OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry on the sidelines again, this time with a hurt knee. No longer the sure-thing No. 1 seed. Steve Kerr piecing together rotations based on who’s available through illness and injury.
It hasn’t exactly been an easy course this season for the defending NBA champions.
The Golden State Warriors are used to being the best out West, a top target that everyone in the NBA seeks to unseat.
It’s just a little different this time.
Not that Kerr is overly concerned. Golden State’s coach thinks the Warriors will be just fine when they open their best-of-seven series against No. 7 seed San Antonio at home Saturday afternoon.
“We’re going to have new life when the playoffs start. And I’m well aware of what a long, difficult season it’s been,” he said. “So many things have been thrown at us here the last month, especially all the injuries, which have really shaken up our rotation. That’s made it difficult on everybody and our players. But they’re fighting and that’s the main thing.
“We’re going to be all right.”
During one especially tough stretch, all four All-Stars were out because of health — Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Golden State dropped seven of 10 at one point last month, then lost its final regular-season game by a jaw-dropping 40 points Tuesday night at Utah.
Yet, now, everybody is relishing a new season.
“It’s not a carbon copy of last year by any stretch,” Curry said. “But I know for sure we have the guys and the IQ and the resiliency to understand how we’re going to accomplish our goal this year and not compare it to last year. Because I’m sure you can ask any championship team along the way that’s trying to repeat or whatever the case is, every journey is defined by different circumstances.
“Injuries, the fact that we have been in the 2 spot for about two weeks now with really no chance to climb or fall, so you have to fight human nature in that sense. I think all that we’ve invested in our game, in our team and in our identity over the course of the last three, four years will show up when the time is right.”
Two years ago, Golden State put its focus on going for a record 73 victories and lost to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Finals. Then late last season, the Warriors were gearing up for that inevitable Finals rematch with rival Cleveland while Durant worked back from a knee injury before capturing his first title and becoming Finals MVP.
For Kerr, the goals lately were simple: find some rhythm and return everybody to health. He used 27 different starting lineups — yes, a huge number — in a big jump from his first three seasons coaching Golden State. Last season there were 14 different starting five combinations for the Warriors on the way to a second title in three years, 12 the year before that and just eight during 2014-15 as the franchise won its first championship in 40 years.
And this time around, the Warriors didn’t even know their opponent until Wednesday night, meaning Golden State’s video crew worked overtime preparing for all the possible opponents.
“Basically we spend most of our time trying to predict what’s going to happen, and we’re all wrong,” Kerr quipped last week. “And the next day we reshuffle the deck and we guess again.”
Golden State will still look a lot different when the ball goes up at Oracle Arena without Curry.
The two-time MVP is expected to miss the entire first round after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee March 23 on the very night he returned from a six-game absence with his latest ankle injury. It was bad luck, too, as center JaVale McGee fell into him.
Curry’s absence as a floor leader and heart of the team hurts.
“They’ve been pretty fortunate here in that the injuries hadn’t been the long ones where guys are out 10-15 games. It’s been three or four games or maybe a five-game stretch,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “It’s something different, but I really do feel like everyone would love to struggle and be 57-22 if you can consider that struggling.”
Golden State finished 58-24, dropping 12 home games — something unheard of the previous three years when they were barely blemished with only nine losses total at one of the NBA’s most imposing stops.
The Warriors want to re-establish that energy and swagger at home. Immediately.
Kerr didn’t worry about the record. He was too busy mixing and matching just to get through games over the past month.
“It’s been a long haul, for sure. I was hoping that we would be heading into the playoffs healthy, obviously everyone wants that,” he said. “But this is all part of it, it’s all part of the journey. This is our journey this year. Every year’s different, so it’s been a bumpy road but here we are. I’m really proud of our guys.”
And the rest of the league still realizes what it’s up against.
“You can’t count these guys out, and I don’t think anybody is counting them out,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “They’ll get their guys back and they have enough guys I think they can survive until they get everybody back.”