And Why the Next Month is Supremely Important for Their Title Hopes
By: Bogart Lipe
The Warriors currently stand 2.5 games ahead of the Spurs, who have predictably and quietly worked their way towards what should be another 60 win season. The next month and a half of the regular season will be of paramount importance to what Golden State hopes to do in the postseason. The number one objective will be to keep a hold of the overall top seed in the playoffs and clinch home court throughout the playoffs. Although they likely have the strongest home court advantage in the league when playing in front of the crowd at the Oracle, their prospective first-round foes present additional reasons to nab the top spot in the conference. As the playoff picture currently stands, the Warriors (if they were to be the number 1 seed) would play a team like the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, or Mavericks in the first round. Compare this with the team presently in the 7 seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder. If the Warriors were to slip to the 2 and play the Thunder, it is more likely than not that KD, if cleared, would have to exert himself much more than a matchup with the Nuggets in order to win. Add in the extra stress and pressure going up against his former team and the result would not be advantageous to his recovery. A first round matchup that allows KD to ease into action is best, considering he will not be able to do much in order to stay in shape with the pain involved with a bone bruise and knee sprain. Also, slipping down a spot in the standings would set up a probable second round matchup with arguably the Warriors’ largest threat in the West, the Rockets. Houston presents an offense nearly as proficient as the Warriors’; they may be the only team in the conference who can keep up with them. An earlier matchup with the Rockets would include a version of Durant a couple of weeks sooner into his return than if they were to meet in the conference finals. Golden State knows this, and Steve Kerr will have to rely on bigger regular season minutes from veteran leader Andre Iguodala as well as rookie Patrick McCaw to try to fill in for KD, an impossible task. If they aren’t able to coast into the playoffs with home court advantage, they will face a highly more difficult road to the Finals and will compromise Durant getting completely healthy for a rubber match Finals meeting with the Cavaliers.
Assuming the Warriors make it out of the West, they will likely have to face the Cavs once again. The Cavs have their own injury concerns, with Kevin Love also out until around the playoffs and J.R. Smith just now appearing to come back from his long absence. However, if Kevin Durant, like Steph Curry last year, is not able to get back close to 100%, the Warriors will not avenge their defeat in last year’s Finals. Durant will need to be in top form in order to help take down the Cavs, who at this point seem to have the best top to bottom team in the league with recent additions Derrick Williams, Deron Williams, and Andrew Bogut. The Warriors rely on mismatches when going up against the Cavs and a hobbled KD will ruin their chances. With a healthy Durant, the Warriors should beat the Cavs, simply because Durant and Draymond Green present incredible problems for an opposing defense, even when a big man with great lateral quickness like Tristan Thompson switches on either of them in a pick and pop/roll game. Golden State’s biggest weakness, their bench, will not be a problem if they were to make the Finals because of how well Kerr will handle the rotation. Only 7 or 8 players will play, and Kerr does a fantastic job making sure at least one, if not two, of his big 4 are on the court at all times. And when all of the big 4 are on the floor together, they have outscored opponents by an absurd 22 points per 100 possessions, making them the most devastating lineup in basketball. LeBron has owned Durant in prior meetings, but not this new version of Durant, the one who has now shown just how great he can be on the defensive end with his new team. A healthy Durant on this Warriors team would present LeBron and company their toughest task to date, including taking into account last year’s (hobbled and suspended) 73-9 Warriors.
All of this is clearly hypothetical. We do not know how far along KD will be in his recovery 3 weeks from now. It is entirely possible he will not be able to return right away and could miss even more time. If he is unable to get fully healthy this season, the Warriors will abruptly become underdogs to win the title. The only way they will be able to seriously contend without Durant is if Steph and Klay go back to their world-beater ways of last year. This has not been the case recently, culminating in combining to shoot a putrid 11-for-64 from 3 over a three game stretch. Considering everything the Warriors and their stars have shown us over the last few years, it’s impossible to count them out without Durant, but it will not be as simple as previously expected to make it through the Spurs and Rockets in the West and ultimately the Cavs in the Finals.