Warriors unleash Ezeli in preseason homecoming

ORACLE ARENA — Hell hath no fury like a defensive center looking for redemption.

After more than more than a year out of the game and off the court, Warriors center Festus Ezeli returned to the game he loves.

With just over three minutes left in the opening quarter of the Warriors first preseason home game, Ezeli, on his 25th birthday, checked in at the scorers table and walked onto the hardwood for the first time in 17 months, received by a huge ovation from the crowd.

In just moments his presence was felt by all.

Clippers guard Jared Cunningham weaved his way down low and into the big man’s line of fire. Refusing to allow anyone past him, Ezeli monstrously blocked Cunningham’s shot attempt, sending the guard to the floor.

With his family watching and seemingly all eyes on him, Ezeli looked nervous. He told SFBay he just wanted something good to start things off and get rid of the butterflies, and the blocked shot on Cunningham was perfect:

“I had said I just didn’t want my first thing to be a bad thing, an air ball or something. I just needed to have something go for me, a lay up a blocked shot or a rebound and then I would be good, so that was a good way to get started.”

By the end of the first quarter, Ezeli had sunk a hook shot and slammed in an alley-oop from Andre Iguodala.

Limited to just 12 minutes throughout the rest of the nationally televised preseason showdown, Ezeli finished the night 10 points and three rebounds in the Warriors 125-107 victory over the Clippers.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said it was encouraging to see the way Ezeli played and is looking forward to having him back in a full capacity:

“It was great to see Festus comeback tonight. I thought he was really aggressive with what he did. … He showed how much he can help us.”

With two of Los Angeles’ stars resting — Chris Paul and Blake Griffin — the Warriors were allowed a little breathing room and an opportunity try out rotations and sets.

In the experimentation process that is preseason and training camp, Justin Holiday has made a strong case for himself to fill the Warriors 15th and final roster spot. He strengthened his case after his Oracle debut.

The 25-year-old, 6-foot-6 guard, and older brother to All-Star Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans, stood out with the Warriors in the NBA Summer League, averaging a team-high 14.8 points.

After a slow preseason start, Holiday gained confidence, scoring a game-high 18 points in Sunday’s matchup with the Houston Rockets. Tuesday he pushed forward for another double-digit performance finishing the night with 12 points.

Holiday said he’s happy with the way he’s displayed his athleticism so far and thinks he has a good chance to make the final roster. He told SFBay he tends to over-analyze things so until a final decision is made he tries not to dwell on it too much:

“If it comes into my head I just try to leave it alone. I’ve been through this before so I just need to wait until the day it happens. But sometimes I get a little antsy and I try to analyze things too much. For the most part though I just am trying to enjoy myself and hopefully it all works out.”

The Golden State victory puts the teams preseason record at 5-2 with the final preseason game at Oracle on Friday against the Denver Nuggets.

Prior to tip-off Tuesday, Iguodala stood mid court with Warriors legend Nate Thurmond, who presented Iguodala with a trophy commemorating being named All-Defensive First Team for the 2013-14 season. Thurmond, named All-Defensive First Team in 1970-71, is the only other Warrior in franchise history to have received First Team selection.

Iguodala admitted to SFBay that he plays down accolades and often doesn’t reflect on the career that he’s had but said the moment on the court with Thurmond was special and something he’ll remember:

“I’ve had a really long career and I’m still going but I’ll always remember that moment, probably in fifteen years look back. We’ve got a great fan base here and its a great place to play, so to be one of just two is awesome.”

Notes

Tonight’s contest was the first nationally televised (TNT) preseason home game in Warriors franchise history. … The Warriors reserves outscored the Clipper bench 59-33, with four Warriors scoring in double figure off the bench (Holiday, Iguodala, Ezeli, Green). … Stephen Curry scored a preseason-high 27 points, leading all scorers and recording his third 20-plus effort of the preseason. … Ezeli played in his first contest since May 16, 2013, when he started in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals vs. San Antonio. Ezeli, who scored 10 points, has only scored 10-plus one other time in his career on Jan. 19, 2013 at New Orleans. … Andrew Bogut (illness) was not with the team.


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