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OAKLAND – The rising excitement level mirrors when Warriors fans stand up once Stephen Curry heaves a shot from any distance. This time, the feeling does not just stem from Curry possibly making a dramatic 3-pointer. It also traces to Curry’s imminent return.
After Curry sat for the past 5 ½ weeks with a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that “I fully expect him to play Tuesday night” for Game 2 of the Warriors’ second-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans at Oracle Arena.
The Warriors technically have not decided if Curry will return for Game 2 to help the Warriors extend their 1-0 series lead over New Orleans. During the Warriors off-day on Sunday, Curry scrimmaged with a handful of teammates and assistant coaches. On Monday, Curry plans to participate in a formal full-court scrimmage after doing the same thing on Friday. The Warriors then plan to evaluate how Curry’s left knee responded to those sessions after spending the past week participating in contact drills for the first time since sustaining his left knee injury on March 23.
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Barring any setbacks, though, Curry will wear a No. 30 jersey on the court on Tuesday after sitting in either the trainer’s room or on the bench for the past 10 regular-season games and six postseason contests. That only begs one question: what version of Curry will the Warriors see?
“When I’ve come back. I’ve come back pretty strong and I felt like I hit the ground running,” Curry said. “Whatever the time is this time around, I feel like I expect the same thing.”
Nearly a month ago, Kerr conceded, “I have no expectations” because of the lack of clarity on Curry’s rehab regimen. Since then, the Warriors have liked how Curry progressed with increasing his workload that included elliptical bike exercises, shooting workouts, running drills and resistance band stretches. Still, the Warriors are still brainstorming what Curry’s workload will be for his expected return for Game 2.
“There could be a minutes restriction. We’ll have to determine that Tuesday,” Kerr said. “Everything is a possibility. If there’s a minutes restriction, maybe we’ll consider bringing him off the bench for the timing purposes. But at this point, it’s hard to say.”
What is easier to say: those on the Warriors and around the NBA expect Curry to show more flashes of what he usually can do.
“I expect him to be Steph Curry,” said Dennis Scott, a former NBA player and Turner Sports NBA analyst. “I expect him to stay aggressive. I expect him to take the same shots he’s always taken. There’s no integration. He’s Steph Curry.”
And because he is Steph Curry, he has often returned without showing any lingering effects from his previous injuries.
After missing 11 games in December because of a sprained right ankle, Curry posted 38 points while shooting 13-of-17 from the field and 10-of-13 mark from 3-point range against Memphis on Dec. 30. After missing four playoff games in 2016 for a Grade 1 MCL sprain in his right knee, Curry scored 40 points off the bench in 37 minutes in the Warriors’ Game 6 overtime win over Portland in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals. Then, Curry made five of his last six 3-pointers and scored 17 points in overtime after missing his first nine 3-point attempts.
“It was almost like a switch broke for him. That’s all it takes,” Kerr said. “For me when I was a player, it would’ve taken me three or four games to get a rhythm to feel confident. For Steph, it took a half.”
Curry might not have experienced rustiness when he returned in the 2016 NBA playoffs. But he still experienced complications with his right knee injury. Although Kerr stressed that Curry never complained about the ailment, Kerr conceded that Curry received treatment on his right knee throughout the remainder of a postseason run that ended with the Warriors squandering a 3-1 series lead to Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
Curry also has missed a combined 19 games this season because of reoccurring injuries to his right ankle.
Nonetheless, Curry stressed, “I know how I came back last time and knew what to do and what not to do to give myself the best shot to get back to 100 percent.”
“Injuries are a part of the game and you can’t eliminate them,” Curry said. “For me, I can do everything I can to make my body strong, be durable and be playing at a high level. That’s all I can control.”
Another thing Curry can control: how he manages his recovery.
With Curry having no structural damage on his left knee, Curry spent his rehab reducing the swelling and then strengthening the muscles around the knee. After first sitting out for three weeks, Curry then advanced conservatively to bike, running and shooting exercises. Dr. Alexis Colvin, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at The Mount Sinai Hospital, said that athletes generally do not experience any lingering effects from a Grade 2 MCL sprain after sitting out between four to six weeks.
“Usually once it’s healed, it’s healed,” said Colvin, who has not seen Curry’s medical results. “I would expect for him to recover quickly.”
Those in NBA circles said they expect the same thing.
“His timing will be a little bit off. But Steph is such an incredible athlete and incredible guy,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, a former Warriors assistant (2014-15). “He has such a focus when he plays. With the way he plays, it makes his game so much easier to sit out and come back. He’s not going to be a guy who’s going to be banging and doing a lot of stuff. His game is predicated on movement and cuts.”
Curry’s game is also predicated on making baskets. And after spending this past week resuming their normal shooting routine, Warriors forward Kevin Durant has seen Curry swish plenty of his shots into the net. Durant also has noticed Curry has never allowed any injuries to inhibit his aggressiveness.
“It’s a matter of keeping your stamina and wind up,” Durant said. “You can’t really feel that until you play in a game. But anything with his shooting and driving abilities, I’m expecting that to be at full strength when he comes back.”
That moment will happen as soon as Tuesday. Then, Curry will likely prompt Warriors fans once again to stand up in anticipation anytime he shoots.
“That’s the beauty of the struggle and the journey,” Durant said. “Hopefully his rehab journey ends with him playing on the court and playing extremely well for us.”