OAKLAND, Calif. -- He missed the last six weeks, so naturally there was much curiosity about Stephen Curry’s level of sharpness -- which he settled almost right away.
The traditional end-of-pregame-practice heave from the tunnel at Oracle Arena, with an assist from an usher, was nailed on the first take. The double chest-pound and index finger pointed to the heavens was executed perfectly.
The poor mouthpiece got the bubblegum treatment again and was munched aggressively without mercy or compassion. And one particular time, when he parachuted to the court after taking a jumper, he struck a crouching pose -- his trademark move when celebrating something special -- and the troublesome knee that kept him benched since early March did not creak.
Oh, as for the most important sign of all for the Golden State Warriors: Curry’s shot was splashy and all seemed complete in his (and their) basketball world once again.
Yes, Curry’s return in Game 2 of this Western Conference semifinal series inspired the Warriors in a 121-116 victory Tuesday. But also, perhaps, it did so for the Pelicans because Game 2 carried a measure of suspense into the fourth quarter. If the Pelicans (who were blown out in Game 1), are feeling better about themselves now, the Warriors are, too -- for one obvious reason.
“Just him walking on the floor, you know, it was kind of electric in here. Pretty fitting, for sure,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green.
Curry had 28 points on eight-of-15 shooting in 27 minutes. He was good from the very first aim, which he took mere seconds after he checked into the game with 4:20 left in the first quarter. He sank a 3-pointer off a Kevon Looney screen from the left wing that set the tone for his night. In his limited time, Curry was active, frisky, aggressive and clearly restless after sitting out since March 23 and watching the playoffs begin without him.
He felt free and unburdened, showing no limitations from his left MCL sprain or the weeks of inactivity. To date, the Warriors had coasted through the playoffs, breezing by the San Antonio Spurs in five games and routing the Pelicans in Game 1.
I would say it played out as I expected. He was Steph. He doesn’t take long to warm up, that’s for sure. "
There was no reason to rush Curry back to a team that has All-Stars Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green as reinforcements. Yet the deeper the Warriors went in the playoffs, the more they had to get Curry some reps if only to shake off any rust. Once he was medically cleared and the Warriors had reason to uncross their fingers, there was no need to extend Curry’s agony.
“It was an eternity, it felt like for sure,” Curry said. “I had to pace myself and be patient with it. I was real eager to get out there with my teammates and do what I love to do. It was a good feeling, the crowd was crazy and we did what we needed to do in these first two games.”
With Curry playing again, a sense of normalcy returns as well for Golden State. The floor is spaced more now and there’s no need to continue with the well-meaning Andre Iguodala experience at point guard. Durant likely won’t see as many double-teams and Thompson should get more open looks.
Curry is the rare player who changes everything, both for his team and the opposing one. His shooting is a weapon in and of itself, but there’s also his passing and occasional rim-attacking. All of this makes the Warriors a championship contender for the fourth straight postseason.
“It’s his ability to get easy baskets for us,” Thompson said. “I think he uplifted the crowd as well. That was fun to hear the ovation he got. And he just bailed us out when we got stagnant. We missed him, I was happy we went 5-1 (in the playoffs) without him and it’s great to have him back.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr cleverly kept Curry out of the starting lineup just in case the Warriors started slowly. And, sure enough, the Warriors needed his energy -- New Orleans was up 18-11 before Curry’s first basket.
“Perfect timing,” Kerr said. “We had a tough first quarter and everything changed once he stepped on the floor.”
For most of the first three quarters, though, the Pelicans were sharper and quicker. They had 39 fast-break points (to Golden State’s 24) and managed much easier baskets than in Game 1. The Pelicans clearly planned to spoil the moment. All five starters scored in double figures and Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo (who was not surprisingly left open for long jumpers) each scored more than 20 points.
This was how the Pelicans flourished after the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins, and it’s what they’ll need to master for Games 3 and 4 in New Orleans.
“We knew New Orleans was going to come out at us,” Kerr said. “We were not ready for their force. We didn’t play intelligently down the stretch. We played well to win but we’ll have to play better in New Orleans."
The Pelicans didn’t take advantage of Thompson’s 4-for-20 night. And Durant did not heat up until the fourth quarter (he was 6-for-17 before that). The Warriors appeared vulnerable if only for fleeting stretches, yet never lost control.
Green flirted with a second-straight triple double, finishing a rebound short. He keyed the Warriors’ fourth-quarter run with a pair of 3-pointers. Green also had a testy exchange with Rondo at halftime that didn’t escalate into anything that would involve the referees, but did spice up the atmosphere.
Green said that was his plan all along.
“I just had to bring some force,” he said. “We were playing soft. We needed to bring some intensity to the game. That’s my job. I had to bring some competitive spirit to the game and after we did that, we took off.”
Curry’s return is also what the Warriors needed now. The playoff road only gets tougher from here, with a series shift to New Orleans and many projecting a Western Conference finals meeting with the Houston Rockets.
This is the Warriors, now complete with Curry. They’re now ready to return to the style and level of play they knew before he fell awkwardly, reached for his knee and hobbled off the floor. It’s fair to say that Curry is healthy again and so are the Warriors’ chances of repeating as champions.
“I would say it played out as I expected. He was Steph,” Kerr said. “He doesn’t take long to warm up, that’s for sure. Steph’s worked really hard over the last six weeks to prepare for this.”
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