Kevin Durant’s return marks the final piece in Warriors’ playoff puzzle

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OAKLAND, Calif. — As Kevin Durant caught the ball on the left side of the court and squared up against the hopelessly overmatched Alexis Ajinca 30 seconds into Saturday night’s game between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans, an immediate sense of anticipation rippled throughout the sellout crowd here at Oracle Arena. Making his return to the court for the first time since suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise in Washington on Feb. 28, it was the perfect opportunity — moments into the game — to see just how ready Durant was.

In one fluid motion, Durant swung the ball through, glided past the statuesque defense of the 7-foot-2 Ajinca and after floating to the opposite side of the rim, hammered the ball through the net with a reverse dunk. That move, and the possession that followed it — perfectly placing a pocket pass to a cutting Zaza Pachulia for another dunk — set the tone for this night, as well as for the next two months.

One week before the NBA’s postseason is set to begin, the Warriors are fully operational.

“If you get a dunk the first play of the game no matter how long you’ve been out, that feels good,” Durant said. “I was able to get some stops and get a little assist, that felt great.”

The final stat line for Durant in this one — 16 points on 6-for-15 shooting, to go with 10 rebounds and six assists in 30 minutes — was as irrelevant as the 123-101 final score in favor of the Warriors in a game that saw all-stars Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins all sit with various minor injuries and turn this game into nothing more than a glorified scrimmage.

All that mattered was that Durant, 38 days after limping off the court inside Verizon Center was back and looking like the same player he’s always been. He was rusty, with the customary touch that comes with his silky smooth shooting stroke not looking quite right. But between Saturday’s game and the final two contests of the regular season — Monday against the Utah Jazz and Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers — Durant will have plenty of time to round back into game shape before the playoffs begin next weekend.

“I felt good putting that jersey on, and running out with the team, going through the layup lines and stuff … it felt normal again,” Durant said. “I’m a basketball player. I love playing basketball. That’s my favorite thing to do. So, to feel like I’m a part of this team, and a part of this energy that we have, it feels great.”

The Warriors, meanwhile, have been playing for the past few weeks like they didn’t miss Durant at all. With Saturday’s win, Golden State has now won 14 in a row, the longest streak in the NBA this season. It seems destined to, at worst, match the 67 wins the franchise posted two seasons ago. It’s no coincidence that as the Warriors have taken off without Durant, it’s been because Curry and Klay Thompson returned to setting the league on fire.

During the win streak, Curry started putting up the kinds of numbers (27.5 points and 8.2 assists on 50.2 percent shooting overall and 47.8 percent from three-point range) he did en route to becoming a unanimous MVP last season, while Thompson has been nearly as deadly (24.9 points on 49.2 percent shooting overall and 45.9 percent from three). Combine that with Andre Iguodala thrusting himself deservedly into the conversation for sixth man of the year honors and David West and Shaun Livingston finding their own respective grooves off the bench, and there’s little Golden State supporters can look to as something to fret about.

The one thing left to check off the list was a healthy return for Durant, and that came and went Saturday without incident. Now, assuming the Warriors get through this week unscathed, they will enter the postseason in exactly the place they hoped to be when they convened for training camp back in late September: with a rested, healthy roster ready to make the drive to the championship that will be the only acceptable result for this team.

Durant’s injury almost derailed that dream before the playoffs even arrived. Instead, his absence helped the Warriors find their groove at just the right time. And now, with him back on the court, they head into the playoffs where they were supposed to be all along.

Now they just have to do it.

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