OAKLAND — Less than an hour before the Golden State Warriors began their playoff run — a journey they hope will run some two months and culminate in a third title in four seasons — Stephen Curry made his way down the tunnel from the locker room to the Oracle Arena floor.
Donning a blue hoodie and matching shorts, the two-time MVP turned to Ralph Walker, the Warriors head of security and Curry’s personal bodyguard, with a smile.
“It’s been a while,” said Curry, who hadn’t been on the Golden State home court since March 23.
It had also been a while since the Warriors looked anything like the club that thundered to a 16-1 record and a championship last year.
The old Warriors — sans Curry — were back for Saturday’s matinee dismantling of the San Antonio Spurs.
“It was the defense,” head coach Steve Kerr said after the 113-92 win. “We finally got back to defending the way we have. The way this team has for many years — even before I got here.”
Before the Game 1 win, the Warriors announced Curry was making “steady functional progress” from his Grade 2 left MCL sprain. He’s due to intensify his rehab in the upcoming days before another checkup in a week.
“I have no idea,” Kerr said when asked what the revved up rehab would look like.
On Saturday morning, Curry worked out and ran the length of the floor under the watchful eye of head performance therapist Chelsea Lane.
“When he’s ready, he’s ready,” Kerr added. “But he’s making progress, which is a good sign.”
The first sign the old Warriors were back came less than two minutes into the game, when a suddenly swarming defense forced a Spurs shot-clock violation, prompting the ever-stoic Klay Thompson to beckon to the crowd in excitement.
The Splash Brother delivered his sharpest performance in memory, sinking 11 of his 13 shots from the field and five of six from beyond the arc.
Thompson, who dropped a game-high 27 points on the Spurs, said it was all about not worrying about the stats.
“If you just focus and play free-minded, you’re going to knock down shots,” Thompson explained.
Spurs vet Manu Ginobili marveled at Thompson’s ability to hit baskets while never bothering to turn and look at the rim.
“There are some times when he’s shooting some ridiculous shots,” Ginobili said.
Facing off against Gregg Popovich, the savant of NBA coaches and Kerr’s longtime mentor, it was the student who checkmated the master on his very first move.
In the runup to the series, Kerr repeatedly declined to share who he planned to start at center, noting that he didn’t want to offer Popovich any strategic advantages.
The final nod went to JaVale McGee who wasted no time making his boss look like a genius.
The crowd favorite poured in nine of the Warriors’ first 15 points, outscoring the Spurs (9-8) midway through the opening stanza. He embarrassed LaMarcus Aldridge with an emphatic block and went flying to catch one of his trademark alley oops.
In nine first-quarter minutes, McGee totaled nine points, shot 4-for-5 from the field, corralled three rebounds, accounted for one steal and recorded the aforementioned rejection.
“That might be the best playoff game he’s ever played,” Thompson said of McGee, who finished with 15 points, four rebounds, one steal and a pair of blocks. “He was phenomenal tonight, on both ends.”
The outing marked yet another high point in McGee’s wild season which has seen him go from midseason trade chip to playoff starter.
“It’s definitely a rollercoaster but you have to take that in stride,” McGee said. “This isn’t the craziest thing that’s ever happened in my life, So, it’s not anything that I wasn’t prepared for. You have to know, especially with this team, your time will come.
On a day when Kerr nearly emptied his bench — Zaza Pachulia was the only of the six bigs not to play — the cerebral McGee also keep the big picture in perspective.
“And you never know,” McGee continued. “Like next series I might not play at all and I’m not going to sit there and pout. I’m going to be the same person I am.”
Andre Iguodala, who supplanted Quinn Cook at the point, was another surprise inclusion in the starting lineup. Kerr wanted to put his best defensive lineup on the floor from the jump. From the time an animated Thompson exhorted the crowd, it was clear the strategy worked.
“You could feel the intensity right from the start,” Kerr said.
The head coach also knew it was no time to take a victory lap with Game 2 looming on Monday night in Oakland.
“That’s the thing. It’s one game,” Kerr said. “I remember last year Houston beat the Spurs by 30 in San Antonio in Game 1. The Spurs went and beat them in four out of the next five.”
All his players agreed with him, including Draymond Green, who scored 12 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished 11 assists. The forward was also in vintage form at the microphone, taking all the recent criticism aimed at the Curry-less Warriors as a yet another challenge. More fuel for his fire.
“We’re a championship ballclub,” Green said. “We know what it takes this time of year in order to win. And we want to get back to that regardless of whatever everyone is saying. ‘The Warriors have lost it. They’re not together. They can’t win without Steph. They’re not the same team. Blasé. Blasé. Blasé. Blah. Blah. Blah.’”
“We know what we’re capable of. And so, there’s been games that we’ve won without Steph — series. Same with Kevin [Durant]. Myself. We’ve won games without Klay. We’ve won games without our head coach.”
“So, we’re primed for this. And I think a lot of people have tended to forget what we’re capable of. We know and we’re going to show that.”