OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Golden State Warriors easily dispatched what remained of the New Orleans Pelicans 123-101 on Saturday night in Kevin Durant’s first game since his Feb. 28 knee injury against the Washington Wizards. While the Warriors were without Stephen Curry (knee contusion), the Pelicans lost an already small margin for error when it was announced that Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins wouldn’t suit up.
“It felt normal again,” Durant said afterward. “I’m a basketball player. I love playing basketball; that’s my favorite thing to do. So to feel like I’m part of the team, to feel like I’m a part of this energy that we have, it feels great.”
Durant appeared relieved to rejoin life as a basketball player after an extended stretch of waiting that had him feeling “grumpy,” in the retelling of Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
In any event, none of that seemed to matter, as New Orleans’ season is over and the Warriors have nothing to play for beyond getting Durant into the flow. He returned in a near-optimal situation for a man looking to get back in rhythm, for this wasn’t a game but something closer to a game simulation.
“I told him defensive rebounding,” Kerr said pregame, when asked what he wanted Durant to focus on. “I’m not concerned with the offense, for good reason. He’s going to score points. Even if he is not shooting well, he’s going to score points. The whole thing, when we start our playoff series next week, is we have to be locked in defensively. That has to be his focus tonight and the next two nights before Game 1.”
On the first play of the game, Durant submitted his highlight for the evening, then dutifully commenced following Kerr’s suggestion (nine defensive rebounds, 16 points). Durant caught a pass in the corner, shot-faked Alexis Ajinca, drove baseline and, in fewer steps than any human should theoretically need, sent down a hammer dunk on the other side of the rim.
“You get a dunk the first play of the game, no matter how long you been out, that feels good,” Durant said. “And to get some stops and to get an assist, that felt great.”
Of Durant’s contained performance, Kerr said, “It’s great. Love the fact that he played 31 minutes. I wasn’t sure how many minutes we would play him. Kevin wants to play 48 minutes every night, but we have to tell him he’s not allowed to do that.”
It took a while for Golden State’s offense to get going, but when it did, it was a complete takeover. The Warriors entered Saturday outscoring teams by an average of 5.7 points per game in the third quarter, the largest average scoring margin for any team in any quarter this season. Saturday was another classic Warriors third-quarter beatdown, a 39-point stretch that saw Durant get into something of a comfort zone -- insofar as his team’s breakneck pace can be comfortable.
Simply put, Durant fueled the run that broke the game open. At the 4:35 mark of the third, he drove in for a layup. On the next possession, he turned a missed Jrue Holiday 3-pointer into a pass ahead for a Klay Thompson 3-pointer. Then, on the following possession, he turned another missed Pelicans 3 into another rebound and an outlet pass for a JaVale McGee slam. Smiles were wide and widely shared on the Warriors' bench. An eight-point halftime lead turned into a 25-point Warriors cushion heading into the fourth.
By the time the game ended, seven Warriors had hit double-figure scoring. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston each continued their recent hot streaks, and Ian Clark made a surprise showing with 17 points. The one drawback on an otherwise-positive night was Matt Barnes injuring his ankle in the second quarter; it was an unfortunate event to be sure, but one with a cushioned impact for Golden State now that Durant is back.
The Warriors no longer have a dearth of wings. Suddenly, it’s a position of strength as Golden State gears up for a postseason run. The Warriors will be the favorites, if not overwhelming favorites, now that their superstar small forward has returned. The main question is whether Curry (projected to return on Monday against the Utah Jazz) can maintain his hot streak amid Durant’s reintroduction. The playoffs await.