We all got a good look recently at the greatest threat to the Warriors’ NBA title defense. It wasn’t the 35-13 Rockets, who tripped up the champions in Houston on Jan. 20, or the 36-15 Celtics, who made a spirited run at the Warriors before falling at Oracle Arena on Saturday.
No, it was the Injuries. Or even just the Injury.
Broken bodies are the wild card that can crumble a team in any sport at any time. And the 2017-18 NBA season has been worse than most.
Boston’s season was 5 minutes and 5 seconds old when their second most important addition, Gordon Hayward, fractured his tibia and dislocated his ankle in gruesome fashion in the season opener against Cleveland. Kawhi Leonard, one of the five best players in the league, has suited up just nine times for the Spurs as he has battled a balky quadriceps. The Jazz, tonight’s foes, were considered playoff contenders until athletic center Rudy Gobert missed 26 games with knee problems. Guard Dion Waiters of Miami (ankle), Mike Conley of Memphis (heel) and Patrick Beverley of the Clippers (knee) are all out for the season.
And the past few days have been especially brutal. New Orleans center DeMarcus Cousins, who was having a terrific season, ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon against the Rockets on Friday night. The next night, Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson, whose perimeter defense gave the Warriors fits in the 2016 Western Conference final, left the court on a stretcher after rupturing a tendon in his left knee. They, too, will be spectators for the rest of the season.
“It’s devastating,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Monday after practice. “I never want anybody to get hurt, I never want anybody to sit out a game. I want every player to flourish. And so to see DeMarcus and Andre Roberson go down with season-ending injuries, I think the whole league feels just like I do. We all cringe.”
“Sickening, man,” is how Kevin Durant put it after the Warriors’ had beaten Boston on Saturday. Durant, who had played alongside Roberson with the Thunder, had just seen a replay in the Golden State locker room of his former teammate’s injury. Durant also played with Cousins on the 2016 USA Olympic team.
“We all love the game of basketball,” Durant added. “It’s not life or death, but it’s something that we love. And to have it taken away from you unexpectedly, it’s tough.”
Almost nothing is off-limits to professional athletes. They bag on one another over romantic breakups, on-field failures and Twitter fiascos (as Durant learned when he embarrassed himself last summer and Draymond Green had a field day with it). But injuries? They’re the great taboo. Bring up a mangled knee or shoulder, and a pall falls over the room.
I suspect there are two reasons for this. One is simple respect for the opponent. Athletes from different teams have grown increasingly chummy. And even if they aren’t, each can appreciate the other’s dedication and talent. Players want to prove themselves by beating the best, not by winning because a foe was shorthanded.
But there’s a deeper reason. Every athlete is one play, one collision, one awkward landing away from tragedy. It comes with the territory, and no one is immune, no matter how powerful or seemingly impervious. Gordon Hayward, 27, is in the prime of his life. Boogie Cousins is built like a superhero. Both are having to relearn basic physical moves while teammates play basketball.
“It could be you,” the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala said Monday.
Yes, it could. If you play a sport for a living, it could be you. Iguodala, who turned 34 on Sunday, takes immaculate care of his body. It helps him limit the aches and pains of an 82-game season. But the weightlifting and stretching do little to prevent devastating injuries, which are more like random mutations.
So the threat of injury is real for every team — including the Warriors.
Honestly, this is an awkward subject to write about. I don’t believe in jinxes, but I think some players do. Or maybe they don’t like to admit their own vulnerability. They can’t perform unless they must banish thoughts of injury and bury them somewhere deep. To acknowledge the topic brings it to life. It makes players feel uncomfortable, and it makes me a little uncomfortable, too.
But as the Warriors embark on a strange three-day road trip that includes a flight home and a drive up I-80 to Sacramento in the middle, the major injury remains their most formidable opponent.
The Rockets and the Celtics are both impressive teams. I’d argue that each of them, in 2017-18, is better than any team the Warriors faced in 2016-17. Both gave the Warriors about as much as they could handle recently.
But is either a legitimate threat to prevent a Golden State repeat in June? That’s a stretch. Houston is better defensively, but not stout enough to take the Warriors’ offense out of its game. The Celtics can do that, but outside of Kyrie Irving, they don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up. The Warriors remain the only complete team in the NBA.
Yet a 2018 championship is less than a certainty, because that big injury wheel is always spinning, and you never know when it might land on WARRIORS.
It has happened before. Stephen Curry sprained his ankle, and then his MCL, during the 2016 playoffs, and was never right during that postseason. It’s impossible to say where that factor ranked against, say, Draymond Green’s one-game suspension in the NBA Finals or the excellence of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. It would denigrate the Cavaliers to pin their 4-3 Finals victory solely on Curry’s right leg. But let’s be honest, the injuries played a huge role.
In 2016-17, it was Durant who missed 19 games with a late-regular- season knee injury. The Warriors lost the game he departed, and four of their next six. By the time Durant returned, they were a better team for having to get by without him. They were also fortunate that the injury wasn’t more serious, or didn’t occur in, say, the West semifinals.
I don’t root for teams, but I’m with Kerr on this. I want to see the best players on the court, diamond or field for every game. I think we all do. But that’s a fantasy. The running, jumping and banging of basketball takes its toll on the human body, and more standout players will fall to injury before this season is done.
The Warriors can beat the Rockets or Celtics, or anyone else in the NBA, on merit alone. But they’ll need some luck to ensure that when that wheel stops spinning next, the arrow is pointing to someone else.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.