The last time the Warriors lost in the playoffs, there was a lingering sense, however small, that the result could have been different if Stephen Curry was fully healthy. Curry put up incredible stats and memorable performances during the Warriors’ 2016 postseason run. Still, in the Finals, he didn’t quite have the same magic that made him the league’s first unanimous MVP. The Curry concerns are not meant to take away from what the Cavs did that year. (Cleveland was probably helped more by Draymond Green’s suspension than Curry’s knee issues.) But as Golden State prepares for its showdown with Houston, it’s fair to wonder if the strength of Curry’s knee will mean more to this series than anything else.
There is, of course, good news. Curry had a huge impact for the Warriors in the four games he played against the Pelicans. Golden State had a 14.9 net rating whenever Curry was on the court, and the team played at an incredibly fast pace, perhaps a good sign for Curry’s ability to run up and down the floor before a matchup with Houston. In the closeout game against New Orleans, Curry made seven of his field goals inside the three-point line. Steph is never quite settling when he pulls up for three, but his ability to create separation in tight spaces relies heavily on his athleticism, and him hitting shots from all over the floor is a positive development.
It can sometimes be hard to gauge Curry’s importance to the Warriors. The team is so stacked with talent, it probably could have made the conference finals without him. Kevin Durant was great against the Pelicans, using his size advantage over Jrue Holiday for easy buckets time and time again. Though Curry and his shooting have always been the engine for Golden State’s offensive success, Durant looms as the ultimate matchup nightmare on both ends of the court. Durant, obviously, wasn’t on the team when Golden State lost in 2016, and he could help cover up small deficiencies in Curry’s game.
Perhaps the biggest consequence of a not-fully-healthy Curry is what lineups it allows the Warriors’ opponents to play. In the 2016 Finals, the Cavs were able to remain big in the frontcourt when the Warriors played the Death Lineup, then featuring Harrison Barnes missing open threes instead of Durant. Tristan Thompson effectively checked Curry on multiple occasions in that series, a surprising quirk after Curry had roasted big men on the perimeter all season long. The Rockets will need Clint Capela to be a factor if they want to win the conference finals, and his job gets a lot easier if Curry is slowed down even the slightest bit.
For all the ways Houston can play small, its offense still works better with Capela in the lineup. No one can out-small the Hamptons Five. With Capela in, the Rockets can run the truest version of their offense, which spreads the floor around an elite shooter/passer/ball-handler, with a willing roller who can dominate at the rim if the defense cheats. Houston’s offense was 2.6 points per 100 possessions better with Capela on the court during the regular season. It’s been 11 points per 100 possessions better with Capela on during the playoffs. If Curry’s lateral quickness is even a step slow, Capela becomes playable for longer stretches, which makes Houston significantly better on both ends of the court.
The problem with raising any questions about the Warriors is that they often make you look stupid. You start to wonder if the Rockets have a chance in this series, then you see that Golden State has a net rating of 40.9 when Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant and Draymond Green are on the court together. If Houston wants to prove its in the same class as the Dubs, it will have to hold its own against this lineup. If the Rockets really are a different level of competition from what the Warriors have seen over the last few years, then any lasting effects on Curry’s knee could be the difference between domination and an actual, honest-to-god seven-game series.
It’s unfortunate that Curry’s knee will be a story. He looked close to 100% toward the end of the second round, and the basketball world deserves a matchup between fully healthy Rockets and Warriors squads. If there’s been a frustration with the NBA playoffs the last few years, it’s been that the top teams have mostly avoided tough competition en route to the Finals. (Thunder-Warriors notwithstanding.) Houston has assembled a roster it believes can finally challenge Golden State’s supremacy in the West. Both teams in this series are owed a shot to decide who’s better without any lingering questions.