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Bogut overcomes adversities to anchor Warriors defense

Center shifts from offensive threat to becoming a glue player

POSTED: May 21, 2015 12:42 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Golden State center Andrew Bogut has overcome several injuries to help anchor the team's defense.

Andrew Bogut was trying and failing to straighten both of his arms. The Warriors center was demonstrating how he had come to be awarded as one of the NBA's best defenders.

"I can't extend it," he was saying a few hours after he had been named to the NBA All-Defensive second team. "See? It's stuck."

When Bogut runs, his right palm is turned away behind him, facing to the rear as if he was a pitcher who had grown up throwing screwballs. During warmups, while his teammates are hoisting up their shots by rote, his face grimaces each time he extends vertically. He is bracing himself.

"Sometimes I will shoot and my elbow will give out and it will hurt, like a stabbing pain," he said. "And then the next time when I shoot it's fine. And I don't know when it's going to come."

Bogut's offensive potential had been in bloom five years ago as he went up for a breakaway dunk on behalf of the Milwaukee Bucks, who had made him the No. 1 pick overall in the 2005 draft. High above the floor, he could feel Amare Stoudemire brushing underneath him. He was trying to hold onto the rim, to straighten himself, when he fell horizontally as if from a second-story window. His right arm was extended beneath him gruesomely as he landed.

"I dislocated it, so it was facing the other way," he said of his right shooting elbow. "I broke a bone (in the elbow), broke my wrist on both sides, broke two of my fingers." His index finger was strengthened by a surgically-inserted pin, but his middle finger remains weak. "I never got the pin put into it," he said, "so it still affects me."

There was the enduring trauma to his right shooting arm, which was followed by another injury that also threatened his career. Bogut was reviewing these issues on Wednesday not out of self-pity but of pride. If he were able to straighten his right shooting arm, if his health enabled him to dominate offensively, then he might not be standing seven wins away from the NBA championship. The Warriors are among the grateful beneficiaries of his suffering.

Injuries force adjustment

"It seems that he doesn't really care about the numbers, but he cares about how he plays," said Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton. "To me, that is more important than numbers. You can see games where somebody fills up the stats and they were absolutely terrible; and then there are other games where -- if you didn't watch, if you just saw the stat sheet - you would say Bogut is seven feet and he didn't really do anything. When in fact he was the most dominant player for our team."

At 30, an age when Bogut would have expected to be peaking statistically, he was averaging career-lows of 6.3 points and 23.6 minutes for the Warriors during this regular season. He made 22 free throws all year, as many as the Rockets' James Harden -- to whom Bogut is now committed defensively - converted in a 50-point performance against the Nuggets two months ago.

Bogut's numbers have been further diminished in 11 playoff games, in which he has averaged 4.8 points (on 4.3 shots) in 25.0 minutes.

"It's always tight," he said of his right elbow. "It's just my touch. Some days I will shoot the ball the way I was shooting pre-injury, and I feel good. And then I might just sleep funny on it or something, and I wake up and it's a little tight and it changes my shot."

Klay to Bogut

Klay Thompson hits Andrew Bogut for the easy oop.

When Bogut entered the 2005 draft as a Utah sophomore who had been named consensus player of the year, he and his agent David Bauman were intent on distancing him from the obvious stereotype.

"We said, 'They're going to compare you to the 'white stiffs,"' Bogut recalled. An interviewer asked about his countryman Luc Longley, and this was Bogut's answer: "I've had a better collegiate career than anyone else from Australia that came over here. I'm not as slow as Luc Longley, I'm more athletic, I can shoot better, I'm more competitive. So I think it's not even fair to bring that name up."

"I learned a harsh lesson from that," Bogut was saying Wednesday, a decade later. "I'm actually good friends with Luc now, he's a great guy, and we have put that behind us. After I said it, I was like, 'That's one of the greatest Australian players ever!' But it was too late. I didn't mean disrespect to anybody."

The incident is worth bringing up as another outcome that Bogut never would have anticipated. For this season he has emerged as the defensive quarterback of the second-best lineup in NBA history (minimum of 40 games). When Bogut started alongside MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, the Warriors went 50-7 -- an 87.7 percent rate bettered only by the 1995-96 champion Chicago Bulls, who would finish 72-10 overall around the unimpressive 9.1 points per game of their center Luc Longley.

"Hopefully," said Bogut, "we can finish off in the same way they did."

Physical issues create doubt

"I have questioned it many times," Bogut said of his love for basketball. "I have been on the brink many times. After I finally got over the elbow, and found my form again and was playing well, then the ankle happened and I thought I was done. I was at a huge crossroad with my career mentally."

He suffered a season-ending ankle fracture in January 2012 that would require microfracture surgery.

"Then I rushed back to play on it like an idiot," Bogut said. "I did more damage to it."

At 7 feet and 260 pounds, how was he going to resume his career on a bad ankle?

"The best thing from his standpoint, and from ours, is that none of the injuries appear chronic," said Warriors GM Bob Myers. "He's had one-off type injuries - which no one wants either -- but you worry more when a player has repeated injuries in certain areas."

Bogut's elbow continues to bother him, Myers was reminded.

"But he is still able to play," Myers said. "A lot of guys are playing with some type of deficiency. But as long as he's out there for us, he's always contributing."

Bogut freely acknowledges that he passes up open shots that he used to take freely.

"Definitely, the confidence is down," he said. "It's something I'm going to work through in the summer, and every summer - try to focus on getting flexibility and strength back. But with the grind of the NBA season, and falling down on it sometimes, it's tough. It's tough mentally. The hardest part is mentally."

The hardest part has turned out to be most revealing.

"But then I think about me shooting a 15-footer vs. Steph getting a feet-set three?" Bogut said. "I would rather have Steph get that shot and get him going."

Bogut had always considered himself to be a team-first player. Now his priorities were being tested in a most meaningful way. After Myers acquired him in a 2012 trade that sent Monta Ellis to Milwaukee, Bogut began to realize how much he appreciated winning. The choice became stark: He could fight to re-establish his old self offensively, or he could focus on the healthier aspects of his game in order to pursue a championship.

Bogut Blocks Lee

Andrew Bogut is there to swat away Courtney Lee's shot.

"OK, there are times when I need to be more aggressive, definitely, and I look to do that sometimes," he said. "But you think about it, and you're like: Why? We won 67 games. So play defense, set screens, rebound, get some offensive rebounds, get guys open, pass the ball. I think it's been pretty successful."

He has learned to enjoy more than ever the impact of blocking or altering shots.

"To see guys come into the paint," he said, "and I'm there and they kind of veer back out."

Bogut has also found deep satisfaction in setting screens. "I heard their bench complaining all game that I'm setting illegal screens," he said of the Rockets in Game 1. "I'm just setting hard, legal screens, and hitting guys and getting Steph open. I love it when I hear guys saying, 'He's moving! He's moving!' That's the only way they can get out of getting hit."

An irony of Bogut's reinvention as a defensive center is that he is still more skilled with the ball than Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan.

"I love passing the ball," he said. "I think I see the floor like a point guard: I can see two or three moves ahead, where guys are going to be and what is going to be open. A lot of times I will throw the pass before a guy is open, knowing where he is going to be open."

Bogut's attention to passing and screening were crucial to the Warriors' recovery from their 2-1 deficit in the previous round against Memphis.

"If Steph or Klay are missing their first two or three shots, if I can get them a layup or an open three and they knock that down, I know we're good," he said. "You get them an easy basket, I know that basket will lead to bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. And then all of a sudden, hey, three threes in a row."

The Warriors recovered from a 16-point deficit to win their Western final opener. Bogut played "horribly" as he dealt with a flu that would require a postgame IV, he went scoreless on three shots, and the Warriors small-ball lineup carried them to a 110-106 victory.

Even if Howard's minutes turn out to be limited by the knee sprain he suffered in Game 1, the Warriors are still devoted to establishing Bogut defensively in the paint in order to prevent Harden's Rockets from driving to the basket at will. Overall Golden State is 67-11 with Bogut this season, and 9-6 without him.

"We've proven we can win when Bogut doesn't play well," said Steve Kerr, the Warriors' first-year coach who was also Longley's teammate on the 1995-96 Bulls. "But we'd rather have him out on the floor. He's one of the top defenders in the league. He's a great passer. We're better when Bogues is on the floor doing his thing."

His thing is not what it used to be. It is less glamorous, less obvious, and altogether more important.

"There were times in my career when my personal belief of how I played was too tied to the stat sheet," said Walton as he tried to put Bogut's transformation into perspective. "And I was fragile. I was up and down, up and down. And when I was in a better place, and more comfortable, I didn't even need to look at the stat sheet at the end of the game. I knew if I played well or not. It comes down to being secure with yourself."

Promising start interrupted

"I was an offensive player, believe it or not," Bogut said. "And coming out of college I was labeled as a horrible defender. You can look it up. Everyone said I would be a horrible defender, that I couldn't guard myself, that I could never guard a post (scorer) in the NBA."

In his fifth season he had been averaging 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, earning him third-team All-NBA. That was supposed to be the beginning. The numbers surely were going to continue to improve.

Then came the fall.

"I've played through a lot of pain," Bogut said. "It's something I will be proud of toward the end of my career, that I didn't give in because of a horrific one-in-a-billion accident that happened. Because I'm still here playing."

Instead of focusing on what was lost to the mangling of his elbow, he has embraced what has been found. The attention to defense has earned him a bonus of $1,945,946, as negotiated for him by Bauman. He has developed a camaraderie with versatile power forward Draymond Green, who was named to the All-Defensive first-team on Wednesday. The top-seeded Warriors are favorites to win in June because the scoring of their backcourt is buttressed by the defense of their frontcourt.

Would the Warriors have been able to acquire the talent and vision of Bogut if not for his injuries? Would his scoring ever have proved to be so valuable as his defense has become?

"Some things I have to do offensively, I'm taking a back step now, and it is frustrating," Bogut said. "But at the same time, I'm still playing at a high level, and starting on one of the best teams in the NBA. So I don't have that many gripes."

He can see now that the fall did not ruin him. On the contrary, he is defined by the way he stood himself back up.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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