All Photos via FIVE Magazine/GettyImages
Playoffs, baby. The best time of the year. The time, we have been waiting for for 82 games. Cut! Fast forward! Steph Curry? Out! Chris Paul? Likely done for the season! Blake Griffin? Definitely done for the year! Two teams have lost their three best players. The association’s two best point guards will miss a huge amount of time. That changes things. Maybe slightly, maybe a lot. Now that the Warriors have lost the MVP, do we have to start from scratch? Are the historical Dubs still favorites to win it all? What about the Spurs, Thunder and LeBron? Questions, and more questions. So let’s try and find some answers.
What has changed?
Remember Monday? When Steph Curry’s MRI revealed a grade one sprain of the MVP’s MCL. When the Warriors’ press release read that Mr. Triple would be re-evaluated in two weeks. Well, people started getting nervous. Not about the Rockets who weren’t too much of a problem for the Warriors. People were worried about the Clippers.
Granted, on Monday L.A.’s other team still had to win a playoff series itself. Yet, no one doubted that the Clips, being up 2-1, would end up handing Damian Lillard and his exceptionally well playing Portland Trail Blazers their vacation ticket. Simply put, the Clippers were too talented. Probably even talented enough to be as much of a pain in the ass as the Warriors might be able to handle. Without Steph Curry, everyone assumed, Chris Paul’s magical playmaking, Blake Griffin’s presence and the overall well rounded Clippers might make the Dub’s 73-9 record seem marginal.
Without Steph Curry, all of a sudden, the team that had just played the best season in NBA history seemed beatable. Despite Draymond Green. Despite Klay Thompson. Despite a still well functioning unit.
Cut! Fast forward! Monday night! „It doesn’t look good“, says Doc Rivers. If the Clippers’ coach was only talking about L.A.’s loss in game 4, things would still be ok. The series would just have gotten a tiny bit tougher, but things would still be alright for the Clippers. Well, they aren’t. Rivers isn’t complaining about his team’s lackluster performance, he’s grieving about serious injuries to his two best players. About Chris Paul’s broken hand. About Blake Griffin again suffering a quad injury that has already kept him out of uniform for a couple of weeks this season.
Cut! Fast forward! Tuesday! It’s official! Having just undergone surgery to repair the broken bone in his hand, CP3 will miss five to six weeks. BG is officially out for the post-season. What a blow! You might run straight into a Shaq screen and still feel a lot better than the Clippers do right now. I mean, within one day, they have gone from potential conference finalist to a probable first-round exit.
Don’t get me wrong, the Clippers can still beat Portland. They can still move on to the second round. On the other hand: the series’ best player is now playing in Oregon. Damian Lillard might have had his ups and downs in recent weeks, yet, without Paul and Griffin he’s the series’ number one. Especially since he doesn’t have to cope with CP3’s nerve wrecking defense anymore. From now on, Lillard should have a much easier time scoring, setting up teammates. That increases Portland’s chances dramatically. The team that no one imagined to even have the slightest shot at the playoffs all of a sudden is at least as talented as a team many thought could win it all when the season started. Now the Blazers even stole game 5 in L.A. That gives them a very realistic chance of making it to the second round, where they will meet…
What about those Warriors?
…the Golden State Warriors. Where does that leave us? Well, with the reigning MVP out for at least two weeks, the Warriors definitely look different. They lack some wizardry which might have been a problem, had the Clippers made it to the second round in full strength. But that won’t happen.
So, whether Golden States plays a depleted Clippers- or a well performing Blazers team, the Warriors are still favorites. They should beat those opponents in a seven-game series – which again makes Curry’s injury less of a problem, right? On one hand, yes. On the other, not so much. First off, Curry is out for AT LEAST two weeks, meaning he might come back later. Secondly, he’ll have to do rehab. He’ll lose rhythm. Rhythm he needs. Rhythm he had already lost a bit after injuring his ankle in game 1 against Houston.
While the Spurs, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook keep playing in postseason mode, probably building on that, Curry has to try to get fit. That doesn’t make things easier. Then again round 2 starts Monday, a week into Curry’s break. So Steph should come back some time before anyone even thinks about the conference finals. If everything goes perfectly well, he might have some games left to find his rhythm. That’s the best case scenario. Having a fit, rested Steph Curry ready for the conference finals while the other teams’ superstars have a lot more games in their legs. Baring any setbacks, of course.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that the Warriors are set to make it to the conference finals. It doesn’t mean that Curry will be one-hundred percent once he comes back. And it doesn’t mean that the Warriors are better off with their best player having to take some time off. Curry’s injury makes their hunt for the re-peat a lot harder. It opens up the race. Yet, with Paul and Griffin out, chances are, Golden States will meet either San Antonio or OKC in the conference finals. A win in that series wasn’t safe before and it isn’t now.
One way or the other, though, there is one thing that comes into play now: the magic of adversity. After Curry’s injury the Warriors had to stick together. They wanted to step in for their MVP – and did so in impressive fashion. In the five quarters following Steph’s injury, Golden State blew out the Rockets. Klay Thompson went red hot from three, becoming the first player to ever hit 7 threes in two consecutive playoff games. Draymond Green (almost) got back into triple-double mode. Everyone stepped up. A team that was pretty close before, seems to have gotten a little closer. That might help in the course of the playoffs…
Is there a new favorite in town?
…which brings us to the question, everyone is asking since Curry went down: Do we have a new favorite? Are the Spurs front runners now? How about OKC? Or have LeBron’s chances of bringing a championship to Cleveland increased? Well, you tell me. There are so many factors, so many questions. Even with Curry in full health it was far from sure that the Warriors would defend their title. So lets just play some guessing game.
Let’s assume Curry, who is set to test his knee on court next week, will come back some time during the second round. Let’s assume the Warriors, still a better team than the injury-plagued Clippers or Blazers, are up one or two games. Let’s further assume, Curry gets enough time to get back his rhythm, to get ready for the conference finals. Where does that leave us?
Well, basically right where we began. The Warriors would still be favorites. On the other hand they could still lose a playoff series against the Spurs or the Thunder – even against Cleveland. With a full-strength Clippers team in sight, Curry’s injury seemed devastating. All of a sudden a second-round exit seemed everything but improbable. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out, the Warriors might even benefit. Of course, everything has at least to go according to the plan. Curry has to come back in time. If he does though he should have enough time to prepare for the conference finals – with all due respect to the Blazers or Clippers. He should come back to a team, that has found other guys to step up. A team that has faced – and conquered – adversity. A team that has sticked together.
And finally: a team that has pretty good chances to re-peat. Granted, those are a lot of „ifs“, a lot of assumptions, a lot of best-case scenarios. And ultimately, a lot of guessing. But isn’t that, what „predicting“ sports is about? Because in the end, it is pretty tough to picture this year’s playoff picture perfectly. We’re witnessing a year where we’ve got four teams that are as close as it gets, two of which play historically well.
So if things are not going well with Curry’s injury, there are three teams that might and probably will take advantage. The Spurs, Thunder and Cavs are good enough to use every slump the Warriors might find themselves in – be it just a tiny one. But that’s nothing new. We knew that even before Curry went down. No mistakes allowed. So lets just hope, Curry comes back in time. Not because, I want the Warriors to win it all. Rather because I want to see great basketball. With Curry’s, Paul’s and Griffin’s injuries we got (partly) robbed of the opportunity to see clashes between the best possible teams. So lets hope it doesn’t go further. In the post season we want to see the best of the best, right? Because, you know, that’s playoffs, baby!