Warriors prioritizing rest before facing Blazers in playoffs

Late Saturday night, as he trudged to the stage for his postgame news conference, Klay Thompson had a request for the dozens of reporters gathered in front of him.

“Let’s go quick,” Thompson deadpanned. “I have a hot date tonight with Rocco.”

The reference to his English bulldog was a chuckle-inducing reminder of just how much has changed in 12 months. A year after the Warriors left little energy in reserve to chase the NBA’s regular-season wins record, players are cracking jokes, easing achy muscles and readying for the playoffs, which will begin for Golden State next weekend with a matchup against Portland.

The Warriors beat the Blazers in five games in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Because it has clinched the No. 1 overall seed, Golden State is prioritizing rest over wins for its final two regular-season games. Head coach Steve Kerr mentioned after Saturday’s win over the Pelicans that he might sit Thompson, who averages a team-high 34.1 minutes per game and is tied with Stephen Curry for the most games played, at 77, for Monday’s home matchup with the Jazz.

The starters who play will log only 25-28 minutes, with Kevin Durant likely being the only exception. Kerr hopes to ramp up Durant’s conditioning after the eight-time All-Star played a team-high 31 minutes Saturday in his first game back from a left knee injury that sidelined him five-plus weeks.

With Curry expected to return Monday after missing one game with a left knee contusion, Golden State’s staff can begin ironing out the rotation for the playoffs. Kerr hopes to retain a couple of wrinkles he introduced to his substitution patterns while Durant was out. It’s possible, for example, that guard Ian Clark will be rewarded for an impressive March by continuing to enter early in the second and fourth quarters.

“I really don’t care if we win or not,” Kerr said of the remainder of the regular season. “That’s kind of a weird paradox. You’re trying to come out and be ready to roll without caring much” about the result.
It is a far cry from last season. Eager to silence anyone who questioned their surprising run to the 2015 NBA title, the Warriors delivered playoff-level effort throughout an 82-game schedule, going for 73 wins after having locked up the Western Conference’s top seed.

That exhaustive approach seemed to take its toll. After not losing back-to-back games in the regular season, Golden State went 15-9 in the playoffs. The Warriors needed to climb out of a 3-1 hole in the Western Conference finals, something only nine teams had done in playoff series history, before they ultimately lost Games 5, 6 and 7 against Cleveland in the NBA Finals.

Careful to ensure his team would peak entering the playoffs this year, Kerr rested rotation players periodically and often cut practices short. His decision to sit Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala for a March 11 game at San Antonio helped spark the Warriors’ current 14-game winning streak — the longest in the NBA this season.

By securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with Wednesday’s win at Phoenix, Golden State has the luxury of being cautious with players. Curry probably would have played through his bruised knee Saturday if that game had postseason implications. Odds are high that Matt Barnes, who didn’t return to that game after spraining his right ankle in the second quarter, will sit out the final two regular-season games.

As for Thompson? He won’t complain if Kerr opts to rest him Monday.

“I always pride myself on trying to play as many games as possible, but if I rest a night, it’s not the end of the world,” Thompson said. “It’ll probably help me in the long run.”

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle

Warriors' depth replenished with return of Kevin Durant

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.

Warriors-Blazers matchup officially set for the first round

Russell Westbrook nailed a 35-foot game-winner on Sunday night in Denver, eliminating the Nuggets and solidifying the Warriors’ first round matchup.

With the Nuggets loss, the Blazers officially clinched the eighth seed, lining them up to play the Warriors (who have already clinched the West’s top seed) in the first round. The series will start next weekend, likely Saturday but possibly Sunday, in Oracle Arena.

It’ll be a rematch of the second round last season, when Golden State took down the Blazers in five games. This season, the Warriors swept the Blazers 4-0 in the season series.

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