Until Stephen Curry collided ferociously with Trevor Ariza on Monday and went hurtling into the air like one of the Flying Wallendas, the Warriors had the NBA’s best regular-season record and its healthiest roster.
If order indeed has been restored in Golden State – meaning Curry is bruised and painful but escaped without a concussion or worse – the Warriors are true beneficiaries of that famous California karma. Curry would be the Wallenda who landed safely. The league’s MVP has his teammates on a string, guides them places they only dream about (none were born when the franchise won the 1975 NBA championship), and subdues opponents and electrifies a building with his crossovers, craftiness and spectacular offensive ingenuity.
But let’s imagine Curry wakes up Wednesday morning and goes right back to sleep. What if he arrives at Oracle Arena hours later and is too sore to compete in the biggest game of his career, the most important game in franchise history in almost four decades, the game that could clinch the Western Conference title and a probable and tantalizing matchup against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers?
For the Warriors, it would be the challenge of all challenges, the daunting task of defeating the Houston Rockets without their undisputed leader, the league’s best deep shooter, the very cherubic and charming face of the franchise.
But this is no time to panic. This is when Joe Lacob, Bob Myers, Jerry West, Travis Schlenk and the Warriors’ front office types prove why they make the very, very, very big bucks. Golden State is an NBA anomaly, its blueprint the envy of the league in terms of substance and style. A year ago, organizations openly emulated the San Antonio Spurs, provided they could tinker with the birth certificates of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. This year, the NBA is Warriors-centric.
They play beautiful basketball, like the Spurs.
There isn’t a creep in the bunch, like the Spurs.
They exude a likeability, an unselfishness, a sense that they love their jobs, like the Spurs.
But here’s where these Warriors trump the competition: They prepared for the probability of a Northern California temblor, for potential injuries that have crippled several NBA Finals wannabes throughout the season. Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli fill in for injury-prone Andrew Bogut. David Lee is stepping in for ailing Marreese Speights. And if Curry is unable to play Wednesday, here come Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, the journeyman point guard who is cramming 10 years of misery into one immensely enjoyable postseason.
And that’s OK, that’s part of the game, and it takes nothing away from what the Warriors are accomplishing. Anticipating the worst brings out the best in franchises, especially in the modern era. Whether because of the demands of international participation in the offseason, too much weightlifting, too little flexibility, too demanding practices – and every franchise should be investigating this issue extensively – the reasons for the league’s injury crisis are unclear.
Yet, as the analytics folks often say, look at the numbers. The players who were sidelined or severely limited throughout the playoffs include Tony Allen, Mike Conley, Kevin Love, Wesley Matthews, Pau Gasol, Bradley Beal, John Wall, Anderson Varejao, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chandler Parsons, Thabo Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll, plus Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley and backup forward-center Donatas Montiejunas.
Let’s be clear: The Warriors need a healthy Curry to win the NBA championship. James is a five-man band. He is Mount Rushmore plus one.
But the combination of Livingston, the team’s talent and depth, the coaching of Steve Kerr and the emotional boost from the home crowd is enough to withstand James Harden, Dwight Howard and every elbow, every shove, every Gipper speech the inspiring Kevin McHale will have scripted onto his iPad.
The Warriors not only were built for moments like these, it could be argued the other 29 teams simply were doomed. Unlike the other legitimate contenders, the Warriors skipped a few grades, avoided a rematch against the dangerous, mercurial rival Los Angeles Clippers, witnessed the dethroning of the Spurs – and the potential end of an era – and took care of business against two injury-hampered teams on their side of the bracket.
The young, ailing New Orleans Pelicans never stood a chance. The Memphis Grizzlies knocked a few heads, made for a bit of drama, but were unable to sustain their power game with Allen’s absence and Conley less than healthy.
The Rockets losing Beverley isn’t the same as the Warriors losing Curry. The latter is the best player on his team and the league MVP. The former is the best defensive player on his team who coincidentally would have been assigned to shadow Curry’s every move, every dribble and, most importantly, every shot.
So the scene shifts to the Bay Area, with one possibly hobbling point guard prepping for the evening, one celebration ready to pop and the ultimate prize still weeks away.
“It would just be special to win the conference championship,” Kerr said Tuesday. “It doesn’t matter to us where we accomplish that. We just want to get it done, and we’re in a great position to do so. So we’ll put together a better game.”
Houston at Golden State
- Series: Warriors lead 3-1
- Time: 6 p.m.
- TV: ESPN Radio: 680