Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors have to be hoping that their loss to the Portland Trail Blazers isn’t history repeating itself, though the parallels are getting a bit spooky for anyone’s taste.
A couple of weeks ago the Dubs played their worst game of the first round and barely dropped Game 3 at Houston, thanks to James Harden’s game-winner with three seconds left. The result compelled Kerr to comply with the wishes of his hobbling star, Stephen Curry and let him play in Game 4, even though Curry had missed the two previous games and change with a right foot injury.
Curry wasn’t at all sharp during the first half in his return and then added injury to insult seconds before intermission, slipping on a wet spot on the floor and wrenching his right knee something fierce.
The Warriors came away quite relieved when an MRI revealed the next day that it was “just” an MCL sprain when it could’ve been much, much worse. The Dubs went on to blow out the apathetic Rockets in the second half without Curry. That they put Houston out of its misery back in Oracle Arena, again without their MVP, only served to reinforce the point that discretion should’ve been the better part of valor there–especially against a disjointed outfit like the Rockets.
Fast-forward to the present and the details have changed a bit on the periphery, but the circumstances remain the same. Again the Warriors won comfortably at home twice against the upstart Blazers, though they had to work for it some in Game 2.
Then with the series changing locals, the underdogs made one last push, and it wound up being enough. It’s a 2-1 series now, one more home win by Portland at the frenzied Moda Center from being interesting.
And here’s Kerr facing the same dilemma as before, whether to bring Curry back at something less than 100 percent, because Curry’s pride, ego and sense of responsibility to his teammates are all speaking at a much louder volume than his barking knee.
Common sense says Kerr should back him off one more game, just to let Curry back home in comfortable surroundings, just to buy some insurance from the original two-week prognosis.
Who knows? The Dubs could very well win Game 4 without Curry’s services. And if they manage that, they’ll have a stranglehold on the series, without ever being in the position to need him. And if they lose Game 4, it’s not the end of the world. They’ll still have home court advantage in a best-of-three; they’ll still be prohibitive favorites.
The choice for Kerr seems easy but it’s far from it. The Blazers are not Houston. They’ve got heart, leadership and drive. The role players respond and play for their coach and their stars instead of being repulsed by them.
Damian Lillard was absolutely fantastic on Saturday, with 40 points and 10 assists, and emerging second-banana C.J. McCollum chipped in with 23, but they were hardly alone.
The Blazers prevailed 120-108 simply because their role players dominated their more celebrated counterparts. Al-Farouq Aminu was a force once more, making 8-of-9 shots and finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds, and the Blazers also got contributions off the bench from Allen Crabbe and Ed Davis.
The Warriors got 72 points combined from their two healthy All-Stars, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, including a career-high 37 from Green. But the two of them accounted for exactly two-thirds of the team’s points.
All the other Dubs had 36 between them. In what’s been a running theme these playoffs, they were let down once more by Harrison Barnes, who shot 2-of-8 and finished -14. With each passing game, the idea of Barnes earning in excess of $20 million annually seems more and more preposterous, no matter how much the salary cap is set to spike.
Andrew Bogut stuck up for his slumping teammate the other day, telling reporters that if Barnes “was on a bad team, he’s averaging 20 a game.”
So did Kobe Bryant. He was overpaid too. It’s not Barnes’ meager point totals that’s problematic as the fact that he hasn’t been at all efficient with the shots he’s gotten, nor does he do enough in other aspects to stand out when he’s not scoring, the way Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston or Green do.
His offensive skills haven’t developed anywhere near the rate that Thompson’s or Green’s have and most disappointing of all, he hasn’t been any more assertive without Curry than with him. Barnes missed 16 games with a high ankle sprain, and tellingly the team didn’t miss a beat. They just replaced him with Brandon Rush in the starting lineup and continued winning.
If some front office is really set to give Barnes a four-year deal worth over $80 million, then what would Aminu be worth in the open market?
He’d be worth all the money; that’s what.
Two hulking men in dark suits and sunglasses would show up at your door with paperwork, demanding $23.95 for each member of the household as part of the government-mandated “Pay Al-Farouq Aminu Initiative.”
“This is ridiculous,” you’d exclaim. “I didn’t vote for this. I’m not even a Blazers fan.”
And then out would come the cattle prods.
Anyway, Kerr can’t afford to get this wrong with Curry. Any relapse, any re-aggravation with the injury that causes him to miss time or be clearly limited in the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs or the Thunder, and the talent deficit will be too much to overcome.
As inspiring as the Dubs have been in these playoffs without Curry, don’t get it twisted. They won 73 games during the season because he’s their best player and they absolutely need him.
Kerr would love to have enough confidence in his role players –Barnes in particular– playing better in Game 4 so he won’t have to play Curry. But his faith in them is clearly wavering. The fact that he’s even seriously considering playing Curry on Monday tells us as much.
And that gets us back to the $20 million question. How valuable is Barnes exactly if the Dubs are willing to play the ultimate game of Russian roulette with their MVP just so they won’t have to depend on the able-bodied 23-year-old who’s supposedly in much demand?