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Steph faces challenge of salvaging Dubs' season, final playoff push

After spending the last nine days vandalizing the progress of the previous five weeks, the notion of the Warriors rising from 10th place to sixth in the hypercompetitive Western Conference is hurtling toward absurd.

Their last best chance of escaping the NBA play-in tournament – dreaded by those finishing seventh or eighth, detested by those finishing ninth or 10th – comes Saturday in Los Angeles, where Stephen Curry is expected to make his return against the Lakers.

“He looked great,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters in LA Friday after practice. “He’s feeling fine.”

Curry came away from practice feeling optimistic about receiving full clearance to step onto the court at Crypto.com Arena.

“That’s the plan, if everything goes well after practice today,” said the two-time MVP, who turned 36 on Thursday. “We have tonight. We’ve been working hard all week to try to get back as soon as possible, so it’s nice to be back with the team for the good energy going on.”

Cue the sight of angels filling the skies above Dub Nation and the sound of Hallelujahs from an apprehensive choir.

This is Golden State’s last chance because a loss to LA would end the possibility of winning the season series, thereby demolishing the last splinter of a tiebreaker advantage. Moreover, it would force the Warriors to win 13 or 14 of their final 16 to have a reasonable chance to claim a No. 6 seed.

This is Golden State’s best chance, though, because it will have Curry. Who better to summon than the wizard in times of trouble?

When the Warriors were on the brink of being eliminated by the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the playoffs last April, Curry pulled them from the ledge with a 50-point outburst Game 7 in Sac.

When they were facing the prospect of being one game from elimination against the Celtics in the 2022 NBA Finals, Curry came to the rescue with a 43-point gem in Game 4 that hushed a vociferous crowd in Boston and sent a chill through New England in the middle of June.

The Warriors won both series because they had Steph operating at his best, hoisting them onto his shoulders and scurrying out of danger.

That’s the Steph they need now.

“We need him,” Kerr said. “It’s a big game tomorrow, obviously, they’re all big. But it’s particularly the ones against the teams ahead of us and teams that we are on the heels of.

“So, I’m thrilled to get Steph back and we’ve got a whole team tomorrow hopefully we can stay whole now for the remainder of the season.”

Having lost three of four games dating back to March 7, when Curry sustained a sprained right ankle, the Warriors stopped the momentum generated by posting a 14-4 record beginning with a victory over Philadelphia on Jan. 30.

As games tipoff Friday evening, they’re one game behind the Lakers, three games behind the Mavericks, 3.5 behind the Suns and four behind the sixth-place Kings.

It became clear over the past week that neither the team’s established veterans nor its frequently touted depth, were enough to deliver the short-term remedy needed to keep the offense afloat without Curry.

Klay Thompson, who has done it in the past, could not this time. Andrew Wiggins, who is able, did not this time. And it’s unreasonable to look to Chris Paul to drop 30 points a couple times when he’s more maestro than soloist.

Golden State’s most impactful player during Curry’s three-game absence was Jonathan Kuminga, a 21-year-old who endured three DNPs in the playoffs last spring and didn’t become a regular in the starting lineup until six weeks ago.

Curry’s history is that he tends to answer absences with loud performance. His return sends a surge of adrenaline through the roster and also an intensified belief in the team’s direction.

The Warriors need all the belief they can summon. They need to believe they’re better than they were in the first half of the season, better than they were while losing four of their last six games – and better than their 3-13 record against the top five teams in the West.

Should they make their way to a first-round series, the Warriors must hope their aptitude for playoff basketball – it is a different game – will render regular-season metrics meaningless.

They must first withstand the hazards of the 17 games remaining on their schedule, beginning Saturday. There is little chance of surviving that without Curry once again bearing a disproportionate amount of weight.

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