Golden State feared the worst when Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury, but his MCL strain may not be the nightmare scenario it first seemed
Its likely that there has never been a NBA team so relieved to receive the news that one of their best players would be out for at least four weeks. When Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury in Tuesdays 112-108 loss to the Washington Wizards following collision with Zaza Pachulia, the Golden State Warriors scheduled a MRI for Wednesday and braced for the worst. Luckily for them, the worst didnt arrive.
Now, the Warriors couldnt have been particularly happy to learn that Durant, their big-time offseason acquisition, had a Grade 2 MCL strain and a tibial bone bruise on his left leg. It was, however, a much sunnier diagnosis than the Warriors were expecting. Initial reports suggested that initially feared Durant had a fractured tibia, an injury that would have been season-ending.
Certainly the news seemed grim when, a few hours after Durant limped off the court, word got out that they had signed former Sacramento Kings forward Matt Barnes for the remainder of the season. It was a move that reeked of desperation, like the team had an urgent need to find a stop-gap replacement for Durant and find one quick, even if that replacement ended up being a veteran journeyman with a history of troubling off-court behavior. There isnt a word in the English language that properly conveys how much you lose when you go from Durant to Barnes. The term downgrade is laughably insufficient.
Luckily, barring a major setback, Durant will be returning to the team by the time the postseason begins, which is the only thing that really matters. This Warriors team is unique in that it can replace a perennial MVP candidate like Durant with the likes of Barnes, and still be one of the two or three best teams in the league.
This isnt to say that their path wont be a little rockier. Although the Warriors have already clinched a playoff spot, in a historically early fashion, theyre no longer locks to end the regular season on top of the Western Conference standings. While their four-game lead over the San Antonio Spurs gives them a certain amount of cushion, its not hard to see a situation where the Warriors struggle without Durant while the Spurs go on one of their runs. The race for the No1 seed, and most likely home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, could come down to the last few games.Even if the Warriors hold on to the top spot, it would make it harder for head coach Steve Kerr to rest key players down the stretch.
Kerr, of course, knows exactly what can happen to a team in the playoffs when your starters have logged too many meaningful minutes in the regular season and one of your star players is returning from a serious injury. As Yahoo Sportss Kelly Dwyer points out, Steph Currys MCL sprain was probably the biggest reason Golden State came up short in last years postseason. He never was quite the same explosive player he was during the regular season. We wont know when Durant will be close to 100%, if he even will be at any point this season. Its also worth noting that the Warriors were still in the process of integrating Durant into the lineup when he went down.
Still, Warriors fans should count themselves lucky to be in a position where their team can lose a player like Durant and still be favorites to clinch the overall top seed. Compare Golden States situation with that of the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors added Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker before the trade deadline, all-in moves that showed they wanted to make a serious run for at least the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Then, on Monday, came the news that point guard Kyle Lowry, their most important player, would be out indefinitely with a wrist injury that will most likely sideline him until the playoffs. Unless DeMar DeRozan goes full-on Russell Westbrook in his absence, not a completely impossible scenario, Toronto could be in some trouble.
Lowrys injury most likely means that the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and the suddenly resurgent Atlanta Hawks will be battling it out for the second seed in the East. This is less than ideal for the Raptors, as the trick to surviving in this years Eastern Conference playoffs probably involves avoiding the Cleveland Cavaliers for as long as possible. Meanwhile, given the caliber of early round opponents, the Warriors might not even need Durant to be fully healthy until the Western Conference Finals.
Whats happening in Toronto is whats supposed to happen when you lose one of the best players in the league for the last six weeks of the season. Things are supposed to get exponentially more difficult. The Warriors are an exception to this. They lost a surefire Hall of Famer to an injury, replaced him with a player who was cut by Sacramento, and it still looks like their worst-case scenario involves falling no further than No2 in the standings and includes an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. It seems weird to say this after the Durant injury, but the Warriors absolutely should consider themselves fortunate.