SAN ANTONIO — For a team that momentarily became poster boys for resting players, the Warriors just used three satisfying and hard-played games in the last 48 hours to rejuvenate their season.
Surely right about now, you’re wondering if the devious NBA schedule played a cruel trick on them: Three games in two days? But yes, three games, all victories, each one more impressive than the other.
Tuesday: They settled down the frisky Rockets and totally shut down James Harden, whose MVP campaign, fortunately for him, will not be confined to his efforts against the Warriors this season.
Wednesday: They spotted the Spurs early leads of 15-0 and 22-3 before doing a complete about-face and stunning their closest competitor in the Western Conference, winning by 12 and stretching their conference lead to 3 1/2 games with seven to play.
And in between those bookend wins, a subtle yet important contest took place just before tipoff against the Spurs when Kevin Durant went one-on-one with Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser. For roughly 20 minutes, Durant took shots from deep, elevating on his previously-injured left knee which was wrapped in a brace, and then attacked the rim for six dunks. He appeared cautious yet bouncy, not pushing himself yet planting and cutting several times to help remove any doubt.
“He came off the floor and he was tired and aching,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Bruce, not Kevin.”
So, to recap: Warriors load up by beating the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the West for their ninth straight win, and get an encouraging update both medically and visually regarding Durant, who’ll be re-checked in a week and is expected to play the season’s final two or three games. Meanwhile: The rest of the league just took a deep breath.
“Our guys are tough, confident and pretty good,” said Kerr.
You think? When Durant suffered his mishap on Feb. 28, the mood around the team took a grim turn. The Warriors then lost five of seven, easily their worst stretch in nearly three years, and the outlook on Durant initially was foggy. They took a 22-point lashing from the Spurs on March 11, when Kerr made the splashy decision to rest his regulars on that national TV game, citing a cruel schedule that had him playing in Minnesota one day and San Antonio the next.
While the talk shows debated the tactics of star players getting a breather, and an irritated commissioner Adam Silver threatening to twist the arms of owners to get involved in discouraging the practice, the Warriors decided to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get back to winning. They haven’t lost since.
“I thought when we were going through those losses, they ultimately were going to be good for us,” said Kerr. “When you lose, you get your edge back.”
This certainly has been the case for Steph Curry. In the last nine days he outplayed the three projected MVP leaders: Russell Westbrook, Harden and Kawhi Leonard, all on the road. While they were tangled in a string of turnovers, missed shots and stagnant performances, the winner of the last two MVPs polished his reputation and went to work. Curry was Curry, dropping step-back threes and using spurts to carry the club over big stretches. He’s averaging 25 points and 10 assists in his last five games and went for 29 and 11 against the Spurs.
“We never lost confidence,” said Curry. “There was no panic. We just battled.”
The Warriors’ D also awakened, and only the Rockets broke 100 in the last eight games. After ambushing the Warriors and scoring 33 in the first quarter, the Spurs managed just 41 the entire second half. Draymond Green delivered a manly block of David Lee just above the rim, a play that juiced up his teammates.
The night before in Houston, Harden continued a miserable shooting effort against Golden State. In three games this season he’s three-for-25 from deep and 19-for-57 overall. Given how much he means to the Rockets, Harden’s issues vs. the Warriors looms as a huge advantage for Golden State should they meet in May.
“We have guys who are just long-limbed and have done a great job on him. Just trying to make him work,” said Kerr.
It was just additional proof that the Warriors are far removed from the funk that threatened to see them slip in the standings.
“From where we were then,” said Green, referring to three weeks ago, “to where we are now, it’s night and day.”
Every night brings another headliner. Against the Spurs it was Curry and David West, the savvy veteran who surprised the Spurs with 15 points in 21 minutes. Previously, Andre Iguodala, whose minutes jumped without Durant, amped his all-around game to lessen the loss of Durant. Others have chipped in: Shaun Livingston, JaVale McGee, Matt Barnes.
The significance of beating the Rockets and Spurs on consecutive nights wasn’t lost on the Warriors. Kerr said the tapes of those games will be examined for hints and clues to be used in the very likely case the Warriors must go through one of them or both, to make a third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
“These are two teams we could possibly see,” said West, “so this is good. Real good.”
And there’s this: Golden State might take the final week off, in a sense. There’s another game with Houston on Friday, and then the surging Wizards, and then Kerr is expected to give his regulars a well-earned break just before the playoffs, with the best-record in the West all but secured. Golden State isn’t chasing 73 wins again, which comes as a relief.
“It wasn’t a great way to go into the playoffs,” admitted Curry.
Which leads to one player who’d rather play down the stretch: Durant. There’s no official timetable but it’s apparent he’ll break a sweat before the first round. Still confined to doing non-contact drills, Durant has shown no setbacks in his recovery and Kerr described the process as “positive” with all signs leading to a late-season tune-up.
“It’s very encouraging to have these wins and with Kevin, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Kerr said.
The Warriors haven’t needed Durant over the last month, which sends a chilling statement to the rest of the West if not the NBA, and are bound to be frightened when he returns. They’ll have the luxury of keeping him on a minutes restriction if necessary, at least through the first round, until he regains his legs.
In a sense, they’ve survived two scares, one to Durant, the other to an unsettling stretch that saw them lose to the Timberwolves and Bulls and barely outlast the Sixers. The swagger’s back, and so is the upper hand that they’ve enjoyed for almost three years, with the rather significant 3-1 blown lead to Cleveland as the only exception.
The next big game for the Warriors will be the one Durant wins in practice and then declares he’s ready to suit up. The time for rest, at least for him, is almost over.
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