2018 Playoffs | Western Conference Semifinals: Warriors (2) vs. Pelicans (6)

'New' season to begin for Golden State Warriors with return of Stephen Curry tonight

Pelicans facing daunting task as Warriors' lineup returns to full strength

* Tonight on TNT: Pelicans vs. Warriors (10:30 ET)

OAKLAND, Calif. — Game 2 of this Western Conference playoff series against the New Orleans Pelicans will take place on the first day of May, although the vibe inside Oracle Arena will have the curious feel of an opening night.

In some ways, the Golden State Warriors will be complete Tuesday and ready to start a “new” season, one with a healthy Stephen Curry in the lineup and without the sense of boredom and complacency that the loaded defending champions had to sludge through the last few months.

Curry went through a slight scrimmage against bench players on Sunday, which was an off-day for the team, and apparently aced the test. After doing so again on Monday, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters that Curry is “probable” for Game 2.

On Tuesday afternoon, the team made it official and said that Curry is expected to play tonight vs. the Pelicans.

An argument can be made that we haven’t really seen the true 2017-18 Warriors, although sooner or later, that team was destined to show up and not-so-gently remind the remaining NBA playoff teams what they’re up against.

As Kerr said: “We needed stakes. And now we have high stakes.”

Just a few weeks ago, the good-natured coach fell in and out of foul moods regarding his team. There was a good reason for that. Players slept-walked through games, the Warriors were sloppy defensively and the NBA bully was being poked in the eye.

Much of this was due to human nature. When you’re built for spring and summer basketball because of four All-Stars in their prime, a January game in Sacramento doesn’t quite generate a sense of urgency. The Warriors could play at 80-percent peak and still win 50 games.

He’s ready to go. Now it’s a question of rhythm and how much time to give him. That’s important. He needs to get his groove back.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, on Stephen Curry

That made biggest enemy of the Warriors — with all due respect to the hungry Houston Rockets — the 82-game grind. It became tedious, in some ways unnecessary and in the case of Curry, a minefield that required a careful tip-toe through, or else.

Well, he suffered “or else.”

His left MCL injury kept him benched for six weeks and that was preceded by an ankle sprain. So, again, the regular season was just standing in the way. Now, there’s just the Pelicans, down 0-1 and about to get first crack at a three-time NBA Finalist that is suddenly woke, ready and (seemingly) fully healthy.

“From that window up there (in his office overlooking the practice floor), I had one eye on the game tape and one eye on Steph,” Kerr said Monday. “He came out if, he came out of it well, he went through the whole practice today and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t play.”

Kerr refrained from making Curry’s status for Game 2 official yesterday, only because of the admittedly minor chance of an unexpected last-minute setback. The other reason to play Curry in this series, even though the Warriors won Game 1 in blowout fashion, is to whip him into game shape now. There’s also the unmentioned but obvious reason: Better to get Curry ripe for the next round and a projected showdown with the Houston Rockets than to wait until then.

“He needs rhythm,” said Kerr. “The only factor in terms of allowing him to play is his health. He’s ready to go. Now it’s a question of rhythm and how much time to give him. That’s important. He needs to get his groove back.”

Kerr said there will be no minutes restriction with Curry, explaining that the guard is “in a good place” with his knee. If anything, Kerr will simply use good sense while monitoring Curry in Game 2, whom Kerr expects to perform with little or no rust or performance issues.

“I’m not too worried about him,” Kerr said. “I’ve seen him come back from injuries many times. I remember in late December he had 41 points in 30 minutes against Memphis. I remember a couple years ago in the playoffs against Portland he went 0-for-10 and made a three and did a shimmy. As I told him he was the only guy ever in the history of the NBA to do a shimmy when he was one-for-11. But he made his next five. That’s who Steph is.

“It’s really about his rhythm and if he gets tired we’ll take him out. He’ll want to get his legs underneath him, so we’ll find the balance between being cautious and letting him go a little bit.”

In addition to Curry’s pending return, Kerr is thrilled with the other signs of life and rejuvenation within the Warriors. The team appears perky, antsy and much more aware. The fog has been lifted, or at least it was through much of the first round and one game into the second round. There’s a sense of heightened awareness about the approach of May and the rewards that come with moving forward.

Kevin Durant was perhaps the lone Warrior who looked immune from the late-season doldrums and remained on a high level. And Durant (who is averaging 27.8 ppg in the playoffs) still hasn’t developed the slightest hint of a slump since the playoffs began.

Durant can expect to see less attention on him once Curry gets a rhythm, which means Durant could actually be more productive than he is right now, or at least more efficient.

“I’m sure they’ll change it up defensively a bit on me, but we’ll see what they do and how they respond,” he said. “Steph will help spread the floor and open even more spaces. There could be some advantages, but we don’t know right now. I’ve seen every defense that’s ever been created at this point.”

Klay Thompson is spitting fire right now; he’s making half his shots from inside and beyond the 3-point stripe in the playoffs and destroying defenses while coming off screens on catch-and-shoots. Meanwhile, Draymond Green is an assist shy of averaging a triple-double through the playoffs.

Kerr believes Curry will give the Warriors an extra bounce and suspects the sloppy and disinterested Warriors are a team of the past.

“Steph always brings that joy,” Kerr said. “He loves to play so much. It’s contagious. Putting him in the mix will only increase our momentum.”

It’s a steep challenge for the Pelicans to keep up, both with the recharged Warriors and the pace of play. Once DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles injury, New Orleans switched to a higher gear offensively and used the rebounding of Anthony Davis and the court vision of Rajon Rondo to trigger the fast break. This is what saved their season and helped them sweep the ambushed Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.

However: Portland’s defense was not on the Warriors’ level, which is bad news for Nikola Mirotic, who had open looks against the Blazers, and Jrue Holiday, who roamed freely and often unchecked. Those two averaged 18 and 28 against the Blazers but combined to shoot seven-for-23 in Game 1 of this series.

The Warriors also feel relieved that they’re playing a team with a similar up-tempo style compared to the Spurs, whose deliberate half-court crawl offense slowed the flow and gave the Warriors fits in the first round.

“This is the way we like to play,” said Kerr. “The Spurs, that was hard.”

No matter what the Warriors do or what big shot is made, or the A-list courtside celebrity is shown on the big overhead screen — it was Jay-Z and Beyonce in Game 1 — the largest ovation will be for a two-time MVP when he checks into the game Tuesday.

* * *

Curry is ready to return and to a championship level and more important to Golden State, his teammates might have already beaten him to that door.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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