OAKLAND, Calif. — When Kevin Durant pulled up lame, limping to the locker room during Game 5 of the Warriors‘ second-round series against the Rockets with a calf injury, it spelled obvious trouble for Golden State. Not only were they losing arguably the best basketball player in the world, but they were also losing another vital body on what had become a dangerously thin roster.
The Warriors’ motto, “Strength in Numbers,” had pretty much gone out the window in the Houston series. Head coach Steve Kerr was playing about eight players, with a short leash on Alfonzo McKinnie and limited production from veteran Shaun Livingston. With Durant’s injury, the list of trusted bench players dwindled even further — or so it seemed.
Fast forward to the Warriors’ dramatic series-clinching win in Game 6 at Houston, when 11 players hit the court, 10 of which received double-digit minutes. The strategy remained the same for the team’s 116-94 Game 1 win against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals, with Kerr rewarding players like Jordan Bell, Quinn Cook and Jonas Jerebko for their work in Game 6. This time all 13 active Warriors played, with 11 receiving double-digit minutes. It’s not easy to just jump into the intensity and scrutiny of the playoffs, but — so far at least — the Warriors reserves have handled it with aplomb.
Kerr pointed out the first five minutes of the fourth quarter as the key stretch of the Warriors’ Game 1 win, during which his team extended its lead from six to 12. The lineup on the court during that stretch? Klay Thompson, Livingston, Cook, Bell and Jerebko. Not exactly a lineup you’d expect to dominate a stretch of a regular-season game against the Suns, let alone the Western Conference finals.
“What you don’t see is guys working behind the scenes,” Livingston said after the win. “Quinn Cook, somebody just told me he played five seconds in the first five games of last series. So, again, that weighs on you as a competitor, a challenger. Give him credit, staying ready, coming in hitting two big 3s in the fourth quarter. JB (Bell) same. Down the line.”
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who have both been brilliant after the Splash Brothers regained dual control of the offense in Durant’s absence, were in danger of having to play even more extreme minutes to keep the team afloat. Instead, neither has gone over 40 minutes in either game since Durant’s injury, after doing so multiple times this postseason with K.D. in the lineup.
Cook is splashing 3s. Bell is hitting fadeaway jumpers. Jerebko is snatching down rebounds and dropping dimes. Just two games into a playoff run that was supposed to get tougher without Durant, and the Warriors suddenly look as deep as they are talented.
“I mean, it’s fun. It’s when we’re at our best in terms of everybody feeling like they are a threat on the floor,” Curry said after the game. “It just puts so much pressure on the defense. you can’t key in on one guy and even if you try to, somebody else is going to be open.
“You see, like, the morale, like everybody’s shoulders are up and smiles, and just aggressiveness all over the floor; whether that’s setting a screen or swing, swing or cutting hard, all that type of stuff. When you create good shots that way, it’s fun for everybody.”
Pulling from the depths of his bench is something Kerr has done in the past. He continually self-deprecates, saying that as a former bench-warmer himself, he understands the value of getting the end-of-the-bench guys minutes throughout the season so they stay ready. The playoffs are obviously a different story with each game holding so much importance, but the confidence Kerr instilled in his bench during the regular season has obviously carried through.
With Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green playing near their pinnacles so far in Durant’s absence, the addition of a suddenly competent bench unit might make this Blazers series win a fait accompli, and will serve them well should they advance to meet the Milwaukee Bucks — a team that buries opponents with its depth — in the Finals. Kerr said that the Blazers matchup is much more conducive to playing multiple guys, as opposed to the Houston series where James Harden and Chris Paul relentlessly hunted the most doe-eyed newbie on the court.
“Every team presents different challenges. There’s different matchups,” Kerr said after the game. “And you know, the way Houston plays, it makes it more difficult to play a lot of people. They just look to isolate you on every spot on the floor. Their style of play makes it more difficult.”
Are the Warriors suddenly the deepest team in the NBA? Of course not. But confidence is a powerful thing. Livingston, a longtime captain of the Warriors’ second unit, said that the bench not only playing, but also getting a taste of victory in Houston helped contribute to its performance on Tuesday.
Cook drew on his play in last year’s playoffs, when he admirably stepped in for an injured Curry, as a source of confidence.
“I always kind of use [last postseason] as a reminder that I can do this well, going games not being in the rotation.” Cook said after the game. “When you stay consumed with winning, having that common goal, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the rotation or not. We all want to win. It doesn’t matter how we get it done. We all want to win.”
The Warriors know the rest of the series isn’t going to go like Game 1. The Blazers played horrific pick-and-roll defense, allowing Curry to walk into several of what Damian Lillard called “practice shots.” Kerr mentioned the rest advantage his team had, having finished their second-round series on Friday while the Blazers had the quickest of turnarounds after an emotional Game 7 win just two days prior. Lillard and McCollum aren’t likely to go a combined 11-for-31 from the field and 3-of-10 from 3 in too many games this series.
When those things turn around for the Blazers, and Curry and Thompson are having an off night, the experience the Warriors bench has gotten over the last two games could be enough to pull out a win that the team may not have pulled out just a few weeks ago.
“Everybody who stepped out there was ready to go, and you know, this series is going to get tougher and tougher and tougher,” Green said of the bench production. “Contrary to what every headline will say tomorrow, we know how tough it will be. We need those guys to stay locked in and continue to give us what they have been giving us these last two games.”