The Golden State Warriors have won 11 games in a row and own the best record in the league, which tends to be a sign that a contender is in good shape ahead of the playoffs. Yet it seems fairly apparent that the Warriors will not enter the postseason with full confidence unless Kevin Durant can prove that he is healthy. The superstar forward has not suited up for Golden State since he went down with a left knee injury on February 28 and as yet has not had a return date set, although all indications have him on schedule to return before the end of the regular season. While Golden State will be heavily favored in the first round no matter Durant’s status, it’s a safe bet that they want to reintegrate him into the lineup as quickly as possible.
Thankfully for the Warriors, his first game back looks closer than ever. According to a report from ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, Golden State is targeting Saturday’s matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans as KD’s likely return:
The Golden State Warriors have targeted Saturday night’s home game against the New Orleans Pelicans as the return date for Kevin Durant provided that the All-Star forward experiences no setbacks in the final stages of his recovery from a sprained left knee, league sources told ESPN.
Sources told ESPN on Monday that Durant’s excellent progress since suffering a sprained MCL and bruised tibia at Washington on Feb. 28 has him on course to play in Golden State’s final three regular-season games.
ESPN reported last week that the Warriors’ final three home dates — Saturday against New Orleans, April 10 against Utah and April 12 against the Los Angeles Lakers — had emerged as the most likely window for Durant’s return to the lineup. […]
Warriors coach Steve Kerr confirmed Sunday that Durant was definitely out for Golden State’s first two games this week: Tuesday’s home date with Minnesota and Wednesday’s visit to Phoenix. The team is expected to issue an official update on Durant’s status sometime after those two games. […]
Durant, 28, has begun to play in 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 contact situations with teammates in addition to his individual workouts since the club announced Wednesday that he has “made very good progress” in his recovery.
There are no real surprises in this report, but it’s still notable given the specificity of the return date and what it could mean for Durant’s road back to playing to his high standard. Three home games (with two against non-playoff teams) should afford him the chance to readjust to NBA action without pushing himself too hard. Add in two home games to start a first-round series (likely against the relatively lax defense of the Portland Trail Blazers), and there’s a clear path for Durant to look like a dominant force again before the Warriors face truly elite competition.
If Durant turns out to be fine and suffers no complications, then the Warriors’ biggest problem becomes a good one to have — how does he change what has been a tremendous winning formula during this ongoing 11-game streak? While Golden State initially struggled without Durant on its most taxing road trip of the season, a return to schedule normalcy has given the Warriors a chance to resume besting all comers, including the best teams in the league. As our Dan Devine wrote earlier Monday, Stephen Curry has been the driving force behind that excellence, and it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that he’s doing it with Durant out of the lineup.
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Again, the Warriors are going to be happy that Durant is coming back, especially because they were already the best team in the league and the clear title favorite with him in the starting lineup. For that matter, his absence has allowed several bench players to prove themselves, which could prove especially useful when the Warriors need someone to step up in a tight playoff game.
Nevertheless, Durant’s return isn’t without its potential drawbacks. Putting a generational talent back in the lineup sure beats the Cavs’ on-court arguments, but it’s still something that has to be solved for the Warriors to look their best.