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Rested Warriors on the mark in first game back from break

Curry sets the tone early against the Clippers

OAKLAND, California — All eyes were on the ball as Stephen Curry lofted a 38-foot jumper at the first-quarter buzzer. Remember when the Golden State Warriors All-Star guard used to nail these kinds of crazy shots all the time? But during the first half of this NBA season, Curry didn’t hit any of his trademark buzzer-beaters, and the reigning champs appeared off the mark as well despite their success.

As the ball went through the net for Curry’s first buzzer-beater of the season, an amazed rapper E-40 sat with his mouth wide-open and the Oracle Arena crowd was alive again. As Curry and teammate Draymond Green celebrated with an airborne shoulder bump, James Brown yelled, “I’m back” and “I feel good” in a mix blaring from the arena speakers as the Warriors Girls danced during the break.

It’s too early to say the Warriors are back after a hard-fought 134-127 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night. But after struggling before the NBA All-Star break, Curry and the rested Warriors did feel good again in the first game after a much-needed vacation.

“Every year you look forward to the All-Star break because you’re grinding,” Curry said. “We’re at almost 60 games. It’s a little past halfway of the regular season. Obviously, we are looking at June, but [the break] was needed in the fourth year chasing this trophy. It put our minds right for the stretch run. We got to play better.

“We showed a lot of energy tonight. It will kind of kick-start us to where we need to be.”

Tired. Uninspired. Too worried about the referees. Bored with the process. All those slaps hit the Warriors as they split their last six games before the All-Star Break. Much of the criticism was warranted, especially on defense.

The Warriors entered the break averaging a league-best 115.8 points per game. Coach Steve Kerr said his starters are actually more effective offensively now than they were a year ago. But a team known for its defense also allowed an NBA-worst average of 30 points in the first quarter. The Warriors also entered the break with a margin of victory of 8 points as opposed to 12.1 last season, according to TeamRankings.com. Turnovers also were a major concern for Kerr.

“We are just not trying hard enough [defensively], honestly,” Kerr said before the game. “What I mean by that is if a shot goes up, you have two choices. Either you find a guy and hit him or turn and watch the ball. One is an easy way out. We’re taking the easy way out.”

“It’s a high expectation,” Curry said of the Warriors’ first-half play. “We set ourselves to a high standard in our locker room. That doesn’t change. The one thing is we don’t know how — quote, unquote — bad we’ve been playing.”

The Warriors admitted to being fatigued before the break, and they looked it.

With three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, the Warriors have played for two extra months each of the past three seasons. Golden State guard Shaun Livingston said the team entered this season fatigued after taking a trip to China to play two preseason games.

“We needed to get away because of the timing of the season,” Livingston said. “Dog days. You know what is ahead of you. You know where we’ve come from. Not just the past three years, but China. China was like a whole month compressed as far as mentally, travel.”

The Warriors entered break with a 123-117 road loss to the Portland Trail Blazers but still had the league’s second-best record at 44-14. The Warriors seemed ready to pack their bags to get away from basketball about a month ago. Aiding the Warriors was the fact that the 2018 NBA All-Star Game was in Los Angeles, a quick flight from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Kerr said he went to Hawaii with his wife and two of his kids and also watched an entire season of The Crown on Netflix. Livingston and his family enjoyed a “chill” vacation in Las Vegas off the Strip. What did the Warriors four All-Stars do after the game? Curry went golfing in Palm Springs, California. Kevin Durant and Green took a two-hour flight to enjoy the sunshine and beaches of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Klay Thompson relaxed at his offseason home in Southern California.

“[The proximity] helped 100 percent,” Thompson said. “We didn’t have to fly that far. We didn’t have to fly across the country. It was simple. Just go down an hour south and have fun. It was nice.”

Thompson and Livingston offered some keys to success in the second half of the season.

“Just play with some hunger,” Thompson said. “We have a lot at stake. Just play with some edge and we should be fine. The focus will be better.”

Said Livingston: “The key is just revamping our focus. We’re still in season. It might not be there every night, but you got to be dialed in.”

Curry has a tradition of tweeting, “Lock In! #DubNation” about 30 minutes before tipoff. The Warriors appeared locked in, bouncy and sharp in their first regular-season game in eight days. Kerr, looking for a “spark,” started athletic center JaVale McGee over regular center Zaza Pachulia. The move seemed to work, as the Warriors jumped out to a 23-17 lead over the Clippers with 4:06 left in the first quarter.

The Warriors finished the first quarter with eight turnovers but also caused seven and outscored the Clippers 34-23. Golden State entered halftime with a 70-58 lead with a combined 44 points from Curry, Thompson and Durant. They shot 69.4 percent from the field, nailed seven 3-pointers and limited the Clippers to 46.7 percent shooting.

The Clippers, with Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari and DeAndre Jordan remaining on their restructured roster, still posed a threat, as they were down 101-92 through three quarters. Los Angeles trimmed an 18-point deficit to two, 104-102, after a Montrezl Harrell dunk with 9:52 left in the fourth quarter.

Pesky Los Angeles was also down by two, 120-118, with 2:26 left in the game after a beautiful fadeaway 3-pointer from Williams. The Warriors, however, outscored the Clippers 14-9 the rest of the way. Curry had 11 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter, while Durant finished with 24 points.

Williams, who had 21 points off the bench for the Clippers, said the Warriors “played like themselves.” Durant agreed.

“We’re already at a high level,” Durant said. “That’s what I saw tonight. We executed down the stretch. Our second unit executed at the start of the second quarter, so that’s a plus. We have to keep pushing.”

McGee, best known for his hilarious and star-studded parking lot video diaries this season, was on the trade block before the Feb. 8 deadline. Two weeks later, the 7-foot, 270-pounder had 19 points and four rebounds in nearly 14 minutes as a starter. Kerr plans to start McGee again Saturday against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder.

“JaVale was great in his minutes,” Green said. “He gave us a different threat at the rim, and he gave us great energy.”

The Warriors cruised to the NBA playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference the past three years. Now, they have some new motivation the rest of the regular season thanks to the Houston Rockets, who are in first place in the West at 44-13 with their eye on home-court advantage in the postseason. Golden State (45-14) is the first team to reach 45 wins, but Houston owns the tiebreaker after winning the season series 3-2. According to Basketball Reference, the Warriors have the easiest remaining schedule in the West.

A well-rested and re-energized Curry doesn’t appear worried for the Warriors.

“We are a half a game out of first in the West, and that’s our goal to win it,” Curry said. “It’s kind of a natural progression to ramp it up right now after all that we’ve been through.”

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.