Steph Curry

Why Curry-less playoffs look like NBA palace coup in real time

NBC Universal, Inc.

We could not have known what would follow the graceless fall of the Warriors last week. All we knew is they would not be in the playoffs, depriving the NBA and millions of fans more time to enjoy the league’s most watchable player.

There would be no Stephen Curry and, therefore, the TV ratings would be deeply compromised. Hey, stuff happens. The games would keep coming.

What has become clear early in the first round, though, is that the dismissal of Curry was an omen.

Curry was but the first of the three superstars of his generation to go home before the start of playoffs, but the other two – Kevin Durant and LeBron James – are now getting up-close-and-personal looks at the sun as it begins to sink on their careers.

Curry is 35. Durant, who was in his prime when he ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon, turns 35 in September. LeBron turns 40 in December. Age relentlessly pursues us all, but it’s utterly remorseless with those whose best work comes during their physical peak.

This golden trio has entered the “Uncle” stage. They are losing their grip on the torches inherited from the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade and the late Kobe Bryant.

We’re seeing in these playoffs an NBA palace coup in real time. The new breed elite was coming for the torches Curry, Durant and James carried for most of the 21st century.

Curry and the Warriors were unceremoniously bounced from the NBA Play-In Tournament by the Sacramento Kings, who were ousted three days later by the New Orleans Pelicans in the play-in tournament finale.

Durant and the Phoenix Suns are in a 0-2 hole in their first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose stifling defense has shoved KD and his teammates into a meat locker.

James and the Los Angeles Lakers are in a similar bind, trailing the defending champion Denver Nuggets two games to none. The Nuggets are providing more answers than the Lakers have questions.

A comeback in either series is possible, as KD and LeBron still have greatness running through their blood vessels. Both have All-Star teammates capable of helping them avoid a first-round exit.

But history is against them, as 92 percent of the teams that drop the first two games of a seven-game series don’t advance.

Like Curry during this arduous Golden State season, Durant and James are realizing that roads previously traveled with relative ease are now rife with treachery. Their heels are being stepped on by upstarts who weren’t ready a few years ago – or even last season.

No one is doing more stepping than Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards, a 22-year-old top-10 player in naked pursuit of No. 1. He’s grinning and trash-talking his favorite player, Durant, while blistering the Suns. This is the same Ant Edwards who in the first month of the regular season smugly ignored Draymond Green’s attempts at provocation.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference behind the impact of their 25-year-old leader, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was voted first-team All-NBA last year and is one of three finalists for the league’s MVP award this season.

Another MVP finalist, Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić, also 25, is trying to push out the Los Angeles Clippers, who are built around the league’s second-tier torchbearers: Paul George, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard – all of whom are well into their 30s.

The third MVP finalist is Denver’s Nikola Jokić. He’s 29. That he is a two-time MVP and defending NBA champion makes him the league’s youngest superstar.

Of course, Jokić and the Nuggets sent LeBron home last season and are halfway to repeating the feat.

This is not sudden. LeBron and the Lakers missed the playoffs in 2022 and snagged the No. 7 seed via the play-in tournament the last two seasons. Durant’s teams were a No. 7 seed (the Nets) in 2022, a four-seed (the Suns; he was acquired at midseason) in 2023 and climbed into the No. 6 seed on the last weekend of this season.

It's conceivable that Durant and James will join Curry in the offseason much earlier than they anticipated. Such absences would be, um, loud. It’s OK to shed a tear. Or celebrate the tyros.

Understand, please, that Curry, Durant and James are not finished. Not quite. They are, however, on notice.

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