The old adage goes "Cut off the head of the snake and the body dies". It goes without saying that Stephen Curry and his 30.1ppg is the head of Golden State's blue and yellow boa. Houston seemed to catch a lucky break then when Steph tweaked his ankle in the open court during their Game 1 matchup in Oakland. But as Monday's 115-106 win over the Houston Rockets sans Curry showed, Golden State doesn't need it's head to strangle foes.
Steph has been the Warrior's lynchpin the entire season, with a blistering 18.3 net rating that led the league. This is even more impressive when you consider the Warrior's were actually outscored with Curry off the floor (-3.7 net rating in minutes without Curry). We all know Curry is a basketball wizard, the key that unlocks Golden State's historic offensive machine. Even when he's not 100% the threat of his unlimited range bends the defense in unique ways that allow for the Warriors flurry of screens and backdoor cuts to lead to easy buckets. But that unrivaled skillet is exactly why Steve Kerr has to bench Curry for the remainder of the series and trust the rest of his record-shattering team to get the job done.
Curry tweaked his right ankle with just 1:29 left in the first half of Saturday's game, tracking the path of a made field goal.
It was later revealed to be a right ankle sprain, the same ankle that received surgery before his injury-riddled third season. Now, maybe Under Armour has solved whatever issues Steph had that made it seem like he was a quick cut away from shredding tendon. Curry himself credits a lot of it to an increase in core strength and a realignment of his gait that reduces stress on his ankles. Whichever of the various precautionary methods he's taken on since the start of his career has led to him playing 78 games in the last four seasons, Warrior's fans still gasp every time they see their star limp off that right ankle.
Curry returning for a few minutes at the start of the second half seemed like the reason for optimism, but he was unable to add on to his 24 point onslaught and looked incredibly gimpy in his time on the hardwood. Curry's status remained questionable until the ankle proved too painful to finish shootaround on Monday, after which Kerr announced Curry would not be playing. But this isn't cause for panic - Curry and the Warrior's organization as a whole seem to believe that Curry's injury is not too serious, and they have the depth necessary to finish off the Rockets even if Curry is out longer than one game.
Depth is a tricky word in the NBA, and plenty of teams claim to be deep and capable of running full 10 man rotations. But there are different levels of depth, some of which undermine its very definition. Take Boston for example. The Celtics don't have anyone outside of Isaiah Thomas scoring near 20 points, get even contributions from starters and bench players, and have a defense built on team communication. They made it to the fifth seed on the back of their supreme depth and coaching talents, proving you can have success without a superstar.
Or they did, until a few of the cogs in Boston's well-oiled machine clogged and creaked and wore out. Avery Bradley doesn't seem like a monumental loss, but his absence and Crowder's injury related decline has left them with no answer for Atlanta's shift point guards or the Millsap-Horford frontcourt. Also, without Bradley Boston is bereft of accurate three-point shooters. Distributing his shots to Marcus Smart and Evan Turner, both sub 30% shooters, hasn't exactly been working.
Boston doesn't rely on one single player too heavily, but the wheels fall off their machine without every piece working in unison. They're deep, but not in the way the Warriors are. The Warrior's have the unique luxury of plugging in a player in Curry's spot with a vastly different skillset and having the depth of skills at other positions to cover up for those flaws.
The Unlikely Warrior?
This is the time for us to applaud Shaun Livingston, the potential amputee turned best backup point in the league that makes sitting Curry a remote possibility. For those of you who weren't watching the mid-2000s Clippers (and I don't blame you if you missed that catastrophe), you may not have seen how gruesome Livingston's injury exactly was. Tearing every tendon in his knee and shattering his patellar derailed Livingston's path to stardom, but through years of tenacity, he's battled back to the level of rotation player - on the league's best team that is.
Shaun lost most of his athleticism from the aforementioned knee injury, and he's yet to develop a reliable 3pt shot. But injury can't take away size, and Livingston remains a giant point guard with the length to smother opposing ball handlers. His 6'6 frame fits in with Golden State's identity of switching every single action, and can cover either guard position allowing Curry to play off the ball when healthy. The Warrior's are also stocked to the brim with shooting, with combats some of his brick-laying.
Livingston is heady enough to play to his strengths, and his game resembles that of an old school point guard rather than today's waterbugs because of that. He is a post up savant, with a devastating turn-around jumper. He can also establish deep position and allow for shooters to whir around him and get open looks. He also takes advantage of any team that ignores him at the 3pt line, by meandering around the baseline when his defender commits too hard for open dunks and layups.
Playing Livingston more heavily also helps in Golden State's defensive plan for containing Harden. Kerr has made it clear he's going to throw as many long and lanky defenders at Harden while trying not to foul. It worked especially well in game 1, where Harden failed to shoot a free throw while logging 32 minutes for the first time in his career.
And even beyond their dynamo point guard, the Warrior's still have a litany of ways to dispose of Harden and his team of misfit players. None of Houston's subpar power forwards have the discipline to stop Draymond Green from controlling the pace and ball movement for the Dubs (8 assists with 0 turnovers in their last game).
They have ball-handling galore in Green, Andre Iguodala, and even Barbosa. Everyone on the team can shoot pass or finish. It's not like Klay can't go 7/10 from 3 himself. Goliath isn't falling to David, Curry or not.
If I'm Steve Kerr I'm taking a good hard look at my opposition in this series. I'm looking at my team and the single-season win record and realizing I'm deadly enough without my leader.