooting, including 5 for 13 from three-point range, five assists and five turnovers. In isolation, it feels like an aberration.
When put in the context of Curry’s past eight games — he sat out of Saturday’s Spurs-Warriors game — it looks more like the rule than the exception. Curry is scoring 25 points per game over that stretch, but is just 71 for 180 (39.4 percent) from the field overall and a staggering 23 for 89 (25.8 percent) from three-point range.
Not coincidentally, the Warriors were 4-4 in those eight games and 49-9 to that point.
“It’s frustrating only because in the moment everything feels good,” Curry said after the game. “You just want to make shots.
“As a competitor and a gamer, that’s what you expect to happen. It doesn’t affect the next shot. It’s just one of those things you just kind of have to pull yourself through. The next opportunity, step up like you’ve made 10 in a row and see what happens.”
Curry can try to say everything feels good, and that everything is still happening with the same rhythm and flow it always does, but it’s hard to believe him. His own actions even said otherwise.
Early in the second half, when he hit a three-pointer, he raised his arms as if to say “finally.” As the Warriors clawed their way back into the game later in the second half, the Sixers called a timeout and Curry let out a primal roar.
“That’s what I love about Steph, is that he’s never going to stop shooting and he never loses confidence,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “It wasn’t his night and yet he still scored 12 in the fourth quarter. That’s the mark of a star.
“When it’s not your night and you still hit big shots to help your team win … I thought it was a really good response on an otherwise tough night for Steph.”
Curry made some crucial shots, but it was Green who dragged Golden State over the finish line with a combination of ferocious defense and sheer willpower. Green can have a huge impact, one reason he will either win the defensive player of the year award he covets or finish second for a third straight season.
Curry’s shooting struggles were not the Warriors’ only problem on Tuesday. Golden State allowed the worst offense since the all-star break to put up 90 points through three quarters, got nothing from its bigs as Philadelphia pounded the Warriors in the paint, and only got 29 combined points from everyone besides Curry, Green and Thompson.
But without Durant, the Warriors know their fate is in Curry’s hands. And until he rediscovers himself, it’s hard to see how the Warriors will shake the post-Durant malaise in which they are mired.