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The impact of Kevin Durant’s injury on Cavs' hopes to repeat

For the first time in three years, the Golden State Warriors look like a normal NBA team that goes through the ups and downs of a grueling 82-game regular season. Coming off a season in which they set an NBA record with 73 wins, Golden State was the big winner of the 2016 summer free agency as they acquired Kevin Durant. With 1-1 odds to win the NBA championship and seamlessly inserting Durant into the lineup, the Warriors looked like favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, but hit a huge bump in the road when Durant went down with a knee injury against Washington.

Heading to the Locker Room

Nikko Villaneuva | iSports Times

February 28th was the day the Western Conference & NBA playoffs may have gotten a bit more interesting. From the day Cleveland defeated Golden State in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, it has almost been a foregone conclusion that the teams would meet again in 2017 for a rubber match. Since Durant’s knee injury that has him sidelined a minimum of four weeks, but likely longer and possibly the remainder of the season, the Warriors have struggled mightily. The team has lost 5-of-7, including games to the Timberwolves and Bulls, and are averaging just over 99 points per game in those contests, compared to 120.2 in their 52 wins this season.

Even if Durant returns, it is hard to tell when or what type of minutes and impact he would have. Looking back to 2014 when Durant fractured his right foot before the season, he did not quite look the same when he returned and struggled with foot injuries the rest of the season. He only totaled 27 games, including his lowest point total and fewest minutes per game since his rookie season.

With Durant out, the vulnerability of the Warriors is at an all time high. In the West, a playoff battle with the San Antonio Spurs looms, a team Golden State has lost to both times this year, including a 29-point beat down with Durant in the lineup. With their current skid, the Warriors’ lead in the West is down to a half game, which could provide problems in the playoffs if they lose home court advantage. The Warriors have the best home record in the NBA at 26-4.

Durant's Leg

Tim Kawakani | The Mercury News

Depth could also prove to be a problem down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs for Golden State. Due to their acquisition of Durant, the Warriors were forced to let other key players from last year’s team walk, including Harrison Barnes, Marreesse Speights, Andrew Bogut, and Festus Ezeli, all played important minutes last season. They did gain JaVale McGee, David West, and Zaza Pachulia, but that doesn’t match Cleveland’s additions of Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Derrick Williams, and potentially another free agent big man. With Durant out, the Cavaliers have made greater strides forward than the Warriors.

While Golden State’s struggles may continue, the Cavs lack of synchronized play will likely smooth itself out over the last month of the regular season. Cleveland’s play has been sporadic due to a myriad of injuries, including J.R. Smith and Kevin Love’s knee injury, along with trying to incorporate a number of new players. With Smith returning last week against Detroit and Love rehabbing and likely to return in a few weeks, Cleveland’s pieces may be falling into place at just the right time. The Warriors and Cavs’ postseason outlooks are moving in two opposite directions, and an NBA Finals rematch is no longer an affirmative.

As the Warriors’ title odds decline with Durant out, the Cavs look to turn it up over the last few weeks of the season and in the playoffs. Even with up and down play over the last few weeks, the Cavs’ chance to repeat may never have looked better.

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