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Warriors triumph over Pelicans in Kevin Durant’s return

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All eyes were on KD, but it took a total team effort in this 123-101 signature home win.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 123-101 in Kevin Durant’s first game back after missing 19 games due to injury. The Stephen Curry-less Warriors continue their now 14-game win streak with this home win over a depleted Pelicans squad. In a star-studded game with Jerry West and Drake sitting courtside, the Warriors flexed their depth with 59 bench points and solid defensive throughout, save for the closing six minutes of garbage time.

The return!

Warriors’ fans anxiously awaited this game like an upcoming national holiday and were not disappointed with the results. Kevin Durant would open the game by blowing by Alexis Ajinca on the baseline into a reverse slam much to the delight of the Oracle crowd. Durant moved with no type of trepidation, driving forcefully to the rim and off his left foot, even deliberately drawing contact on several occasions. One such drive left him tumbling to the floor, which personally was not the most enjoyable sequence to watch.

But the 2013-14 MVP would finish the night with 16 points in 31 minutes and a team-high plus 22. Durant’s shot still isn’t quite at the level he would want, as he missed four of his attempts from beyond the arc, and admitted as much postgame. Still, despite the “low-scoring” night by his regular standards, he was able to affect the game in other ways, including grabbing 10 boards and dishing out 10 assists. On the whole, it looked as if he was willing to let the game come to him, only seeking his own shot on a limited number of possessions.

First quarter

All eyes were on Kevin Durant as the game began, and if anyone was unaware it was his return game, they quickly learned as the crowd began loudly cheering when he touched the ball. Durant received the ball with Alexis Ajinca isolated on him, sized up the French center, and took three large strides on his way to a powerful reverse dunk. His defense on the first possession of the game, heavily contesting a Solomon Hill jumper, was a great early sign that he had returned to form on that end of the floor.

The Warriors opened the game making just one of their eight three-point attempts and the team scored just 23 points in the first frame. That was good enough for a six-point lead, as the Warriors held the Pelicans to 17, who obviously were experiencing offensive problems due to a defensively-engaged Warriors’ team. The bulk of the Warriors’ offense came in the second half of the quarter, with the bench unit stepping up in the absence of Stephen Curry to create scoring opportunities.

Andre Iguodala continues to be the highlight of the Warriors’ win streak, instantly changing the tone of the game when he checked in mid-way through the first quarter. The bench unit would close the quarter on a 10-3 run behind his leadership, not to mention making yet another buzzer beater — this time, a tough running jumper in Jrue Holiday’s grill. The veteran swingman would finish the game with 15 points on 70% shooting, pulling down 5 boards and passing out 5 dimes with 0 turnovers in the process.

1st Quarter Score: 23-17.

Second quarter

The Warriors were only able to extend the first quarter deficit by two points to end the half, and the Pelicans stuck around behind Ajinca, who took Durant’s dunk personally and would proceed to not miss a jumper for most of the second half. Ajinca would actually finish the half leading all scorers with 13 points, indicative of the offensively stagnant game at that point.

Matt Barnes would exit the game during the second quarter after landing awkwardly on his right ankle. X-rays taken at the game were negative, but he would not return to play. As playoffs loom, this is certainly not the outcome Warriors’ fans wanted from an inconsequential game. But Steve Kerr was optimistic regarding the injury and Barnes, himself, seemed assured he would return by the playoffs.

Draymond Green finally found his three-point shot in the middle of the quarter, making one deep three in rhythm — and calling for and making another, just a couple of possessions later. Green’s shooting, from deep or otherwise, has not been great this season, hovering around 42% from the field and 30% from deep. During this current streak, he has shot 39% from the field and an ice cold 25% from beyond the arc. Smart defenses will play off Green and allow him to shoot rather than play up close and allow him to make plays or draw fouls. Green is not an offensive weapon and the Warriors certainly do not need him to be. But finding confidence and consistency in his three-point shot can go a long way to making the Warriors’ title run easier.

Watching Draymond Green a lot of the time is like reading in between the lines. His stat lines don’t immediately pop out ... until sometimes when they do, like when he gets a triple-double with steals. His play during the game is cerebral and filled with subtleties that typify his exceptional basketball IQ. Take, for example, the very last play of the first half, where Green read the Pelicans’ play, called for a switch with ZaZa Pachulia on their defensive assignments to purposefully involve himself in the pick-and-roll action, and successfully created a stop. This small sequence is just one of many examples of Green’s positive contributions that don’t fit neatly into the stat sheet.

2nd Quarter Score: 54-46.

Third quarter

In line with a growing trend with Warriors’ contests this season, the game completely broke open in the third quarter behind inspired bench play. It seemed as though everyone got buckets in the third, with Durant opening the half with several jumpers, to Klay Thompson nailing a buzzer-beater three to push the Warriors to 93 points.

Shaun Livingston would start the game in place of Stephen Curry and have one of his better games in recent memory. He would finish the night with 14 points on 70% shooting and put on full display the flamethrower that his right hand is. Livingston finding his shot is a welcome sign heading into the playoffs, especially after his “mini-slump.” He would finish with six assists and just one turnover, and torch the Pelicans’ smaller guards all night long.

One intriguing subplot to the Warriors 2016-17 season has been the competition between Ian Clark and Patrick McCaw. Both players seem to feed off each other and this healthy rivalry has produced wonders for the team. Clark has had a career year, and after McCaw put on a show last game, the undrafted guard responded tonight with 17 points, showing the full range of his offensive repertoire. One particular sequence came at the end of the third quarter, with Clark using a screen from JaVale McGee. Most plays that involve McGee in the pick-and-roll involve a dunk, but the Pelicans did a good job at sealing away the lob. Clark responded in kind, hesitating and changing his pace to create space for the big man and giving him the and-one opportunity.

3rd Quarter Score: 93-68.

Fourth quarter

The Warriors would actually lose this quarter 30-33, behind some late defensive lapses and turnovers in garbage time. The Pelicans would score 21 points in the closing six minutes of the quarter, most of it coming against a Warriors’ lineup featuring three centers: JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, and James Michael McAdoo. While it would have been nice to close the game on a higher note and play a full 48 minutes of solid basketball, the Warriors did enough work early to still win by more than 20 points.

Andre Iguodala’s play in the fourth quarter deserves specific acknowledgment. Normally qualifying a player’s effort as “carefree” is not a positive, but there aren’t a lot of better ways to describe Iguodala’s play last night. The former Finals MVP played loose, even laughing and smiling during possessions, as if he, himself, couldn’t believe how well he was playing. One such sequence came when he received the ball in the corner already in shooting motion. Instead of releasing the ball then, he lowered it, looked at Durant and smiled, and went back up and swished the three. Iguodala looks years younger, especially compared to his stiff performance in last year’s Finals. So, the Warriors will be in a great spot if he can keep up his recent play.

Final thoughts

JaVale McGee was impactful on both ends, finishing the game with 16 points on 80% shooting. He would grab seven boards, four of them offensive, and swat away a shot. McGee came into the season as a potent lob threat, with a wide “catch radius,” thanks to his long arms and bounce. What he didn’t have when the season started, and has made massive strides in (thanks to Ron Adams and Co.), is defensive awareness and fundamentals.

While there were any number of highlight-worthy super slam dunks (seriously, some of these dunks should be worth at least three points), including one nasty put-back late in the fourth, a McGee defensive sequence in the first quarter is worth mentioning. McGee opens the possession with great defense on Donatas Motiejunas, a tough cover to his post-up skillset and large frame. McGee forces the miss, and recovers to his feet without jumping to block Dante Cunningham. Though the Pelicans would grab the board and net a corner three-pointer off the possession, McGee’s steady patience defensively is a huge improvement over his earlier tendency to leap at every block, bailing out offenses with fouls and putting himself in harm’s way. The easy lob may not always be there for McGee, but his defensive improvements alone have made him an impactful player on both ends.

Final Score: 123-101.