OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — When Stephen Curry is on the court, the Golden State Warriors offense is nearly unstoppable.
Play Curry tight to take away his 3-point shot and he’s apt to drive past and get to the basket. Take away the drive and he can shoot from almost anywhere inside the halfcourt line. Trap him on a pick and roll and he’s perfectly content getting the ball to another playmaker like Draymond Green and allowing his teammates to exploit a four-on-three advantage.
Curry’s unique skill set as a shooter with unlimited range, a ball handler who can create his own space and a passer who gets teammates open looks has been a driving force that led Golden State to an NBA title last year and a record 73 regular-season wins this season.
If the Warriors are going to cap this record-setting season with a repeat championship, they are going to have to do it without Curry for at least two weeks of the playoffs after an MRI on Monday determined he had a Grade 1 sprain of the MCL in his right knee.
While Curry will miss the rest of the first round and likely at least four games in the second round if Golden State advances, the Warriors have the ingredients to survive without the reigning MVP.
“It’s a blow but I don’t think it’s anything that will significantly throw them off course,” ESPN analyst Tim Legler said.
Legler said he still views the Warriors as the favorite to win the title despite Curry’s injury, predicting they will finish off the first-round series against Houston that they lead 3-1 heading into Wednesday night’s Game 5 and that they could beat either the Los Angeles Clippers or Portland in the second round even if Curry missed the entire series.
Then if Curry is healthy for the conference final, Golden State would be poised to repeat.
“That’s how good their team is,” Legler said. “That’s how hard they are to defend. I don’t think the Clippers are a team that’s a real juggernaut that can shut them down. They have issues defensively. I don’t think they’re a very tough team physically defensively.”
Legler said Golden State’s bevy of playmakers will make dealing with Curry’s absence bearable. Shaun Livingston will move into the starting lineup and he is able to use his size and passing to create for teammates.
Green and sixth man Andre Iguodala also are capable of running the offense and shooting guard Klay Thompson and forward Harrison Barnes can shoulder a bigger load.
“That’s really been the secret to their success the last few years,” Legler said. “They have more players who can make plays with the basketball whether it be a shot, a drive, a kick, whatever it may be, than any other team in the league. They have five or six different guys you trust to initiate the offense and to put pressure on you.”
The Warriors have gone 3-2 this season without Curry playing, including a win against the Rockets on New Year’s Eve and splitting games 2 and 3 of this series when Curry had a sprained right ankle. Golden State also lost at Dallas on Dec. 30 and beat Atlanta at home on March 3 when Curry had to sit out.
Replacing everything Curry does is almost impossible because no one has ever has had his collection of skills. Curry led the NBA this season by averaging 30.1 points per game, while averaging 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds and a league-leading 2.1 steals as well. Curry made a record 402 3-pointers, eclipsing his own previous mark by 116.
“He’s such a threat from so far out all over the floor,” Legler said. “Your defense is so fragile in trying to cover all the ground you have to. It’s basically a much larger scoring area when you play the Warriors with Steph on the floor. That’s really hard defensively to do that without making mistakes.”
In the five games Curry missed, the Warriors’ score margin fell by 13.1 points per game and the offense suffered greatly. They scored 10.2 fewer points per game, had their 3-point percentage fall from 41.8 percent to 34.9 percent and shot 4.3 percentage points worse from the field.
But the Warriors already managed to win Game 4 after Curry injured his knee when he slipped on the final play of the first half. Golden State hit eight 3-pointers in the third quarter alone to turn a tie game into a 21-point lead on the way to the easy win.
“I believe in our team, I believe in our coaching staff. I won’t count them out,” general manager Bob Myers said. “We’re lucky to have the group we have. It’s one of the best groups of players I’ve ever seen as far as people. They will come together and do whatever they can to reach that goal.”