The Golden State Warriors’ road to a championship just got a whole lot rockier.
According to the team, small forward Kevin Durant suffered a Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament and a tibial bone bruise in Tuesday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. It has not been ruled out that he could return before the end of the regular season. The injury took place early in the first quarter, when Wizards center Marcin Gortat threw Warriors big man Zaza Pachulia into Durant while jostling for a rebound.
And so begins a different version of the same old Warriors story.
Last April, not long after they’d become the first team in league history to win 73 regular season games, Steph Curry went down with ankle and knee injuries in the first round against the Houston Rockets that ultimately proved too much to overcome. He came back, of course, and even put up a few MVP-caliber performances along the way before the Cleveland Cavaliers won it all in those seven-game Finals.
But the lack of rhythm, the changed mindset, the inability to play with the kind of fearlessness that makes the stars great, was enough to change the landscape for the Warriors. This is the brutal reality about championship pursuits, where every elite team is just a setback away from being able to get their grip on the Larry O’Brien trophy.
"That's where the character of the players and the coaches comes into play. Every team has adversity," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. "... But look, nobody is going to have much empathy for us, which I understand. It's professional sports. These things happen. Nobody on the team is happy right now because they care for Kevin and they want to see him on the court."
Myers said there was a short time when the Warriors feared the injury was worse, but a CT scan alleviated their concerns.
"I don't know (how long that period was), if it was 10, 15 minutes," Myers said. " ... The CT scan gives you much more clarity on a bone injury or a bone bruise, much more than an MRI. That's where the MCL sprain showed up, but we needed to get more specificity. And in that period ... there was speculation about what it might or might not be. But ultimately, the CT scan cleared up any of the vagueness."
Ligament sprains are graded 1-3 with No. 3 being the most severe since it means the ligament is completely torn. Curry suffered a Grade 1 sprain last April and missed four playoff games.
“It’s really the best-case scenario when a knee gets hyperextended like his did,” Houston-based orthopedic surgeon Michael George told USA TODAY Sports. “Grade 2 is the most common among MCL sprains. The recovery is usually two to six weeks, so the fact the Warriors said he will be out re-evaluated in four weeks makes a lot of sense.”
As for the more immediate stakes at hand? The Warriors (50-10) are currently four games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs (45-13), meaning there’s still plenty of time for them to lose homecourt advantage throughout the postseason. Their schedule is manageable, with 12 home games among the final 22 and only 10 games coming against teams that currently have a winning record. Four of those games, however, come against the Spurs (March 11 and March 29) and the Houston Rockets (42-19, third in the West, games on March 28 and March 31).
"Health is probably the most important, but (playoff) seeding is right up there," Myers said. "I know we're going to try to win as many games as we can. ...We will do our best to keep the positioning we have now, but it's not going to be easy."
The Warriors wasted no time searching for support, as they agreed to sign veteran small forward Matt Barnes (who was recently waived by Sacramento). The 36-year-old Barnes was part of the “We Believe” Warriors team in 2006-07 that upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks as an eighth seed before falling to Utah in the second round.
Since leaving Oklahoma City behind and signing with the Warriors last July, Durant (25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game) had fit in seamlessly this season. His defensive prowess was perhaps the most unexpected part of his debut Warriors campaign, as he is the team’s leading rim protector (1.64 blocks per game) and a major reason they boast the league’s second-ranked defense (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, bested only by San Antonio).