The best NBA playoff series often turn on one play, one shot, one moment. Robert Horry’s last-second 3-pointer against the Sacramento Kings, Derek Fisher’s buzzer-beater against the San Antonio Spurs, Reggie Miller’s missed free throws against the New York Knicks. The Warriors’ second-round series with the Spurs had all the ingredients of an instant classic after two games: a colossal choke job, a stirring upset and a double-overtime thriller. The series could still throw out a few more unexpected twists and turns, but it will require an otherworldly performance from Stephen Curry in Game 6 at Oracle Arena tonight.
If this series is headed where it appears to be headed, the turning point won’t be a shot, a block or a choke. It will be the moment that Curry reinjured his left ankle in the third quarter of Game 3 on Friday. The Warriors fizzled down the stretch of that game and they haven’t been the same team since.
In fact, this series would already be over if Curry hadn’t wrung out everything he had with a 22-point outing in Game 4.
Without Curry’s full arsenal right now, the Warriors’ offense looks stale. His ability to drop a 3-pointer off the dribble or drive to the bucket opens up the floor for the entire team. Klay Thompson gets open looks from downtown because Curry collapses the defense, Andrew Bogut gets easy points around the basket because Curry draws defenders in the lane and Jarrett Jack gets clean paths to the rack because Curry can’t be neglected on the perimeter.
But in Game 5 and throughout much of Game 4, the Warriors’ offense lacked movement, a creative spark. As the Spurs zipped the ball around the floor, creating openings with surgical precision, Jack, Thompson and Harrison Barnes took turns trying to be heroes, putting the ball on the floor and driving into the defense as Curry stood lifeless behind the arc.
A lot of things came together this season to propel the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs, but Curry’s emergence as the NBA’s premier shooting threat was the glue that held everything in place. The Warriors can get by without Bogut or David Lee, but minus Curry, they aren’t a playoff team.
This latest injury resuscitates concerns about Curry’s long-term health. In just four seasons, his right ankle has already been surgically repaired twice and now the left one is becoming a nuisance, too. Is this an anomaly or is there something about his stop-and-go style of play that leaves him particularly vulnerable to this kind of injury?
Curry might just be one of those players that keeps fans on eggshells because an injury is always right around the corner. If the plug gets pulled every time he goes down, the Warriors’ plans to climb the ladder in the Western Conference will be compromised.
Whatever happens down the road, Dub Nation might always wonder what could have been this year had Curry not rolled his ankle that night at Oracle Arena. But at this point, there is still at least one more game to be played, and a chance for another unfathomable moment where Curry turns this thing around.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.