OAKLAND – Under cover of the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series at the same time, with the Clippers resting Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the Warriors sitting ill Andrew Bogut and using David Lee for 19 minutes, with everyone ready for the exhibition schedule to be over already, Tuesday night at Oracle Arena unsuspectingly turned meaningful.
Festus Ezeli played, newsworthy in itself given the length of his absence, and on his 25th birthday at that as an added layer to the celebratory mood of getting directions to the court. That he played well, though, was the thing, enough of a development to attach value to a sloppy preseason game, enough to prompt coach Steve Kerr to note that Ezeli “was really aggressive with what he did,” a sign that Ezeli was not shying away from contact inside.
Enough to nudge the jammed Western Conference playoff pack.
It was such a little thing — 11 minutes, just shy of the 12-minute limit imposed by the medical staff, 10 points, three rebounds, four baskets in five attempts, five fouls — and it was just one October outing with months ahead that really count — but it could become such a big thing. And now we’re talking developments.
The thin bench that was part of the Golden State downfall last season remains a concern the week before 2014-15 opens, projected point-guard backup Shaun Livingston may not be back from toe surgery when the season begins Wednesday in Sacramento, and Kerr is facing an Andre Iguodala-or-Harrison Barnes decision for the start at small forward. But if Ezeli can return to his former role of dependable second-string center, the Warriors have a key roster addition when they need it most.
That is obviously a big if. When Ezeli took the court with 3:05 remaining in the first quarter Tuesday, it was his first time in uniform in 17 months, since the Warriors were eliminated in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. No, it was, he said afterward, the first time in any five-on-five run since surgery on two ligaments in the right knee on June 12, 2013, cost Ezeli all last season and inflammation in the lower part of the same right leg took away much of the training camp and preseason that was supposed to be a fresh start.
But if he is healthy, if he can reclaim the 2012-13 form, if he can be depth behind Bogut, the little thing on a baseball night in the Bay Area can grow into something that could be worth enough wins to alter their place in the West. (A season ago, six victories separated four through nine, the difference between home-court advantage in the first round and the lottery.) If not, hello Ognjen Kuzmic and Marresse Speights.
“It’s big,” Kerr said. “Ezeli and Kuzmic. Kuz has really come along this training camp. We’ve given him a lot of time in the exhibition games and he’s performed well. If Festus can make strides… if he can come around physically and we can have three 7-footers who can all protect the rim, then I think we’re in pretty good shape. We would prefer to stay big most of the time. We like to have a rim-protector in there. With three guys, assuming we can count on all three, that protects us against us some injury and foul trouble and that kind of stuff.”
The source of optimism Tuesday night was Ezeli entering late in the first quarter, needing 68 seconds to block a shot by Jared Cunningham as the Clippers guard drove to the rim, another 55 seconds to hit an eight-foot jump hook from the left baseline, and 55 more seconds to finish a pick-and-roll by grabbing an Iguodala lob with both hands and flushing it through the net. The nervousness of making the return with family and friends in attendance as part of the birthday was replaced by a surge of confidence.
“That’s what people have been saying and people always talked about, how light we were at the center position and they didn’t feel we had enough depth there,” Ezeli said. “This team, we feel like we’re pretty decked. We have a pretty nice deck of cards on this team. But they felt like the center position was pretty light. But now, Kuzmic has been working his butt off. I’ve seen him work every day and I’ve been right there with him.
“The good thing about being out so long, I really don’t care what anybody thinks about me anymore. I don’t care because the people that write the articles… and the people that talk about me and put the other people down, nobody was there with me while I was doing my rehab. What they think doesn’t matter. It’s about what we as a team think about ourselves, and we think we’re pretty good and we have a lot of talent on this team. That’s all that matters.”
This will still be a process. Ezeli needs to improve his conditioning the same way all players coming back from extended layoffs do and needs to re-calibrate to the speed of the game — Kerr quickly pointed out that Ezeli picked up so many fouls in a short time against the Clippers “because the game is going to move too fast for him right now.” And it was just one night. Those are the reality checks.
On the other hand, the Warriors could have much-needed bench help and could end up with the important acquisition of a player who officially was always on the roster. Those are the bottom lines, for Golden State and the West.