When Kevin Durant returned home to the city and franchise he snubbed this summer, the Washington Wizards, it was an eagerly anticipated matchup with many expecting Durant to put on a show, especially after the recent comments he made during the buildup regarding the pressures of playing at home. And much to our disappointment, Durant left the game early in the first quarter after suffering a hyper extended knee. The next day the Warriors announced that Durant’s apparent season ending injury wasn’t as bad as we all assumed but it’s not exactly great news, and with the Playoffs rapidly approaching many within the organisation would have preferred to have Durant working his way into Playoff form, rather than chilling at home playing NBA 2K (drastic assumption #Fakenews). However despite the MCL sprain and bone bruise to his left knee, sidelining the superstar for an indefinite period of time, the Warriors have stated that Durant could play again before the team’s regular season ends on April 12. As a precaution Durant will be constantly re-evaluated over the coming weeks, but with the Warriors playoff seed already secured, is this injury really anything to worry about?
Well the answer to that is obvious, yes. Any team which suffers an injury of this type will suffer due to the indefinite time period of absence, but in Golden State’s case it is significantly amplified, after all Durant was in the running for the MVP. His spectacular season has seen him adapt to a new team and environment at ease, putting to doubts any ‘settling in’ period, the likes of which we saw with Lebron James in Miami. The Warriors shouldn’t exactly be scuttling the ship though, because they still have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to get them through to April. Perhaps, the bigger question is just what does the injury mean for the other teams in the Western Conference Playoff hunt?
The San Antonio Spurs
50-14 / L10 9-1
It’s March and therefore the Spurs, as expected are playing their best basketball of the season and with Kawhi Leonard becoming the resident Jedi Master, the Spurs are truly a contender for the Warriors Western Conference throne. They currently rank second in the Western Conference, but all that could change over the coming weeks and with Durant’s injury representing a significant roster change, now is the perfect time to secure the easier playoff path (supposedly). And to add to Kawhi’s significant performances the Spurs boosted their credentials this past week with a marque win over fellow contenders, the Houston Rockets. And to say the win was dramatic, is an understatement as Leonard – who is boosting his MVP credentials nightly – hit a 3-pointer off the dribble, then immediately pinned James Harden’s layup against the glass on the other end; leading to a 112-110 come-from-behind victory. Leonard finished with 39 points, matching Harden’s point total, plus six rebounds, five assists, a steal and two blocks. Kawhi is now well and truly wedged in between the MVP contenders and just like Russell Westbrook and James Harden, it’s hard to find a reason not to bestow the award upon him. Leonard’s ability to make clutch plays on both ends of the court makes him an incredibly unique weapon and one which Gregg Popovich is finally unleashing upon a weary league.
The Spurs end of season schedule is a convenient one, and one which will witness the them go head to head with the Warriors on the 11th – that’s tomorrow – and 29th respectively; huge games which could have significant consequences across the top of the Western Conference. They also face fellow Playoff contenders in the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz twice, and Oklahoma City Thunder before the season ends. So as you can see, the end of season bore won’t be so boring after all.
Durant injury impact – Significant
44-21 / L10 6-4
Losses to the Spurs and 4th seeded Utah Jazz this past week represent a minor setback in what has otherwise been a truly magnificent season from James Harden and his merry men. The loss puts them 8½ games behind the Warriors, which doesn’t necessarily mean securing the 1 seed is impossible, but it is implausible. Mike D’Antoni has the Rockets on course for a 50 win season and with James Harden doing something no one considered (apart from myself who put a bet on it) – leading the league in assists (727 – 11.2 per game) – the Rockets have rapidly become the 2nd most explosive offence in the NBA and perhaps more significantly, it’s no longer powered by one man like it was during Harden’s last MVP (2014-15) calibre season (sorry Dwight).
Houston play the Warriors on the 28th and 31st March, two games which when combined with the Spurs schedule, could prove pivotal in the final standings. There’s also match ups against fellow playoff hopefuls the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers before the end of the regular season.
Durant injury impact – Considerable
41-24 / L10 7-3
Utah have finally emerged this season as a true Western Conference powerhouse, courtesy of All-Star Gordon Hayward and shrewd summer acquisitions, George Hill and Joe Johnson; both of whom have helped change the culture in Salt Lake City. However in order for the Jazz to be the best, you have to beat the best, which is unfortunately something which they have not been able to do as much as they would have liked. Yet despite this they celebrated a huge win over the Houston Rockets on the road Wednesday night, a win which provides Jazz fans with a glimpse of hope for their playoff prospects.
As for their chances of climbing the standings and challenging the Warriors – well those are slim – when you consider the opportunities represented to them in their final schedule. Right now just staying ahead of the 5 seeded Los Angeles Clippers is all that matters and these two faceoff twice more before the season ends, first on the 13th March and then finally the 25th. The Jazz however could have a significant say in how the West falls overall, because they play the Spurs twice, along with Golden State and Oklahoma before season ends. It’s about to get spicy.