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Kevin Durant's injury could put the West's No. 1 seed in play

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It’s unlikely, but if the Warriors stumble, they could slip to the No. 2 seed. That’d make the road to a title even more difficult.

San Antonio Spurs v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

When an MRI revealed Kevin Durant’s knee injury was only a Grade 2 MCL sprain to be re-evaluated in a month, a collective sigh exhaled across Northern California.

Durant limped to the locker room just two minutes into the Golden State Warriors’ loss to the Washington Wizards on Tuesday after Zaza Pachulia accidentally fell into the All-Star forward’s leg. The Warriors did not announce the results of his MRI until Wednesday morning, and there were reports of organizational fear regarding the severity of Durant’s injury.

The former league Most Valuable Player dodged a bullet with his MCL sprain, though, and the team even suggested he could return before the first round of the Western Conference playoffs

But there is one potential effect of Durant’s injury. If the Warriors don’t hold down the fort without their leading scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker, there’s a small chance the Warriors could lose the West’s top seed.

And that might set the scene for the playoff series the world wants to see.

The Warriors do have a cushion

Golden State has the league’s best record by a mile. At 50-10, the Warriors are four games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs (45-13) and a mammoth 8.5 games in front of the No. 3 seed Houston Rockets (42-19).

That’s a lot of ground for teams to make up. Durant or not, Golden State is still a championship team boasting three All-Stars in Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and the two-time and reigning league MVP, Stephen Curry.

Golden State’s schedule does have some easy games

Of its 22 remaining games before the playoffs, 12 are against sub-.500 teams. Golden State is 27-4 against teams currently below .500 this season.

Four of the Warriors’ last five games of the regular season are against Minnesota, Phoenix, New Orleans, and the Los Angeles Lakers — also known as the West’s bottom four teams.

It would take a near miracle for a team still boasting three All-Stars (including a two-time MVP) to drop games against the conference’s cellar dwellers.

There IS one stretch that could cost the Warriors, though.

Golden State will endure its toughest test of the season in late March with a stretch of five games in eight nights — including one back-to-back — against the West’s toughest opponents.

On March 26, the Warriors will host the Memphis Grizzlies, who have beaten them twice this season. On the 28th, Golden State travels to take on the high-powered Rockets.

The next day, they travel to San Antonio to take on the No. 2-seeded Spurs. On March 31, Golden State has to protect home court against the Rockets once again. The Warriors cap off their five-game stand in Oakland against a surging Washington Wizards team.

Should the Warriors drop at least three of those five games, San Antonio could conceivably supplant Golden State as the West’s top dog.

But San Antonio has an uphill climb itself

Outside of their tough five-game stretch, the Warriors essentially have cool runnings for the remainder of the season. The same can’t be said for San Antonio.

Fourteen of San Antonio’s 24 remaining games are against playoff opponents. Five of those teams (Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Hawks, and Rockets) have beaten the Spurs this season, and another is Cleveland. The Spurs face the Grizzlies THREE times in 10 games and still have to play the Warriors two times before the playoffs.

While the Spurs play 16 of their last 24 games at home, they’ll have to endure four back-to-backs in the latter stretch of the season (though three of their four opponents on the second of those back-to-back games are the Lakers, Timberwolves, and Kings).

That said, there are a few scenarios where the Spurs could supplant the Warriors as the West’s No. 1 seed:

  • If they beat the Warriors both times and finish their remaining 22-game schedule at least two games better than Golden State. This would give San Antonio the tie-breaker with the No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs.
  • If they split the remaining two games against Golden State and finish four games better than the Warriors otherwise. This would also give San Antonio the tiebreaker against the Warriors due to their blowout victory in Oakland on opening night.
  • If they lose both games against the Warriors and finish their remaining schedule seven games better than Golden State — a virtually impossible scenario.

There’s a lot at stake here

The Western Conference’s eighth seed is historically weak. A No. 8 seed in the West hasn’t finished below .500 since 1997, well before the league increased first-round series in the playoffs to best-of-seven games. There’s an excellent chance that any one of six teams competing for the No. 8 seed (Denver, Sacramento, Portland, Dallas, Minnesota, and New Orleans) will have fewer than 40 wins.

The No. 7 seed, on the other hand, is markedly stronger than the eighth. The Thunder are currently in the No. 7 slot and are 10 games above .500, which would put them fifth in the East. In fact, seeds No. 4 through 7 (Los Angeles Clippers, Utah, Memphis, and Oklahoma City) are within two games of one another.

That first-round series will be much harder for the No. 2 seed than the No. 1 seed. The No. 1 seed gets a sub.-500 team. The No. 2 seed gets a seven-game tilt against a Grizzlies team no one wants to meet in the playoffs, a Clippers team that’s long had a chip on its shoulder from untimely post-season injuries, an up-and-coming, defensive-minded Jazz team with nothing to lose, or an emotionally charged Thunder squad featuring Russell Westbrook.

Could you imagine a first-round series between a rusty Durant coming back from injury and Westbrook’s Thunder?

Westbrook is probably licking his chops just thinking about it.