Five things to watch for as Kevin Durant returns to action for the Warriors

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The NBA’s best team is just about set to get much more dangerous once again. The Warriors -- a short-handed team that’s managed to win 13 straight games -- will reinsert Kevin Durant into their starting lineup 10:30 p.m. ET on Saturday against the Pelicans at Oracle Arena.

As far as I’m concerned, this is pretty much the equivalent of Drogon finally returning to Daenerys’ side. And you remember how that went:

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HBO

For the first time since suffering a bone bruise and a sprained MCL in his left knee on Feb. 28, Durant practiced in full at the Warriors’ practice facility on Friday.  When practice was opened up to the media, Durant was spotted going one-on-one against Steve Nash. 

After, both Steve Kerr and Durant spoke to reporters. When Kerr was asked if Durant looked rusty at practice, he had a laugh.

“Kevin is Kevin,” he said. “I think he could just fall out of bed and get 20 points after a long nap.”

Here are five things to watch for when Durant returns.

1. How many minutes will he play?

Kerr made it clear that Durant will start when he returns. So, unless he suffers a setback before Saturday’s game, that’s what he’ll do. It isn’t clear, however, how many minutes Durant will see before the playoffs.  

Before Tuesday’s home win over the Timberwolves, Kerr was asked how he planned to manage Durant’s minutes. He told reporters that he hadn’t yet figured out how many minutes Durant would play, saying he would sit down with the medical staff to discuss the issue once Durant is cleared.

Well, Durant is cleared now. And after Friday’s practice, Kerr revealed that Durant will not be on a minutes restriction. It’ll just come down to fatigue and how he feels.

“There’s no restriction,” Kerr said. “I talked to the training staff, because it’s not about an injury. He’s healed. His ligament is healed. So it’s really just about monitoring how he feels. If he gets fatigued, I’m going to take him out. So I don’t really have a number on the minutes played that we’re looking at. It’s more just how it feels for him and fatigue.”

We’ll find out Saturday how much he sees the court in a meaningless game for the Warriors, who already wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the West for the third consecutive season.

2. How will Kerr manage the rotations?

So, it’s also worth wondering how Durant’s presence will impact the Warriors’ rotations. Immediately after Durant’s injury, Kerr faced some scrutiny for his lineup decisions. In a March home game against the Celtics, Kerr used a Stephen Curry, Ian Clark, Patrick McCaw, Andre Iguodala, and James Michael McAdoo lineup in a critical stretch. That did not work well for Kerr. The game ended with MVP chants for Isaiah Thomas.

However, after the Warriors’ initial bumpy stretch (they lost five of seven games), Kerr figured it out, which shouldn’t be unexpected considering he’s one of the game’s best coaches. Taking advantage of Iguodala and Shaun Livingston’s versatility, he plugged in those two rejuvenated veterans into his best bench units.

Without Durant in the lineup, Iguodala’s importance to the team has grown. And he was already important to begin with. Iguodala is essentially the Warriors’ backup point guard, power forward, and small forward. His versatility allowed the Warriors to survive this stretch without Durant, as he’s playing his best basketball since winning MVP in the NBA Finals two years ago. After Durant went down, Iguodala averaged 28.7 minutes per game and shot 60 percent overall, including 40 percent from 3. Before Durant went down, Iguodala averaged 25.7 minutes per game and shot 49 percent overall and 35 percent from 3. It’ll be interesting to see how Iguodala, who already comes off the bench, will be impacted by Durant’s presence.

As for Livingston, he’s been seeing minutes at small forward sans Durant. And he’s actually been thriving, shooting 78 percent in his past nine games. But with Durant back, it might be tough for Livingston -- a point guard -- to see minutes at small forward.

“Shaun’s in a good groove,” Kerr said after Sunday’s win over the Wizards. “We kind of changed his rotation a little bit a couple weeks ago and he’s responded really well. He’s playing a little bit more small forward for us with K.D. out. Not just handling the ball, but playing off the ball some. He’s such a good player that he just recognizes things, sees the floor, and guards multiple positions.”

Other players -- like Clark, McCaw, and Matt Barnes -- will likely be impacted too, as they’ve all seen their roles grow recently. Kerr had been rotating McCaw and Barnes in Durant’s starting spot. Both will obviously return to the bench and Kerr said their minutes will be determined on a game-by-game basis based on matchups.

“They know, obviously, Kevin Durant’s coming back,” Kerr said. “That changes things a little bit.”

Just when Kerr figured out and mastered his rotations, he’ll be forced to adapt again. Not that anyone should feel sorry for him. I’m sure he can figure out a way to use that Kevin Durant guy.

“The only tricky part is reshuffling our rotation,” Kerr said. “That will affect some individual players, but I don’t think it’ll affect the team too much.”

It’s still something worth monitoring.

3. Will Durant’s presence affect Curry (after Saturday)?

Unfortunately, we won’t get to answer this question Saturday.

On Friday, Kerr revealed that Curry was doubtful to play with a left knee contusion. On Saturday, it became official. Curry won’t play against the Pelicans. Kerr added on Friday that it’s nothing serious, so R-E-L-A-X. 

Still, consider this section something to watch for in the future, because it’s definitely worth monitoring how Curry will respond to Durant’s presence. After a shooting slump in the immediate aftermath of Durant’s injury, Curry’s been the video-game version of himself during the Warriors’ winning streak.

Since resting for that Spurs game, Curry’s shooting exactly 50 percent overall and 47.4 percent from 3. In those 13 wins, he’s averaging 27.5 points per game and nearly 19 shot attempts per game. 

So, how will Curry respond with Durant -- another top-five scorer in the league -- back on the floor? Durant didn’t seem to think it would matter.

“I played 59 games with Steph, 58 games with Steph,” Durant said. “That’s a lot of games. I didn’t just get here yesterday. I’ve been here the whole season. I just happened to miss 20 games. I know a lot of people may make it seem like I just got there. I’ve been here the whole year and we were playing well the whole season. So I’ve played with Steph long enough.”

Hopefully, we will find out Monday, when the Warriors host the Jazz.

4. Same question -- this time about Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson also been cooking. He credited the sunny Bay Area weather for his hot touch, but Durant’s absence also upped Thompson’s shot total. Before Durant suffered his injury, Thompson averaged roughly 17 shots per game. After Durant suffered his injury, Thompson’s averaged a little more than 19 shots per game.

Again, this is the same question that we asked about Curry: How will Thompson respond with Durant back on the floor? And again, I’m not expecting Thompson to be negatively impacted because Durant should create even more space for Thompson to find an opening behind the arc.

Important note: It’s still supposed to rain on Saturday. So if Thompson struggles, that’s why.

5. Will there be an adjustment period?

When Durant went down, the Warriors went through an adjustment period, losing five of seven games. Since then, they haven’t lost, finding their groove without Durant. So, it’s worth wondering how they’ll immediately fare with Durant back.

Kerr made it clear after Tuesday’s win that the winning streak is entirely unrelated to Durant’s absence.

On Friday, Kerr said transitioning back to Durant will be “100 percent easier” than transitioning away from him because they’ve already played 59 games with him, which makes sense.

Don’t expect Durant to be timid in his return. As Draymond Green explained after Sunday’s game, the Warriors don’t want Durant to ease his way back in and try to fit into the Warriors’ lineup. They want him to stand out.

So probably the most important thing to watch for is how Durant, himself, looks. He’s averaging 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game this season. Before he went down, he was arguably the Warriors’ best player. Durant hasn’t played since the end of February, so he could be rusty. He could also still be getting over the mental hurdle of playing again.

He did say that he felt fine mentally on Friday.

“Obviously, when you get banged up in that area, it’s going to take some time for you mentally to feel like everything is alright,” Durant said. “Today was one of those days. I went out there and played and practiced with the guys, and I felt normal. I’ve been waiting for that feeling ...” 

So, here’s the good news for the Warriors and Durant: They’ve already wrapped up the top seed in the West, so these final three games can be about nothing else other than re-integrating Durant before the postseason begins.

“It’s great,” Kerr said. “It’s perfect for him to get three games before the playoffs start to get his conditioning, his timing, his rhythm. It’s good for our team, because we can blend rest and rhythm.”

Still, one question remains. Are the Warriors better without Durant and will Durant’s return actually hurt the Warriors and ruin their season, which basically translates to: Are the Golden State Warriors better without Kevin Durant?

Just kidding.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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