OAKLAND, Calif. >> That chase for 73 wins and breaking the Chicago Bulls’ record last season generated so much scrutiny when the Golden State Warriors failed to win it all at the end.
How might have that taken a toll come playoff time? Did fatigue factor in when it mattered most?
Nah, Steve Kerr refuses to think about it that way. Stephen Curry’s injury sure did, though. Absolutely.
The two-time reigning NBA MVP sprained the MCL in his right knee when he slipped on a wet spot just before halftime of a Game 4 win at Houston in the first round of the 2016 playoffs.
“Steph gets banged up the first game of the playoffs which affected his whole run,” Kerr said. “You can’t account for that stuff. You try your best to keep your eye on guys and to keep them fresh, but honestly Steph was pretty fresh going into last season’s postseason. So this year we’re doing what we can to make sure guys are ready to roll, but you never know what’s going to happen.”
Now, the Warriors — who at 67-15 had the NBA’s best record for a third straight year — and Trail Blazers prepare to face off in the playoffs for a second straight season after Golden State beat Portland in a five-game Western Conference semifinals last year.
Kerr rested players down the stretch as needed, he mixed Kevin Durant back in after a 19-game absence with a left knee injury.
“We’re chasing something, we’re not protecting anything this year,” Curry said. “… In theory, we’re not the hunted. Obviously, we have the best record but we’re not defending a championship. There’s really no pressure. Two years ago we were trying to climb the ladder again and now we’re in that kind of same mentality. It’s good for us to go just go in with all the confidence in the world that we’ve built up this regular season and understand that every round’s going to be different, every round’s going to be just a dogfight. We understand how important every single game is on that journey.”
The Blazers lost all four regular-season meetings but went 17-6 down the stretch.
Curry was sidelined for the first three games of that series last year before coming off the bench in a playoff game for the first time in his career in Game 4 and scoring 40 points, with an NBA record 17 in overtime of a 132-125 victory.
All of that is in the past, Durant assures.
“Last year’s over,” KD said Saturday. “Just trying to move on. We know this is a different season, a different team, just a different year. We’re not coming in saying, ‘Because of last year, we’re trying to get revenge or we’re trying to show everybody what we got.’”
Here are some things to watch for leading to tipoff Sunday:
Damian Lillard typically brings his best when he comes home to the East Bay to take on the Warriors, and he fully expects to win this series.
“We feel we can do it,” Lillard said. “If we don’t, we shouldn’t even go out there and lace up our shoes.”
Lillard and CJ McCollum make up one of the league’s best backcourts, one that rivals Curry and Klay Thompson.
The Blazers hope to have their big man healthy, too. Portland center Jusuf Nurkic was listed as questionable Saturday after he missed the last seven games with a non-displaced fracture in his right leg.
KD AND STEPH
Portland must pick who to try to stop, and that’s a daunting task with the Warriors’ loaded lineup.
Durant averaged 29.3 points against Portland and Curry 27.3.
KD returned from a 19-game absence with a left knee injury to play the final three regular-season games.
“The main focus is health, and KD getting his legs back and relatively healthy, so that’s a good start for him,” key backup David West said.
The Blazers would prefer to forget that 135-90 debacle of a defeat at Oracle on Dec. 17 — the largest Warriors’ margin of victory in the rivalry.
Golden State has won the last six meetings overall and 15 of 18.
Portland coach Terry Stotts can look to last year’s playoffs for some guidance, though he said Golden State’s defense is far better now.
“Both teams have a lot of the same players from last year, styles of play are similar,” Stotts said. “Obviously when you add Durant on to the team it adds another potent scorer who fits in well with how they play.”
Thompson picked up the slack with Curry sidelined last year against Portland, leading the Warriors in scoring in three of the five games — with 37 points, 27 and 33.
Now, Thompson isn’t afraid to say it: The Warriors plan to be playing for another two months.
“We want to redeem ourselves and we have a golden opportunity,” Thompson said. “It’s a new year. We’ve got to forget about last year whether we won or lost. It’s a new slate and we’re chasing that trophy. We want it back oh so badly.”