Festus Ezeli makes big impact down the stretch in Game 2
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) As his teammates wrapped up their practice day, Festus Ezeli worked some post moves with coach Theo Robertson and shot a few more hook shots from each side of the key, then a series of free throws as assistant coach Ron Adams observed.
The Golden State center is making progress each day finding his rhythm again after all that time he missed recovering from arthroscopic left knee surgery. He sure came up big for the defending champions down the stretch of a 110-99 Game 2 win against Portland in the Western Conference semifinals, scoring eight points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking a shot in nearly 13 minutes after not even getting into Game 1.
''I'm always ready. I'm always prepared,'' Ezeli said Thursday. ''I brought energy to the team. Hopefully moving forward there's more situations where I'm needed. It takes a little while. The injury's behind me now. Every time I'm on the court, I'm just trying to get that momentum, I'm trying to get my rhythm back. Each game I'm making a lot of progress.''
As he worked his way back with the knee, Ezeli couldn't wait to get back with the teammates who supported him through the ordeal - like Draymond Green.
Ezeli played in only 46 regular-season games with 13 starts as the Warriors set the NBA record with 73 wins. The 26-year-old Nigerian had surgery Feb. 8 and didn't play again until April 3.
''It's been a heck of a ride, to be honest. I really can't complain,'' Ezeli said of bouncing back from the injury. ''I was kind of a little down. I found out I was injured and I had to have surgery again on another knee. But at the end of the day I have amazing teammates. Guys like Draymond and everybody on the team come over and wrap their hands around me like, `We've got you.' And that's very comforting to me, and it motivates me more than anything.
''So those 31 games I missed, I just couldn't wait to get back on the court, and mostly just because I wanted to be out there with my brothers.''
They missed his energy off the bench.
On Tuesday, his contribution was clutch as the Warriors had to rally back from an early 17-point deficit and trailed 87-76 going into the fourth for their largest deficit all playoffs heading into the final 12 minutes. They then held the Trail Blazers to 12 points in the final period.
''You've got to give credit to Festus just for being prepared. He hasn't been out there for pretty much the entire game, and then we were taking advantage of them and taking coverages with the big men back and starting to take shots and they put him in and had him come up higher because he can move,'' Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. ''I thought Festus did a good job just being a presence.''
Ezeli will look to build off that in Game 3 on Saturday in Portland. Golden State leads the best-of-seven series 2-0.
''We made the decision at halftime to give Festus an opportunity, and we knew that was going to happen at some point,'' coach Steve Kerr said Thursday. ''We wanted to give Festus his shot and he played great, so he'll obviously play in Game 3.''
Ezeli never found a flow during the first-round series against the Rockets, which Golden State won in five games. Kerr called him ''very rusty.''
The big man didn't even play 30 minutes total that round.
''He stayed ready, and I'm really proud of him because he hasn't played much lately,'' Kerr said.
Ezeli's teammates know the energy and athleticism he brings when his chances do come.
''A true professional. He trusts the process. That is the key to this team, we all trust the process,'' Green said. ''One thing about Coach Kerr and the coaching staff, they have a great feeling for how the game is going. He came in today and made a huge impact.''