Take your time, Stephen Curry. No need to hurry back. The Golden State Warriors have been here before — with the player around whom the entire scheme revolves getting hurt late during a season in which repeating as champions is considered a formality — and they already know how it ends when Curry returns a bit earlier than he should. It ends with Curry’s magic depreciating with every passing game, until it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals and he’s unable to dribble around Kevin Love. It ends with LeBron James ruining the dream and ensuring that a 73-win banner never hangs anywhere.
It also ends with the greatest consolation prize in NBA history: Kevin Durant. And that is where Curry should take the most comfort when it comes to being cautious. The Warriors chased Durant because they felt that Curry was carrying an unfair and unsustainable load for the franchise to turn its reign from novelty to dynasty. They won’t be stretched out as far this time with their most important player now sidelined with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee because they still have another former MVP and two other All-Stars. No other NBA roster can boast such talent opulence. Durant with Curry is a cheat code. Durant without Curry means Golden State is still better than just about everything else.
Coach Steve Kerr knows the Warriors were built for this moment. Kerr was obstinate in shutting down the possibility of Curry coming back for the first round, telling reporters in Oakland on Sunday, “There is no way.” Limping to the lectern a few minutes later and rocking a black beanie, Curry responded, unflinchingly, “Hopefully I’ll prove Coach wrong.”
Curry is stubborn. His competitiveness is more impressive than his jump shot. But he has to be smarter this time around. For one, he’s older now. Injuries get harder to overcome on the wrong side of 30, a place Curry now resides. His team is better equipped to withstand his temporary absence. And what more does he have to prove at this point as it relates to his durability and toughness? He definitely has nothing to prove to Kerr.
Curry’s determination to get back after suffering a sprained right MCL two years ago was understandable. He wasn’t far removed from a reputation for being injury-prone because of those troublesome ankles. The Warriors were also on their middle-finger-to-the-world tour and they wanted to rub it in to anyone who doubted or dissed that first championship. They ended up nearly losing to Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals and blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, partially because Curry flamed out in uncharacteristic, mouth-piece-flinging fashion.
Some shooters value maintaining the form, the flick of the wrist or quickness of the release over all else, but for Curry, his success comes down to his full body working in precision. Talent and repetition have helped Curry hide any physical setbacks in the past but over time, and especially in the playoffs, those slight differences are exposed and exploited.
Golden State knows better now and won’t go through a repeat of another squandered championship. The bottom of the playoff standings in the Western Conference changes almost every night and the Warriors could wind up with a dangerous first-round matchup, especially if Jimmy Butler were to return to the Minnesota Timberwolves or Kawhi Leonard joined San Antonio for a rematch of last year’s conference finals.
On a side note, this year would’ve been so much more fun had someone decided to hit the “Injuries Off” setting on this NBA season. Too many prominent stars have either missed significant time (John Wall, Gordon Hayward, Love, Butler, Leonard), are expected to start the playoffs on the shelf (Curry, Kyrie Irving) or won’t play again this season (DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, Leonard?).
But if a roster of the healthy, remaining Warriors isn’t good enough to get out of the first round without Curry, they likely weren’t good enough to win a title with him. The same goes for the second round, if we’re being honest. They’ll need Curry to beat the Houston Rockets and whoever comes out of Eastern Conference — James or the team that finally can take out the man trying to rule the league’s inferior conference for the length of a two-term president.
The Rockets are running away with the league’s best record with a ruthless determination not to let any game slide. Their play, combined with a recent bombardment of injuries to the Warriors’ best players and an apparent, been-there-done-that lack of urgency, has at least added some suspense to what was once considered a predictable coronation. Even if this regular season ends with an unexpected whimper, with the Warriors never flexing on the league as they’ve done in previous years, they’ve always approached everything with the realization that what happens in the playoffs is all anyone remembers anyway.
That’s why some remain dismissive of the Rockets’ postseason chances, because James Harden and Chris Paul haven’t been able to summon their best performances when the most eyes are watching. It’s also why few are willing to bet against James in the East because he always takes the elevator for his play straight to the penthouse during the playoffs. Curry’s unanimous MVP isn’t eradicated because he didn’t win the championship two years ago but a title in 2016 certainly would’ve raised its legend.
The Warriors treated this regular season as a necessary evil that had to be overcome to reach June glory. Houston’s success made it easier not to kill themselves for one extra home playoff game in the final round or two. That approach also has prevented Golden State from having the kind of dynamic stretch that caused people to take notice. They’ve been denied a peak run to enter the playoffs, with Klay Thompson suffering a broken right thumb, Durant dealing with soreness in his ribs and Draymond Green dealing with a pelvic contusion. But a championship isn’t coming without the greatest shooter the game as ever seen winding up from long distance with confidence in his knees.
Golden State made it look easy last year. But that title run wasn’t without adversity, with Durant also suffering an MCL injury that was eerily similar to Curry’s, only with Zaza Pachulia falling on his leg instead of JaVale McGee. Durant was patient with his return and the Warriors didn’t miss him, becoming a lethal machine, with Curry leading the way while Durant recovered. It welcomed him back when Durant fully healed, unleashed him like one of Khaleesi’s dragons, and watched him burn down a horrified opposition.
Overcoming Curry’s absence will be a different and more difficult challenge, compounded by nagging ailments for the rest of the roster. Now is Durant’s chance to return the favor. But Curry unlocks the championship door for the Warriors. They need him getting stronger as this run continues. And he shouldn’t waste any energy trying to get back before he’s really ready. Not kind of ready. Or close-enough ready. But ready-ready. The Warriors have enough to give him the time he needs.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Passan: The upbeat treament of Shohei Ohtani is an unnecessary joke
• Former MLB All-Star Albert Belle arrested on DUI
• Grayson Allen leaves behind complicated legacy at Duke
• Report: Odell Beckham won’t play without an extension