Five things to watch for as Kevin Durant returns to action for the Warriors
Durant will start and won't be on a minutes restriction
OAKLAND, Calif. -- The NBAâs best team is just about set to get much more dangerous once again. The Warriors -- a short-handed team thatâs 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 Iâm concerned, this is pretty much the equivalent of Drogon finally returning to Daenerysâ side. And you remember how that went:
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 Warriorsâ 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.
âKevin is Kevin,â he said. âI think he could just fall out of bed and get 20 points after a long nap.â
Here are five things to watch for when Durant returns.
1. How many minutes will he play?
Kerr made it clear that. So, unless he suffers a setback before Saturdayâs game, thatâs what heâll do. It isnât clear, however, how many minutes Durant will see before the playoffs.
Before Tuesdayâs home win over the Timberwolves, Kerr was asked how he planned to manage Durantâs minutes. He told reporters that he hadnât 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 Fridayâs practice, Kerr revealed that Durant will not be on a minutes restriction. Itâll just come down to fatigue and how he feels.
âThereâs no restriction,â Kerr said. âI talked to the training staff, because itâs not about an injury. Heâs healed. His ligament is healed. So itâs really just about monitoring how he feels. If he gets fatigued, Iâm going to take him out. So I donât really have a number on the minutes played that weâre looking at. Itâs more just how it feels for him and fatigue.â
Weâll 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, itâs also worth wondering how Durantâs presence will impact the Warriorsâ rotations. Immediately after Durantâs 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 Warriorsâ initial bumpy stretch (they lost five of seven games), Kerr figured it out, which shouldnât be unexpected considering heâs one of the gameâs best coaches. Taking advantage of Iguodala and Shaun Livingstonâs versatility, he plugged in those two rejuvenated veterans into his best bench units.
Without Durant in the lineup, Iguodalaâs importance to the team has grown. And he was already important to begin with. Iguodala is essentially the Warriorsâ backup point guard, power forward, and small forward. His versatility allowed the Warriors to survive this stretch without Durant, as heâs 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. Itâll be interesting to see how Iguodala, who already comes off the bench, will be impacted by Durantâs presence.
As for Livingston, heâs been seeing minutes at small forward sans Durant. And heâs 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.
âShaunâs in a good groove,â Kerr said after Sundayâs win over the Wizards. âWe kind of changed his rotation a little bit a couple weeks ago and heâs responded really well. Heâs playing a little bit more small forward for us with K.D. out. Not just handling the ball, but playing off the ball some. Heâs such a good player that he just recognizes things, sees the floor, and guards multiple positions.â
Other players -- like Clark, McCaw, and Matt Barnes -- will likely be impacted too, as theyâve all seen their roles grow recently. Kerr had been rotating McCaw and Barnes in Durantâs 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.
âThey know, obviously, Kevin Durantâs coming back,â Kerr said. âThat changes things a little bit.â
Just when Kerr figured out and mastered his rotations, heâll be forced to adapt again. Not that anyone should feel sorry for him. Iâm sure he can figure out a way to use that Kevin Durant guy.
âThe only tricky part is reshuffling our rotation,â Kerr said. âThat will affect some individual players, but I donât think itâll affect the team too much.â
Itâs still something worth monitoring.
3. Will Durantâs presence affect Curry (after Saturday)?
Unfortunately, we wonât 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 wonât play against the Pelicans. Kerr added on Friday that itâs nothing serious, so R-E-L-A-X.
Still, consider this section something to watch for in the future, because itâs definitely worth monitoring how Curry will respond to Durantâs presence. After a shooting slump in the immediate aftermath of Durantâs injury, Curryâs been the video-game version of himself during the Warriorsâ winning streak.
Since resting for that Spurs game, Curryâs shooting exactly 50 percent overall and 47.4 percent from 3. In those 13 wins, heâs 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 didnât seem to think it would matter.
âI played 59 games with Steph, 58 games with Steph,â Durant said. âThatâs a lot of games. I didnât just get here yesterday. Iâve 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. Iâve been here the whole year and we were playing well the whole season. So Iâve played with Steph long enough.â
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 Durantâs absence also upped Thompsonâs shot total. Before Durant suffered his injury, Thompson averaged roughly 17 shots per game. After Durant suffered his injury, Thompsonâs 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, Iâm 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: Itâs still supposed to rain on Saturday. So if Thompson struggles, thatâs 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 havenât lost, finding their groove without Durant. So, itâs worth wondering how theyâll immediately fare with Durant back.
Kerr made it clear after Tuesdayâs win that the winning streak is entirely unrelated to Durantâs absence.
On Friday, Kerr said transitioning back to Durant will be â100 percent easierâ than transitioning away from him because theyâve already played 59 games with him, which makes sense.
Donât expect Durant to be timid in his return. As Draymond Green explained after Sundayâs game, the Warriors donât want Durant to ease his way back in and try to fit into the Warriorsâ lineup. They want him to stand out.
Draymond on KD fitting in again when he comes back: He isn't here to fit in. pic.twitter.com/t7dQ9IU1Hi— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) April 3, 2017
So probably the most important thing to watch for is how Durant, himself, looks. Heâs averaging 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game this season. Before he went down, he was arguably the Warriorsâ best player. Durant hasnât 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.
âObviously, when you get banged up in that area, itâs going to take some time for you mentally to feel like everything is alright,â Durant said. âToday was one of those days. I went out there and played and practiced with the guys, and I felt normal. Iâve been waiting for that feeling ...â
So, hereâs the good news for the Warriors and Durant: Theyâve 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.
âItâs great,â Kerr said. âItâs perfect for him to get three games before the playoffs start to get his conditioning, his timing, his rhythm. Itâs good for our team, because we can blend rest and rhythm.â
Still, one question remains. Are the Warriors better without Durant and will Durantâs return actually hurt the Warriors and ruin their season, which basically translates to: Are the Golden State Warriors better without Kevin Durant?
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