'We are better than we were a year ago' -- Golden State coach Steve Kerr

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - To make a deep playoff run, the Golden State Warriors and stars such as Kevin Durant (left) and Klay Thompson first have to get by the Trail Blazers.OAKLAND, California — From Golden State's Saturday practice in preparation for Sunday's 12:30 p.m. opener of the first-round playoff series with the Trail Blazers at Oracle Arena …

• Steve Kerr was in the middle of a session with the media when he noticed one of the cell phones recording the interview flashing on a podium in front of him. The Warriors coach impishly picked up the phone.

"Hello?" Kerr said. "Yeah. Who's this? You looking for Chris? All right, hang on one second, he's right here. Here you go, Chris."

As reporters chuckled all around him, Kerr handed the phone to ex-Portlander Chris Haynes, the former Comcast SportsNet Northwest reporter now covering the NBA for ESPN and living in the Bay Area. On the other line was Haynes' mother.

"That was Steve Kerr, Mom," Haynes sheepishly told her.

It really was.

• The 2015-16 Warriors set an all-time record with a 73-9 regular-season mark, but faltered after building a 3-1 lead over Cleveland in the NBA Finals, losing in seven games.

With the addition of 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant, does this year's team — which finished the regular season at an NBA-best 67-15 — have the potential to be better than last year's team?

"We are better than we were a year ago," Kerr said. "The (regular-season) record may not show it, but the playoffs are a little different.

"We know what's coming (in the playoffs). We know defenses are going to be tougher, more physical. The threat to be able to go to Kevin and get us a bucket at a key time — that's something we didn't really have last year. We feel like we have an added dimension that will come in handy."

• Since the Warriors are not defending champions, as they were going into last year's playoffs, guard Stephen Curry said there is a different feel to it.

"We're chasing, not protecting something," the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Most Valuable Player said. "In theory, we're not the hunted. We have the best record, but we're not defending the championship.

"So there's no pressure. Two years ago, we were trying to climb the ladder. Now we're in that same mentality."

Curry, like all of his teammates, talks as if he expects the 2017 playoffs to be a long haul for the Warriors.

"It's good for us to go in with all the confidence in the world that we built up this regular season, and understand every round is going to be different, every round is going to be a dogfight," he said. "We understand how important every single game is on that journey. We have to be ready for it."

• As the season began, Kerr thought it would be power forward Draymond Green who would most have the most difficulty adjusting his game to the addition of Durant.

"It turned out to be Steph," the third-year Golden State coach said. "It took a few months for Steph to really get comfortable playing with Kevin.

"It took Draymond about three games. Defense fuels him. He's still handling the ball. He's leading us in assists. He's not shooting like he did from the 3-point line a year ago, but he's distributing more. He has adapted extremely well to his role. We know we can count on him every night."

Reserve forward Andre Iguodala said Curry's acceptance of a slightly different role with Durant on board was critical.

"We knew there would a period where we would be trying to figure things out," Iguodala said. "Steph was trying to make sure everybody was getting their touches and still trying to find his own spots. He did a really good job. Through the whole feeling-out process, we were able to win games and still able to fix some of our mistakes.

"Now you're seeing those three guys (Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson) being real comfortable with each other on the floor. And Draymond is a smart player. You don't have to make any adjustments for him He'll figure it out and still be a force and do what he does really well. He can be out there with anyone and be effective."

• Curry averaged 25.3 points, Durant 25.1, Thompson 22.3 in the regular season. (Green, the fourth Warrior in the All-Star Game this season, dropped off from 14.0 points a year ago to 10.2 this season). Curry took 18.3 shots a game, Thompson 17.6, Durant 16.5.

"We all have adjusted to each other," Durant said. "Draymond has had to sacrifice shots and points. Steph averaged 30 (points) last year; this year 25. Last year, I shot 20 times; this year 16. We were all getting used to each other."

Durant said there is a division of labor that changes from game to game — or even moment to moment.

"Once Steph gets it going, I don't need to score as much," he said. "Once I got it going, Steph don't need to score 35 points. And Klay as well. That's what makes our team unique. Any given night, any one of us can go off."

Curry was asked what it would be like if all of the four All-Stars fully jell together in the postseason.

"It's a scary thought," he said after a five-second pause. "The playoffs bring the best out of everybody. With that kind of intensity and atmosphere, all the preparation you put in though the course of the year should show up now. That's going to be fun to watch when it happens."

• Durant missed 19 games with a knee injury in March and April. He returned for Golden State's final three regular-season games, going for 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting — 5 for 7 from 3-point range — in 27 minutes in the finale against the Los Angeles Lakers. Is he back to 100 percent?

"He sure looked like it the last game of the year," Kerr said. "He said he still has some improvement to make. I look forward to seeing that."

• Durant was terrific in his four games against Portland, averaging 29.3 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting .600 from the field. Curry averaged 27.3 points in his three appearances against the Blazers. Thompson did not have a good offensive series, averaging 17.8 points on .353 shooting. But his replacement, Ian Clark, averaged 13.0 points while sinking 19 of 25 shots (.760) from the field.

• Kerr nodded when told the Blazers were waiting until Sunday to reveal whether or not 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic will play in the opener.

"I would do the same thing, by the way," he said with a smile.

Does that affect the Warriors' preparation for Game 1?

"We prepare for both possibilities," Kerr said. "We're preparing for all the stuff we know they're going to run that we've faced for the last couple of years. We look at (video) of Nurkic as well and see the difference in how they play when he's out there.

"He gives them a low-post threat they've never had. They'll throw the ball into him and play off of him."

Kerr on the Blazers: "I loved their team at the end of last year. I loved them at the beginning of the season. For whatever reason, they went off the rails a little bit early. But that was a brilliant trade (for Nurkic). It's given them a different look. They have more confidence now. They're playing with some force. We know they're going to be a tough matchup."

• The series offers a matchup of two of the premier offensive backcourts in the game — Golden State's Curry and Thompson against Portland's Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Curry on Lillard and McCollum:

"They're really dynamic. They understand how to score and make plays. They always keep their foot in the gas pedal. They're so talented, you're not going to take everything away from them. You just have to stay solid (defensively), make them make tough shots and understand whenever they're on the floor, they're a threat and you can never relax."

• Iguodala, a Sixth Man of the Year Award candidate, had an in-depth appraisal of the Blazers and the challenge they present.

"They've been playing really well the last month and a half," he said. "Nurkic has given them a boost. 'Dame' seems like he has his confidence right now. He feels like he can score at any given time. (Moe) Harkless has played really well. (Al-Farouq) Aminu has hurt us in the past. Evan Turner has gone through stretches where he has played really well. And McCollum is one of the up-and-coming 2 guards in the game.

"They have a lot of talent. Their season didn't go as well as they wanted to, but they're a dangerous team, much better than their record indicates. They know that. I'm looking for them to come out with a blast to hit us early in Game 1. We have to be able to counter that and be alert at all times."

That's what happened in the Golden State-Portland series a year ago. The Blazers jumped to early double-digit leads in Games 2 through 5. The Warriors weathered the storm and rallied to win the last three games.

• Curry knows the series will be different if Nurkic is unable to go.

"The game can go a lot of different ways depending on who starts at center for them," he said. "They have a lot of versatile wings they can throw out there. It can be an up-and-down, small-ball type of series, or it can be a more traditional lineup with some low-post presence on both sides of the floor."

If Nurkic plays, that probably would mean more minutes for Golden State's starting center, 6-11 veteran Zaza Pachulia, who averaged 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in 18 minutes per game. His backup is 7-foot Javale McGee, whose career has been rejuvenated this season while averaging 6.1 points and 3.2 boards in 9.6 minutes per contest.

"I have a lot of confidence in Javale," Kerr said. "He's a short-burst guy. The way he runs the floor, the lob threat, the blocked shots — those things can all help us quite a bit in this series.

"Zaza gives us that toughness, the screen-setting, the intelligent defense, understanding the game plan. He helps us get off to a good start. Then we have a a totally different look with Javale or David (West)."

• Many national pundits are expecting a sweep of the series. Few give the Blazers much of a chance.

"We don't look at paper," Durant said. "We don't look at who is underdog. We don't look at any of that stuff. We can be beaten any night. It's hard to beat a playoff team. It's hard to beat Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum or Noah Vonleh. It's hard as (spit) to do that. We know how tough it is.

"We don't underestimate teams. You have to respect them. That's what the game tells you to do; respect your opponent. We can't expect to win because everybody else is expecting us to win or what looks good on paper. Everybody here knows that."

• Golden State led the league in an astonishing number of statistical categories in the regular season, including offensive rating (113.3), scoring (115.9), field-goal percentage (.495), assists (30.4), steals (9.6), fast-break points (22.6), assists per turnover (2.06) and point differential (plus-11.6). The Warriors also were third in 3-point percentage (.383).

But they were at the top of the list in several defensive categories, too, including opponents' field-goal percentage (.435), opponents' 3-point percentage (.324), blocked shots (6.8), opponents' turnovers (15.5) and points off turnovers (19.3). And they were second in defensive rating (101.2).

In late February and early March, at the start of Durant's absence due to the knee injury, the Warriors lost five of seven games. They followed that by winning 14 in a row. Curry said that was a direct result of focusing on the defensive end.

"That's how we righted the ship after the rough patch," he said. "We elevated our defensive efficiency and execution. With that, shots started to fall. We started winning more consistently and stringing wins together.

"You can fall in love with the offensive side all you want, but we know we're unstoppable when our defense shows up and is the best part of our game."

• Golden State's lone weakness, it would seem, is on the boards. The Warriors are at or near the bottom of the league in offensive rebounds per game (9.3, 30th) and defensive rebounding percentage (28th).

Kerr ties rebounding to defensive performance and feels that it is a key to the series.

"If we defend with a purpose and we take care of the ball, I love our chances," he said. "When I speak of solid defense, I include rebounding in that. When we get into trouble is when we give the other team 12, 14 more field-goal attempts because of turning it over and giving up layups and offensive rebounds.

"When we're locked in and take away the easy stuff and keep the field-goal attempts around the same, I like our chances. Over the course of 48 minutes, our play-making and shot-making will win out."

• Kerr has gone 11-deep at times this season, though one of the reserves — forward Matt Barnes — won't play in the opener due to a sprained ankle.

Iguodala, McGee, West and guards Clark, Patrick McCaw and Shaun Livingston have seen regular minutes.

Kerr knows he will shorten the rotation, but said things will change on a game-by-game basis.

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