The Thunder and the Warriors will go at it for the fourth time this season Monday, but the drama that was palpable in the previous three meetings will be noticeably absent from this one. Russell Westbrook won't have the additional motivation of going up against his former teammate, because Kevin Durant will miss his ninth consecutive game as he continues to work his way back from the knee injury he suffered Feb. 28.
Even though Durant is expected to return at some point in the postseason, his injury looms large -- it has impacted not only the Warriors, but the entire league as well.
Here are five ways Kevin Durant's injury has changed this NBA season.
It took the Warriors out of the MVP race
In the NBA, the MVP award almost always goes to the best player on one of the league's top teams. It's why Russell Westbrook is going to have a tough time winning this year over someone like James Harden, despite the statistical tear he's been on that could result in a triple-double average we haven't seen in more than 50 years.
Stephen Curry won it the past two seasons when Golden State twice finished at the top of the league-wide standings. But even though the Warriors might do the same this year, no one on the roster has even entered the MVP conversation. That's because Kevin Durant had been their best offensive player in every meaningful category, but this late-season injury (along with the dominant seasons from Harden and Westbrook) means that the race for MVP won't go through what could potentially the league's best team.
The No. 1 playoff seed is officially in play
This season was shaping up to be a runaway win for the Warriors in terms of locking up the playoffs' No. 1 seed, just like it was the past two years. But as soon as Durant went down with his injury, Golden State became immediately vulnerable, going just 4-4 in his absence.
That makes the final few weeks of the regular season a lot more interesting. The Warriors still hold the top spot, but lead a very good Spurs team by just 2.5 games in the standings. San Antonio holds the tie-breaker thanks to a 2-0 head-to-head record, and the teams will meet once more March 29.
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Exposed the danger of building a 'superteam'
Let's not get crazy.
Any team that had a shot at adding Kevin Durant to the roster without giving up its three best players would have done anything necessary to make it happen. We don't fault the Warriors for doing so, but Durant's injury shows the perils of putting all of your eggs in your star players' baskets.
Golden State was so deadly the past two seasons because of guys like Harrison Barnes who could (at least occasionally) produce at both ends of the floor, and Andrew Bogut who could anchor the interior defense. Those two, along with guys who played significant minutes off the bench like Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights, were all jettisoned in order to create the cap space necessary to bring on Durant.
The Warriors are unstoppable offensively with a healthy Durant in the lineup. But without him, given the sacrifices made to sign him, Golden State is significantly worse than it was at any point over the past two seasons.
Golden State has finally faced some regular-season adversity
It's at least possible that part of the reason for the Warriors' historic collapse in the 2016 NBA Finals was due to the fact that the team had little-to-no experience in handling any type of adversity. It's probably why Steve Kerr recently said he was happy to have his team struggle a bit with Durant out of the lineup.
“This is gonna sound crazy. I kind of like it. I actually kind of like it,” Kerr said last week, via Anthony Slater of Bay Area News Group. “I think we need some adversity. We obviously have some, probably, for the first time in two-and-a-half years during the regular season. I think adversity can help. It forces you to examine what you’re doing and clean some things up and get right, and I think this is going to be good for us in the long run. We’re going to tighten up a lot of things.
“I thought last year we just kept winning through a lot of the slippage late in the season. It helped us hang that tiny little banner on the wall over there, but we didn’t hang the big one over there, and we like the big one better. I think this could be, in a weird way, could be helpful down the stretch.”
It could be, for sure -- especially if the Warriors fall behind in a postseason series.
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Other teams have hope
Let's be honest, if the Warriors had been injury-free for the entirety of the regular season, they'd have evolved into a fine-tuned machine in time for the playoffs, and would have eviscerated every team in their path on the way to a third straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
With KD out, though, Golden State has been vulnerable -- so much so that other teams in the West have undoubtedly taken notice. There's no question that James Harden's Rockets and Kawhi Leonard's Spurs were infused with hope after seeing Golden State stumble, and even when KD returns, they'll be emboldened against the team that's been the favorite to come out of the West all season long.