Steph’s Injury Further Delays the Return of the Warriors

Steph’s Injury Further Delays the Return of the Warriors

The Warriors waited 1,005 days—nearly three years—to be able to get Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson back on the court together. And now, just three days after Golden State’s golden generation finally shared the floor for the first time since the 2019 NBA Finals, they’re back to waiting again.

With just under 4:30 to go in the second quarter of Wednesday’s visit from the surging Celtics, Thompson swiped the ball away from Boston’s Jayson Tatum. Curry and Celtics guard Marcus Smart raced after it, but while Curry bent over to reach for the ball, Smart immediately hit the deck in pursuit of it; in the process, he rolled over onto Curry’s left leg.

Curry started limping as soon as he got to his feet. He left the court at the next dead ball, was quickly ruled out for the rest of the contest with left foot soreness, and missed the balance of Boston’s 110-88 win, leaving Steve Kerr—incensed at what he felt was a “dangerous play” by Smart, though not every Warrior saw it the same way—and the rest of us waiting with bated breath for test results on the two-time MVP’s left foot.

The good news, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne: “There’s no structural damage and Curry is believed to have avoided serious injury.” The bad news, though, is that he didn’t avoid any injury: Curry will be sidelined indefinitely with a sprained ligament in that left foot, a devastating blow to a Warriors team that firmly believes it’s capable of winning its first title in four years—but that needs to be at full strength in order to mount a serious charge.

Steph’s Injury Further Delays the Return of the Warriors

ESPN reports that Curry is “expected” to return in time for the start of the playoffs on April 16. Even if that’s true, and if he’s 100 percent by then—which is no guarantee—there’s still the small matter of the remainder of the regular season, a month in which Golden State will play eight of its final 12 games on the road, including a brutal week that will ask it to travel to Memphis before welcoming the Jazz and the West-leading Suns.

Having Thompson and Green back in the fold could help mitigate the fallout, especially if Klay can keep up the career-high assist rate and pull-up 3-point creation that my Ringer colleague Zach Kram recently highlighted. Perhaps only so much, though: You’ve got to go back to 2015-16 to find the last time Golden State fielded an above-average offense in the minutes that Klay and Draymond played without Curry or Kevin Durant on the court. Some of those lineups were able to survive by clamping down on defense for short stretches, but winning by holding opponents below a point per possession is an awfully tall order over an extended period of Steph-less ball. (The imminent return of ace perimeter stopper Gary Payton II ought to help on that front.)

The need for additional offensive spark could mean even greater responsibility for Jordan Poole, who has thrived in similar, if limited, circumstances this season. The 22-year-old has averaged 26.4 points and 4.5 assists per 36 minutes that he’s played with Green and without Curry, according to NBA Advanced Stats, using 29.5 percent of Golden State’s offensive possessions and posting a sparkling .623 true shooting percentage—not exactly Steph-level production, but about as close a facsimile as you’re likely to get without shelling out a max contract for it.

No matter how compelling a performance Poole can put in as his understudy, though, you can’t replace Stephen Curry—the attention he demands, the openings he creates, the spark of genius forever at his fingertips, and the borderline-telepathic bond he’s forged with Thompson and Green through years in the fire.

Navigating this stretch without him could prove dicey. Golden State has scored 7.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Steph off the floor this season, according to Cleaning the Glass—the difference between a top-five offense and a bottom-five unit. Combine the deleterious effects of Curry’s absence on the offense with the realities of Thompson’s up-and-down play after his return from injury, Green just ramping up his minutes after returning from his injury, and myriad injuries elsewhere in Kerr’s hoped-for rotation—and suddenly the Warriors’ picture looks much fuzzier than it did earlier in the season.

Entering January, they looked like perhaps the best team in the NBA, a championship favorite. Now, multiple playoff projection systems see them finishing below the upstart Grizzlies, likely landing in third place in the West (where they currently sit one game behind Memphis) and facing what promises to be a brutally tough first-round matchup, whether it’s with reigning MVP Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets, the scorching Luka Doncic’s Mavericks, Donovan Mitchell’s Jazz, or Karl-Anthony Towns’s soaring Wolves, who have won nine of their past 10 games. A full-strength Warriors team is the favorite in any of those matchups; one with Steph, Klay, or Draymond in any way diminished, though, could absolutely go the other way.

How quickly this all unfolded—from Smart’s dive to Steph’s limp to Thursday’s report—offered a sobering reminder of just how fickle all this is, and just how quickly everything can change. (Not that any Warriors watchers needed it, necessarily; they remember all too well how Donatas Motiejunas’s butt sweat, Zaza Pachulia’s foot, and a pair of awkward landings helped change the course of basketball history in the past half-dozen years.) Three nights ago, Draymond was popping Steph and Klay loose, and the Warriors were back, announcing their return to the championship chase with authority and hard-earned bravado. Now, though, they’re back to where they just spent those 1,005 days—hoping, worrying, and waiting.

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