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Warriors are playing their best ball with Durant poised to return

Golden State has hit its stride just as the NBA All-Star shows signs of health

Kevin Durant was just about to walk onto the San Antonio Spurs’ game floor for a pregame workout when he stopped to bless himself by doing the sign of the cross and pointing to the heavens.

The injured Golden State Warriors forward’s abrupt stop for a quick prayer made sense, considering he had been sidelined after suffering a scary Grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise to his left knee against the Washington Wizards on Feb. 28. The eight-time NBA All-Star’s prayers appear close to being answered as the Warriors revealed Wednesday that he is making “very good progress” and a return before the end of the regular season “remains a possibility.”

By the sound of Warriors assistant coach Willie Green’s assessment after testing Durant physically Wednesday morning, perhaps the 2014 NBA MVP could be available sooner than expected.

“I’m not a medical expert, but it seemed like he was a little ahead of schedule,” Green told ESPN. “I was happy to see him bumping, grinding, getting up and down and doing his normal K.D. stuff.”

The Warriors pushed their league-best winning streak sans Durant to nine games after beating the host Spurs 110-98 late Wednesday night. This was after Golden State was down 15-0 and eventually by as many as 22 points. The Warriors pushed their Western Conference lead over the Spurs to 3½ games with a mere seven games left. Warriors forward David West called the win their biggest NBA “confidence booster.”

Keep in mind that Golden State beat NBA MVP candidate James Harden and the host Houston Rockets 113-106 a night earlier.

The Warriors (61-14) are playing their best ball of the season without perhaps their best player in Durant.

“That’s as tough of a back-to-back as you’re going to find, playing two of the best teams in the league on the road,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Our guys are tough, competitive and pretty good. That’s a hell of a two days.”

Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors warms up before the game against the San Antonio Spurs on March 29, 2017 at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Golden State has missed Durant and his game averages of 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 blocks for the past 15 games. The Warriors also stated Wednesday that Durant can begin noncontact shooting and jumping drills with the hope of raising the intensity level from a cutting and lateral standpoint in the coming days. The Warriors added that the 6-foot-9, 240-pounder would eventually return to practice and contact drills as he progressed.

The Undefeated, however, learned that Durant actually returned to contact Wednesday morning when he played Green in one-on-one in half court six times before concluding with a one-on-one full-court contest. It was the first time Durant engaged in one-on-one competition since his injury. Green isn’t your typical assistant coach to work out against. The 12-year NBA shooting guard concluded his career with the Orlando Magic during the 2014-15 season.

“I played a little bit in the NBA, so I’m a little accustomed to playing,” Green said of Durant’s workout. “He did crush me. He won every game, but it was competitive — at least, I’d like to think. It was more so about him getting used to playing again. Some of the moves he hasn’t done in a while.

“It is a credit to [athletic trainer] Drew Yoder and our training staff. That whole staff has been working diligently to get him on the floor.”

Green wasn’t easy on Durant, as he “pushed him a little bit to see where he is at.” Durant responded well on offense and defense and felt good afterward. The Warriors have said Durant will not talk about his injury while he is sidelined.

“I was pushing and he was right there. He was cutting me off on defense, blocking shots. I don’t know if that is saying much. He looked good from my perspective. … He looked a little fatigued, which is expected right now, especially going up and down playing one-on-one full court,” Green said.

Kerr said: “Kevin got him pretty good. It’s a good sign. If Willie had beaten him, I would have been [worried]. [Green] said [Durant] was good, moving well, and he stepped it up just as he has each day. He’s making strides.”

Durant also returned for a second workout before the game that lasted about 30 minutes. Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser made Durant break a nice sweat by putting him through a series of solo shooting and dribbling drills. Durant showed explosiveness by taking the ball strong to the basket with a hard dribble and dunking with authority numerous times. The five-time All-NBA first-team selection moved fluidly, quickly and without a hitch. Perhaps the best sign of pending recovery is he displayed confidence in his left knee by shooting off his left leg several times during a midrange jumper drill.

“It’s great to see Kevin out there working and getting closer and closer,” Kerr said. “We’re just keeping our fingers crossed. Hopefully, he comes back by the end of the [regular season].”

The silver lining to Durant’s injury is that the Warriors have grown as a team without Durant.

Kerr said reserve Andre Iguodala has been “more aggressive” offensively off the bench and has played “incredibly well.” Kerr has gained confidence in reserve guard Ian Clark, who is “playing really well” offensively. A healthy West is adding some inside punch, strength and leadership off the bench. The Warriors’ nine-game winning streak came after the team lost three games. Kerr loves how the Warriors are playing as a team and said his only concern at the moment is fouling.

“I thought that at the time when we were losing those games that ultimately it was going to be good for us,” Kerr said. “When you lose, you get your edge. With Kevin’s injury, we were in a tough spot. I love the way our team has responded.”

Durant looked healthy and strong enough to play right now. Perhaps if it were the playoffs, the 28-year-old would be back already. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Sunday that Durant could be back for the Warriors’ final three regular-season games.

But if Durant is ready sooner rather than later, should the Warriors bring him back?

“There is no need for him to play now,” Warriors forward Draymond Green told The Undefeated. “There is no need for him to rush back. Whether he could play or not now, honestly, I just don’t know. We want to make sure that thing [knee] is 100 percent healthy.

“It will definitely take a little adjustment when he returns. But I don’t think it will take long.”

Said Kerr: “It would be nice for him to get a couple games in before the end of the regular season, but everything is going to be based on his health and how he goes along.”

Eight-year-old Jake McGill of Austin proudly wore Durant’s old University of Texas No. 35 jersey as he quietly and intently watched the Warriors star’s workout. His mom and sister wouldn’t allow him to wear Durant’s Warriors jersey at a Spurs game. As Durant dunked, nailed jumpers, crossover dribbled and sweated during his second workout, Jake’s dad, Mike McGill, said, “He looks like he is doing pretty good. He looks like he’s ready to come back.”

Little Jake responded by just shaking his head in agreement, as his focus was staring in awe of Durant. The Warriors will likely be in awe of Durant again on the court soon, too. The big question is when?

“It was good to see him with a smile on his face, out there happy,” Willie Green said. “He has been wanting to play for a while and he looked really good.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.