SAN FRANCISCO -- With the entirety of their championship core back together and their superstar turning in one of the best seasons of his career, the Golden State Warriors' title defense could have been on cruise control. Instead it's more closely resembled by five o'clock Bay Bridge traffic -- intermittent temptations of hope when the road appears to be clearing up, only to suddenly slam on the brakes and impatiently wait in gridlock once again.
There's a line from the Christopher Guest classic "Best in Show," when Gerry and Cookie finally arrive in Philadelphia after the long drive up from Florida. When asked how the trip went, Gerry says, "A little cloudy coming up through West Virginia. Then it stayed overcast through Virginia. But once we get into Pennsylvania ... it's still, uh, still overcast."
That's been the Warriors season in a nutshell. It started off mediocre, then around Christmas it stayed mediocre. Now, approaching the All-Star break ... it's still, uh, still mediocre.
Golden State head coach Steve Kerr has spoken countless times over the course of the season about the quest to string wins together and build momentum, but they simply haven't been able to do it for multiple reasons, not the least of which has been injury issues. They've only won more than three games in a row once this season -- a five-game streak from Christmas to Jan. 2.
"We've had inconsistent starting play [recently], a lot of that based on injuries," Kerr said. "We just haven't been able to put it all together at one time. That's what I've seen."
The latest roadblock came with just over a minute left in the third quarter of Saturday's win over the Dallas Mavericks, when Stephen Curry hurt his left leg and limped into the stands after defending a drive by McKinley Wright IV.
Steph Curry injury pic.twitter.com/UIawbC1IER— That's a highlight (@ClipIt_NBA) February 5, 2023
The Chase Center crowd fell to near silence save for a few "not agains," as Curry gingerly made his way to the sideline to be looked at by the training staff. He continued to be worked on as play resumed, but quickly made an inconspicuous exit to the locker room. Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo returned to the bench during the next stoppage of play and queried, "Where's Steph?"
As it became apparent that Curry would not return to the court, the energy in the building completely drained. The fog extended to the players as well, as they saw a 20-point lead when Curry exited shaved to five with just over a minute left to play. Multiple Warriors attributed the fourth-quarter struggles to getting away from what they were doing well -- in other words, they didn't have Curry.
On Sunday, The Athletic's Shams Charania reported that Curry is expected to miss multiple weeks with what the Warriors called "partial tears to his superior tibiofibular ligaments and interosseous membrane as well as a contusion to his lower left leg." In English: It's not great, but it could have been worse.
"It's been an up and down season for us. Sometimes we get going and we think that we clicked, and then we take a hit," Warriors forward JaMychal Green said on Saturday. "It's a lot of adversity and we're fighting through it."
Curry recently returned from an 11-game absence due to a shoulder injury, during which the Warriors went 6-5 -- a victory considering how greatly the offense traditionally suffers with Curry on the sideline. During that stretch, Golden State managed to keep their offensive rating at 110.8, compared to its season average of 107.1 with Curry off the floor. When Curry is on the court, the Warriors' offensive efficiency jumps to 117.4 points per 100 possessions.
After a brief experiment starting Jordan Poole in place of Kevon Looney, Kerr said that his plan was to return to the unit of Curry, Looney, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, which has the best net rating of any five-man group in the NBA that's played at least 300 minutes. That idea, of course, will now have to be put on hold.
The good news is that Poole, who will presumably fill Curry's slot during the injury, has played much better as a starter. The Warriors will also rely more heavily on DiVincenzo -- who has averaged 11 points, five rebounds and four assists over his last 20 games while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range -- along with emerging young forward Jonathan Kuminga.
Despite their struggles, the Warriors, seventh in the Western Conference, still have the same number of losses as the No. 4-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. As long as Green, Wiggins and Thompson stay healthy, the Warriors have a chance to stem the tide for the duration of Curry's absence, but any hopes of rattling off four or five wins in a row and shooting up the standings have likely been dashed. Again.
"We'll be fine. We're in a great position," JaMychal Green said on Saturday, anticipating Curry's potential absence. "We've just got to get some wins in a row, move up the ranks."