Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Just how vulnerable are the Warriors without Stephen Curry? We know how this may well play out because we saw this movie last year. Kevin Durant got injured in Game 60 last season and was not 100 percent going into the playoffs, yet the Warriors went 16-1 through the postseason on their way to the title. This season it’s easy to envision all the Warriors All-Stars getting healthy — Durant and Draymond Green should return this week, Klay Thompson before the playoffs, and Stephen Curry somewhere late in the first round or early in the second — and they all will be rested and healthy. The Warriors will flip the switch and blow everyone out of the water. They have the talent, this could be their reality.
However, this year feels different.
This year the Warriors look vulnerable. We came into this season and went through much of it thinking they would run away with another title, but as the playoffs near it doesn’t look that way at all.
In part because Curry will not be back for the first round of the postseason, according to Steve Kerr. Also, even when he does return he will not be 100 percent — and we saw in the 2016 Finals what it looks like when Curry’s knee is not 100 percent. He was not the same when he doesn’t move as well laterally and can’t lose guys — with a ring on the line he could not shake Kevin Love on the perimeter — and the Warriors fell. Curry has already missed more games this season (22) than he had the past five seasons combined (16).
The Warriors offense is built around Curry and his style — it’s not just his points, it’s his ball movement and movement off the ball. Other teams can’t ignore him, even if he’s 28 feet from the rim on the weak side, and that off-ball gravity pulling defenders toward him opens up everything in the Warriors offense. Golden State’s offense is 14.4 points per 100 possessions better when Curry is on the court this season.
Remove Curry and the Warriors are still dangerous because they have elite scorers in Durant and Thompson, but the style changes some. Durant uses a lot more isolations and post ups, the ball doesn’t move as well. The Warriors are still good, because Durant is an isolation beast and can post up a lot of defenders, but without the ball movement they are a little more predictable, they take more midrange jumpers (29 percent of their shot attempts are midrangers when Curry is on the court, that jumps to 43 percent when he’s is out, stat via Cleaning The Glass).
Put simply, the Warriors without Curry have a point differential in the Portland/Utah/Minnesota range, not NBA champion level.
The questions are, who will the Warriors face in the first round and can that team pull off the upset? Golden State is all but officially locked in as the two seed. The West is still a jumbled mess, but most likely the Warriors will face one of the Pelicans, Spurs, Timberwolves or Jazz, in a 2-7 matchup. There are teams in there that will be tough outs and have, at least, a puncher’s chance at the upset. Utah is a team other West teams talk about wanting to avoid — they are physical, defensive, and with the emergence of Donovan Mitchell have enough offense to win. The Spurs may have Kawhi Leonard back and that would change everything for them. The Timberwolves expect to have Jimmy Butler back, and that makes them much better defensively and far more dangerous.
There are no pushovers in the West (and we’re not even getting into Houston in the potential conference finals matchup, they could beat a healthy Warriors team). Still, the Durant-led Warriors very likely win a tough first-round matchup. Then they will almost certainly face Portland in the second round — and if Curry is not back that would be a tough ask. Portland is a top-10 defensive team in the league this season who can get buckets with that backcourt. Damian Lillard we know is clutch and is having an All-NBA level season. And that brings us to their other guard…
2) C.J. McCollum drops 34 and drains game-winner as Trail Blazers beat Thunder. We are not going to focus on Carmelo Anthony‘s rough night (but when you think about OKC in the playoffs you have to factor that in), but rather on what the Trail Blazers did right to put a lock on the three seed in the West.
One thing they almost always get right — feed the hot hand. Often in recent weeks that has been Lillard, but on Sunday it was McCollum’s turn to put up the numbers, then hit the game-winner against the Thunder.
Portland is legit. There are no easy first-round matchups in the West, nothing is a given. However, with this team’s defense and scoring they should be able to get to that second-round matchup in the playoffs with the Warriors — and if Curry is not right they have a shot. It would take an almost perfect series, with Lillard making big plays late and Jusuf Nurkic being a force in the paint and being able to stay on the floor, not to mention role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, and Ed Davis having to step up, but it could happen. There is a confidence and optimism around this Portland team that it has earned.
They are going to get their shot in the playoffs. We’ll see if that’s enough.
3) Jazz beat Warriors, Clippers win and Spurs lose, so where does the West playoff chase stand? As noted above, the West is a jumbled mess, so let’s break it down quickly with just more than a couple weeks left in the season.
Houston is going to be the top seed, and Golden State second. Lock that in.
Portland is currently the three seed with a two-game lead over the Thunder — and now three games in the loss column over the four seed Oklahoma City. Don’t use ink yet, but you can pencil in the Trail Blazers as the three seed.
Then anything can happen. Just 1.5 games separate fourth-seeded Oklahoma City and eighth-seeded Utah — and all five of those teams are within one game of each other in the loss column (Minnesota, San Antonio, and New Orleans are the other three). Things will change. Minnesota is currently the seven seed but they have the easiest schedule the rest of the way — a game against Utah is the only one they have against a playoff-bound team, but they play the Grizzlies twice, and the Hawks and Mavericks once. On the other hand, Oklahoma City and San Antonio still have relatively tough schedules the rest of the way and could pick up a few more losses, sliding them down the standings.
Denver is currently the nine seed, and even with an upset win over Toronto the L.A. Clippers are the 10 seed. Those teams will need help — and a lot of wins. The Nuggets are 1.5 games back of the Jazz (just one game back in the loss column) and the Clippers two games. The Nuggets have one of the toughest schedules in the league the rest of the way and will need wins against Portland, Oklahoma City and Minnesota to climb back in. For the Nuggets and Clippers, the playoffs have started and they can’t afford many more losses.