Marcin Gortat throwing Zaza Pachulia to the ground, and into the knee of Kevin Durant, could very well turn out to be one of the most critical plays of this NBA season.
We won’t know for sure until months from now, when the dust has settled on the 2016-17 NBA season. But you can be sure that a significant injury to the best player on the best team in the league will certainly play a factor in shaping the remaining course of this season.
The same holds true for Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry, who is recovering from wrist surgery. Eastern Conference finalists a year ago, the Raptors were one of the most active teams at last week’s trade deadline.
For Durant, the injury and the at least four-week absence that it has caused immediately impacts the Warriors’ season. Any cushion they might have had in the Western Conference playoff chase vanished the moment Pachulia fell into Durant’s leg.
Durant’s injury (and to a lesser extent, Lowry’s as well) changes the landscape for the league’s top individual honor as well. James Harden and Russell Westbrook remain as the frontrunners on this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder, but Durant was in the thick of that top three-mix up until now.
Durant’s absence allows for other viable candidates — namely LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah Thomas and others — to play their way into more advantageous positions.
The Warriors, of course, have more pressing and important issues to tend to in Durant’s absence. Thursday’s loss to Chicago marked the first time since April 2015 that the Warriors have lost back-to-back games.
After months of working tirelessly to incorporate Durant into the fabric of the team, the Warriors now have to deal with the fallout of having him snatched away without warning.
“He made the game easy for us, and you can get comfortable because of his skill set and his talent,” Warriors veteran Andre Iguodala told reporters after the game. “So, we’ve got to pay attention to the small things.”
Unforeseen injuries often force everyone to take a step back, evaluate the new landscape and reset. And that goes for the playoff chase as well as the the fierce battle for MVP honors.
Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
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IMPORTANT NOTE: Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry have been removed from the list due to long-term injury issues that could keep them out of action for the remainder of the regular season.
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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
The beauty of Harden’s game this season has no doubt been his transformation into the league’s best point guard. That’s right, the best point guard. A top-three scorer and the league leader in assists, Harden can beat you in two ways on any given night. And it should be clear by now that his Rockets are a legitimate threat in the Western Conference (20.0 points, 11.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds in his last five games).
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 2
Anyone nit-picking Westbrook’s game after Thursday’s loss to Portland is clearly missing the point. Sure, he could have been better down the stretch. But the Thunder aren’t in games this season without all of the work he does beforehand to put them in a position to win. (37.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.8 assists in his last five games).
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 4
Now that Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut are both in the fold, it’ll be much tougher to digest LeBron’s cryptic complaints about what his team lacks heading into the stretch run of the season. In addition to veteran reinforcements, they’ve got the best player on the planet strapped up and ready to roll. (23.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists in his last five games).
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Last week: No. 5
His game-winner over Paul George Wednesday night was yet another reminder of Leonard’s constantly improving offensive prowess. He takes those clutch shots without hesitation, proving why he has a permanent seat at the head table of the league’s elite two-way players. (20.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists in his last five games).
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Last week: No. 7
As Thomas made clear with his performance in that win over Cleveland, nobody puts him in check — not even the defending champs. And Thomas and the Celtics truly believe they have what it takes to challenge the Cavaliers in the playoffs. With Thomas leading the way, there should be no doubt. (24.6 points, 4.6 assists, 3.0 rebounds in his last five games).
6. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Last week: No. 8
Wall has guided the Wizards to back-to-back wins over the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors, cementing his team’s status as perhaps the league’s most potent upstart. The fact that Wall is doing it with his play and his leadership makes it all a sustainable model for the Wizards. (17.6 points, 12.2 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 2.0 steals in his last five games).
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 6
Curry’s recent shooting struggles from 3-point range have been well documented (he’s 7-for-41 from distance since the All-Star break). That won’t cut it, especially with Kevin Durant sidelined for the foreseeable future. The Warriors need the reigning two-time Kia MVP to get back to his normal mode if they’re going to hold off the San Antonio Spurs in the standings. (25.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists in his last five games).
8. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Last week: No. 9
After back-to-back road wins over Milwaukee and Washington Hayward and the Jazz find themselves trying to dig out of a mini two-game slide (at Oklahoma City and against Minnesota) with the Brooklyn Nets visiting Vivint Smart Home Arena tonight (9 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS). Hayward had a combined 59 points in those wins and just 32 in those losses. (19.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists in his last five games).
9. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Last week: No. 10
George still hasn’t gotten back to playing at the high level he’s become accustomed to, which is not a great sign for the Pacers’ chances of moving up in the Eastern Conference standings. Even in the midst of his struggles, though, he can flash the sort of two-way talent that few players in the league possess (see his battle with Kawhi Leonard). (13.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists in his last five games).
10. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Last week: Not ranked
The All-Star nod that didn’t materialize this season will only serve as fuel to Conley’s fire as he continues to navigate his finest season as a pro. He leads the team that no one in the Western Conference looks forward to matching up against come playoff time. (23.8 points, 6.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
An inside look from an Eastern Conference scout at Avery Bradley:
“Boston’s identity this season has been all about Isaiah Thomas and the star power he brings as a scorer and clutch performer. And he’s an All-Star a legitimate MVP candidate and all of that. But the most critical player for them now and certainly in the playoffs is going to be Avery Bradley. He changes things for them defensively in ways that don’t always pop out at you on first glance. But he’s such a sound defender at his position and he can guard three positions against most teams. He’s really exceptional, the footwork and the attention to detail. People think you can just dial it up when you want to with certain players. I don’t think that’s the case. The elite guys, the guys who can really be classified as defensive stoppers, they bring certain elements to the table themselves. And Bradley ranks right up there on my list just behind Kawhi Leonard and in that mix with Paul George and Klay Thompson among perimeter defenders. He’s a better than athlete than you think. He’s got a slender frame but he’s stronger than he looks. He holds his position and he digs in to your body and forces you into all sorts of uncomfortable positions. If you appreciate that part of the game, the ability of one guy to change games on that end, you need to really watch this guy work. Sometimes a guy gets a reputation as a really good or great defender and a lot of it is hype. He plays situational defense, turns it up in certain situations. Not this guy. He’s locked in all the time. He’s on another level.”
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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