Written by: Danish Z
Kevin Durant is the Warriors’ best player. Steph Curry won back-to-back MVP’s because it’s fun to watch him make ridiculous 3’s and demoralize opposing squads with ignorant jacks that somehow go in. Klay Thompson gets to the hottest peak-supernova level of anyone in today’s league, as evidenced by his (separate) NBA-record 37-points-in-a-quarter and 60-points-in-3-quarters performances. We can look forward to 2 incredible scorers further spreading their wings in KD’s absence.
Durant, however, plays at an elite level on both ends of the floor. He leads the team in scoring despite taking less shots (16.7 per game) than either Curry (18.1) or Thompson (17.4). He leads the team in rebounding by a nose over Draymond Green (8.2 to 8.1). He is their leading shot-blocker at a career-high 1.6 per game, taking on rim-protection responsibilities to help the team cope with the loss of Andrew Bogut, the ground-bound limitations of Zaza Pachulia and David West, and the Shaqtin-a-Fool proclivities of JaVale McGee.
Durant’s sprained knee will be re-examined at the end of March, and the results of that examination hold tremendous importance for the NBA title race. He may be cleared to return to the court with a protective brace, a likely scenario given the nature of his injury, and certainly what the Warriors are hoping for. There would still be 6–8 games left in the regular season for him to get comfortable. The Warriors would enter the playoffs as title favorites, with the Spurs, Cavs and maybe the Rockets as the only real threats to take them out. San Antonio is only 2.5 games behind them for the 1st seed. If they fall to the 2nd seed as a result of missing Durant, they would have to face the Rockets in the 2nd round instead of avoiding them or the Spurs until the conference finals. That may not matter as they’d still be the favorites in that series, but it’s certainly a more difficult path.
In the event that Durant’s knee does not heal as well as expected, things change. The Warriors should still have little trouble getting out of the first round. If they fall to 2nd and have to face Houston without KD, that series becomes much more dangerous. The Rockets spread the floor, send a roll man to the rim and count on James Harden, Eric Gordon or Lou Williams to find an open 3 or layup, scoring tons of points out of that setup. The Warriors need Durant’s firepower to keep up on offense and defensive range to try and keep the Houston attack somewhat under control. The Warriors lost to the Rockets 132–127 in double OT in Oakland, and beat them 125–108 in Houston. They will face off twice more in the last 4 days of March (first in Houston, then back in Oakland). One of those games might even be Durant’s return to the court. The Warriors could win a 7-game series against this team without Kevin Durant, but it’s not something they’d like to try.
The Warriors’ likely opponent in the Conference Finals is the Spurs. They opened this season by losing to them 129–100 at home. They will face them twice more, both times in San Antonio. Durant will definitely miss the March 11 matchup. He may be back for the March 29 game, which is sandwiched by the 2 aforementioned games against the Rockets. In the season opener, the Spurs took advantage of their superior size and sold out to fluster any decent 3-point looks. Kawhi Leonard has been incredible all year. The Warriors will need Kevin Durant to win a 7-game series against this team.
Finally, there are the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers to consider. If they’re healthy, nobody in the East is going to beat them. Golden State’s season series against the Cavs ended in a 1–1 split. The Warriors lost a tight game in Cleveland 109–108 on Christmas. The final play featured a disputed non-call when Richard Jefferson caused Durant to fall before getting a shot off. A month later, the Warriors blew the Cavs out 126–91, sparking a series of complaints from LeBron James about the lack of “playmakers” on a “top-heavy” Cavaliers roster. They’ve since bolstered that roster with former 2nd-overall pick Derrick Williams, former All-Star Deron Williams and former Warrior Andrew Bogut without giving up anything (note: Bogut broke his leg in his first minute as a Cavalier, so he’ll only be contributing from the sideline). JR Smith, out since having thumb surgery in December, should be back on the court before the end of March. LeBron is still the best player on the planet. The Warriors will need Kevin Durant at full health to win a 7-game series against this team. That still might not be enough. Cavs-Warriors III is the event the NBA world has been waiting for all season. Hopefully injury will not prevent it from happening.