Golden State Warriors persist without Durant following momentary stumble

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2017/03/19/golden-state-warri
BYSam Amick , USA TODAY Sports Published 6:31 p.m. ET March 19, 2017 | Updated 5:36 p.m. ET March 20, 2017
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A look back at the top moments from this past weekend in the NBA. USA TODAY Sports

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second quarter at Oracle Arena.(Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

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As the Golden State Warriors were finding their way without Kevin Durant the past three weeks, losing five out of seven games after he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee before recovering with a three-game winning streak, Steve Kerr noticed something comical about the noise that surrounded his team.

The hysteria was in full effect.

Were the Warriors’ title hopes dashed? Were the past few seasons a façade?

“It’s entirely predictable,” Kerr said with an eye roll. “This is how our world works, this is how things (are) – especially for us, for our team. But I’ve seen it a million times.”

Never mind how the Warriors have won 195 of 233 regular season games since the start of the 2014-15 season (.836) with two Finals appearances and one title. Clearly, the walls of Oracle Arena were closing in.

“It’s actually a miracle that we haven’t been through a stretch like this until now, over the last three seasons,” Kerr continued. “... But it’s the reality of being in the NBA that things catch up to you, injuries, scheduling. People, they can panic. And we’ll just keep working and go about our business.”

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Their business will come with an ironic twist on Monday night in Oklahoma City, where there will be no sympathy to be found inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. After all, no one knows more about surviving without Durant than the Thunder.

When Durant signed with the Warriors in free agency, the possibility of the Thunder missing the playoffs was real. Now eight months later, thanks to Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City is thriving.

At 40-29, they are currently sixth in the Western Conference and still within striking distance of earning homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs (2.5 behind the fourth-place Utah Jazz; .5 behind the fifth-place Clippers). Second-year coach Billy Donovan deserves plenty of credit. He set an early tone with Westbrook & Co that ensured a focus on the future. General manager Sam Presti had a productive trade deadline, adding shooter Doug McDermott and veteran forward Taj Gibson in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. The Thunder, who have fallen to the Warriors in all three matchups this season, have transitioned about as well as anyone could have imagined.

What’s more, their recent play – a five-game winning streak in which they downed the Jazz and the second-place San Antonio Spurs – should aid Westbrook's MVP candidacy against Houston's James Harden, San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland's LeBron James.Even with Westbrook’s historic play – the six-time All-Star (a league-leading 31.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game) is still on track to join Oscar Robertson as the only other player to average a triple-double for an entire season – collective success always matters when it comes to the MVP media vote.

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Golden State is back to winning after a short respite from league-wide domination. It’s good timing as they’re trying to hold off the Spurs to secure the top seed in the Western Conference.

With Durant scheduled to be reevaluated at the end of March and internal optimism that he’ll return before the end of the regular season, it bodes well for the Warriors that they’re learning how to flourish without him. Since the Feb. 28 game when Durant got hurt, they have the league’s fifth-best defensive rating (101.3 points per 100 possessions).

That’s no small feat considering that Durant was playing rim protector and leading his team in blocks, while also leading his team in scoring at 25.3 points per game. His offense is clearly missed as the Warriors’ offense, once the NBA's best, has been ranked 14th since the injury. It also helps that the “Splash Brothers” look like themselves again, finding their stroke throughout their current winning streak. Curry and Thompson have hit 26 of 54 three-pointers combined over the last three games.

Without Durant, the margin for error is much smaller now – for the Warriors and the Thunder.

“There’s always overreaction from fans and media; that’s all part of it,” Kerr said. “When you’re in it, you can see (the problems) really clearly, so you can’t pay attention to what anybody else thinks.

“You can see on the schedule when you’re going to make it through the storm, and then you hope you can get healthy, and then you do what you can. And then, whatever happens, happens."

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick. 

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