As he sauntered to the Warriors’ bench midway through the third quarter Tuesday night, Stephen Curry chewed his mouthguard and raised his right hand to acknowledge the sellout crowd on its feet.
In that moment, with Golden State well on its way to a 113-104 win over the Pelicans in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, those fans were reveling in more than a game-changing run. That third-quarter standing ovation was a celebration of Curry’s return to his dazzling ways.
To help Golden State turn a three-point halftime lead into a 23-point cushion by the time he took the bench with 4:04 left in the third, Curry scored 13 of his 28 points and delivered a steady stream of highlights. It was the type of joyful, did-he-just-do-that clinic that had mostly been absent in the week since he returned from a sprained left MCL that sidelined him for more than a month.
“I feel confident with what I’m able to do out there,” Curry said. “After being out six weeks, I just appreciate being out there and playing.”
Now, after needing only 10 games to get through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors have six days to prepare for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in Houston. Fifteen minutes before tip-off at Oracle Arena, the Rockets beat the Jazz by 10 points to help set up a long-anticipated showdown between two teams that won a combined 123 regular-season games.
Houston had the West’s best record and owns home-court advantage, but it figures to have trouble with a team that is beginning to resemble the group that steamrolled to its second NBA title in three years last spring with a 16-1 postseason mark. Golden State is showcasing its collective powers: the switch-heavy defense, the cast of All-Stars, the deep bench, the rapid tempo, the parade of passes.
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It has only helped that head coach Steve Kerr started his five best players — Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — each of the past two games. Two nights after the group known as the “Hamptons 5” authored a 21-10 run to open the third and pave the way to a Game 4 rout, it powered a 25-4 Warriors rally to begin the quarter and create plenty of separation from the Pelicans.
“The whole message (at halftime) was, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, but be solid and we’ll break free,’” Kerr said. “I thought our guys were amazing in that third quarter and broke the game open.”
Along the way, Curry returned to the dizzying dribbling displays and deep three-pointers that have made him the face of the franchise.
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Little more than a minute into the third quarter, after dribbling hard to his left at the top of the key, Curry weaved by his defender, hit a layup and punched the stanchion twice before running back on defense. Less than two minutes later, Thompson found Curry wide open for a three-pointer. As the crowd roared, Curry kept his right arm extended for at least six seconds.
The chorus of cheers reached a crescendo midway through the third when Curry, with no defender near him, drained a 30-footer and raised both arms to amplify the decibel level inside Oracle Arena. It was moments later that he stepped to the foul line as “M-V-P!” chants rained down.
After Curry shot 6-for-19 in Game 3, his second back from that knee injury, some wondered how long it would take for him to regain his rhythm. Now, as the Warriors await the Rockets, they can take comfort knowing that he’s playing some of their best basketball of the season.
And Curry is leading the way.
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“You see when you let the dog off the leash what happens,” Durant said. “We’re going to need him to continue to be aggressive, and we’ll live with anything after that.”
Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Con_Chron
Warriors win 4-1
Game 1: Warriors 123,
Game 2: Warriors 121,
Game 3: Pelicans 119,
Game 4: Warriors 118,
Game 5: Warriors 113,