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OAKLAND – The answer seemed obvious the way Stephen Curry was moving around the court Monday at practice. And with how frequently he was swishing 3-pointers and jumpers during a shooting workout.
Officially, the Warriors listed Curry as probable for Game 2 of the their second-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday. Unofficially, the Warriors spoke as if Curry would play after missing the last 16 games, including the first six of the playoffs, because of a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee.
“I would be very surprised if he didn’t play,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Monday’s practice. “But just for caution, we should wait until [Tuesday] to see how he’s feeling.”
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Kerr described Curry as “feeling good.” But Kerr also said he will wait until Tuesday before deciding whether Curry will start or come off the bench to account for possible rustiness. Still, Kerr said Curry will not have any minutes restriction after completing a full-contact practice on Monday without any reported setbacks. Curry also spent the team’s off day on Sunday scrimmaging with a handful of seldom-used players and assistant coaches.
Curry did not speak to reporters on Monday, leaving his teammates to speak on his behalf on his awaited return since sustaining his left knee injury on March 23.
“Knowing Steph, I know it’s been killing him,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “He’s great at holding his emotions. But I know he’s dying to get out there. He looks ready as ever.”
Therefore, the Warriors anticipated Curry can play the same way as he has in other returns.
Curry posted 40 points and scored 17 of them in overtime in the team’s Game 6 win over Portland in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals after sitting out the previous 15 days with a Grade 1 MCL sprain in his right knee. Warriors guard Shaun Livingston considered the performance “epic,” “vintage” and belongs on ESPN Classic. Kerr had planned to limit Curry around 25 minutes. But Livingston received an early ejection that he said “was worth it.” Thompson added, “we did not want to go back to Portland.” So, Curry played 37 minutes.
Curry’s value grew by the minute. After missing his first nine 3-point attempts, Curry made five of his last six 3-pointers. Kerr then told Curry, “you’re the only guy in the history of the league to do a shimmy when you’re 1 for 11.”
“There are very few players that are capable of sitting out that long, coming back and then really be themselves,” Livingston said. “That’s the hardest thing to do.”
Curry has done it other times, too. After missing 11 games with a sprained right ankle, Curry had 38 points while shooting 13-of-17 from the field and 10-of-13 mark from 3-point range against Memphis on Dec. 30.
“When great players like that leave the game from an injury and come back, I expect that to be who he is,” Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. “I’m not expecting it’s guaranteed to happen. But he puts in the work and prepares himself right to be put in that position. When he plays well, it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Why not? Curry’s shooting abilities aside, the Warriors have observed how Curry handled his recovery.
After staying immobile for about three weeks, Curry began exercising on the elliptical bike and completing conservative running drills. Curry also traveled with the team to increase his rehab during its final regular-season trip in Phoenix and Utah as well as Games 3 and 4 of its first-round series in San Antonio. Curry began participating in modified practices last week, and has completed full-contact scrimmages in three of the past four days.
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“When he is hurt, it’s not like he is relaxing. He still is attacking his workouts,” Thompson said of Curry. “He does all the stuff that sucks. That’s conditioning, laying on the training table and being there for hours to get work done. Just because the cameras aren’t on him doesn’t mean he’s not working hard. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around.”
Even if Curry is also one of the most skilled players the Warriors have ever been around, some unanswered questions coincide with his return.
Can Curry stay healthy?
After returning from his initial right ankle injury, Curry missed eight more games combined after stepping on an opponent’s foot twice, stepping on Zaza Pachulia’s foot and slipping on the practice court. Curry sustained his latest left knee injury after Warriors center JaVale McGee accidentally collided into it.
Though Curry left lasting memories with his Game 6 performance against Portland two years ago, those good times quickly faded. He appeared limited throughout the 2016 postseason that ended with the Warriors squandering a 3-1 series lead to Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
“In retrospect, maybe he wasn’t quite himself,” Kerr said. “Sometimes that’s going to be the case. We didn’t feel like it risked anything back then. We weren’t risking any further injury. But he might’ve come back earlier.”
Kerr stressed Curry’s latest injury “is a little different.” Most athletes need to take six weeks to return from a Grade 2 MCL sprain. It took Curry about 5 ½ weeks.
Still, the Warriors encounter two NBA first-world problems that will still need to be addressed.
First, how do they integrate Curry properly?
The Warriors anticipate Curry might feel fatigued early, prompting Kerr to weigh how many minute bursts Curry should play as a starter or reserve.
“He needs rhythm,” Kerr said. “The only factor in terms of allowing him to play is health. He’s ready to go and has been cleared. Now it’s a question of rhythm and how much time he’s getting. It’s important for him to get his groove back.”
Second, how do the Warriors adjust their roles for Curry’s return?
The Warriors anticipate Durant will adjust his role seamlessly. He has averaged 27.9 points on 47.9 percent shooting in five playoff games without Curry. But he has shot only 28.3 percent from 3-point range. Therefore, Durant predicted he will face fewer double teams, while likely decreasing his shot selection.
“I can play with anybody. For me, if a guy has it rolling, I try to do my best to help him,” Durant said. “We know when Steph comes out on the court, he creates a lot for his movement and his 3-point shooting. If you see a mismatch, get him the ball and get out the way. Removing your ego from a lot of situations helps you play with different guys.”
Thompson has applied the same approach. After struggling in recent seasons during Curry’s absence, Thompson became more efficient in the postseason without Curry. Thompson averaged 23.3 points, while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in the postseason. Though Thompson estimated he will receive two or three more open shots because of Curry’s presence, Thompson stressed he will play just as aggressively when Curry sat on the bench.
“Just because Steph is coming back doesn’t mean we can relax,” Thompson said. “We’ve been playing on edge because we can’t make up for his production. But we have to be even tighter because he can’t bail us out.”
Therefore, the Warriors pledged to play with the same defensive intensity during Curry’s 11-game absence in Demember and postseason absence in April.
“It’s a little bit of false hope. We can’t really rely on that as a team,” Livingston said. “We have to continue to do the things we’ve done to get to this point and then implement him as well with defense and all the little things that win games. Then you get him back, that’s an ace in the deck.”
With the Warriors likely to have their trump card on Tuesday, will most of Curry’s shots swish like they did at the end of Monday’s practice? The Warriors will not be surprised if they do. They are not promising anything, though.
“That’s who Steph is – sometimes you just need one shot for him and that gets him going,” Kerr said. “But he’ll want to get his legs underneath him. And so we’ll try to find that balance between being cautious and letting him go a little bit.”