Strength in Numbers Still Alive and Well
Key Contributions from Warriors Reserves Helping Team to 5th Straight NBA Finals Appearance
“Just stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” was a line that Jonas Jerebko used after a road win in Minnesota in March. He delivered that quote more than two months ago, but it might as well serve as a tagline for Warriors reserves as the team gets set for its fifth straight NBA Finals appearance.
While some national broadcasters were quick to point out that the Dubs’ Strength in Numbers mentality was a thing of the past earlier this postseason, the team has shown that a deep rotation is still very capable of making meaningful contributions in critical moments when called upon.
Yes, the headlines of the Warriors’ sweep in the Western Conference Finals went to Stephen Curry’s scoring outbursts and Draymond Green’s passion-fueled, pace-pushing all-around play, and deservedly so, but there’s no way the Dubs come back from 17, 18 and 17-point deficits to win Games 2, 3 and 4 against Portland without some key plays from the bench.
“They did a fantastic job,” Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr said on Monday night. “We tried to find combinations that worked, and a lot of guys really played well over the course of the series, and it was a big reason for the series win.”
After shortening the rotation in the second round against Houston – only in Game 3 of that series did the Dubs’ reserves play more than 50 combined minutes – Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr offered more opportunities to the bench beginning in Game 6 in Houston. T the Western Conference Finals. During the four-game sweep of Portland, the bench averaged more than 94 minutes of playing time, getting 32.5 points per game.
The 28 points in 88 minutes from Dubs’ reserves in Game 4 on Monday were series lows, which were certainly impacted by Jordan Bell and Alfonso McKinnie ditching their bench roles for a game and making their first career postseason start. Still, those minutes were still more than all but two of the team’s first 12 playoff games this season.
So, what changed, and why?
Kevin Durant straining his right calf in Game 5 of the Houston series certainly had something to do with it, as did Andre Iguodala sitting out the Dubs’ series-clincher in Portland. But the increased bench play and production was also a result of matchups.
“This feels like it's a series where we can play more people,” Kerr said after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. “It's a different matchup, and I think that what you saw tonight is what we'd like to get to every night if we can in terms of playing – playing 10, 11 guys.”
Turns out Kerr lied there, as he went deeper than that! All 13 active Warriors players saw meaningful minutes in the conference finals. Two-way players Damion Lee and Marcus Derrickson are ineligible to play in the NBA postseason, and Durant and DeMarcus Cousins were unavailable in the Portland series due to injury, but just about everyone else positively impacted the the squad earning its fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
“I just think that our bench is giving us great minutes, and that's been really key for us,” Kerr said after the Game 3 win. “You know, even on the road in a game when we were down 18 points, none of our starters played 40 minutes in a playoff game … We can keep the game moving and really gain traction in the game when those guys were out on the floor.”
Added Klay Thompson, who played alongside four reserves to start the second and fourth quarters in the Western Conference Finals: “The bench, incredible. Especially you know, everyone is saying it's thin this year and all this, but they come to work every day. They follow our leaders, and it's a strength-in- numbers thing.”
This Warriors bench has different strengths than those of past Championship runs. The offense ran through David West in short spurts over the previous two seasons, and players like Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights were effective scorers in 2015. But the current team’s reserves are more versatile and relied on for their defense and rebounding.
The one constant in the Dubs’ reserve unit through this golden era of Warriors basketball – Shaun Livingston (For those scoring at home, we’re excluding Andre Iguodala since he has started the last nine games he has played in and has 27 starts in 91 postseason games since 2015). The owner of three championship rings with the Dubs, Livingston has picked up his play when the games have mattered the most. Over the last five games – starting with the Warriors’ series-clinching win in Houston in the second round – the Dubs’ reserve guard has made 12 of his 16 shot attempts.
While Livingston is the Warriors reserve with the most experience, the player most maximizing his minutes is Kevon Looney. The third-year Warriors forward started five playoff games during the Dubs’ 2018 NBA Championship run, and this season he has turned into an integral part of the team’s rotation. Excluding Iguodala, Looney leads Warriors reserves in scoring and rebounding this postseason, and most recently he had 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in the series-clinching win in Portland.
After shooting 59 percent from the floor in the regular season, Looney is at 72.5 percent in the postseason, displaying a soft touch around the rim and the ability to finish in traffic. That, along with his sound defense and tendency for timely rebounds, explains why he is fourth on the team in plus-minus rating (+6.7) this postseason, behind only Green (+9.3), Curry (+8.7) and Durant (+7.2).
“Looney has become one of our foundational pieces,” Kerr said on Monday. “He does this every single night. I think one thing that we've seen in almost every series, is as the game goes on and players get tired, Loon gets more and more rebounds. He just has a knack for the ball. Really long arms. Great feel for the game.”
And speaking of timely rebounding, Alfonzo McKinnie only had two rebounds in Game 4, and one of them resulted in a putback that put the Warriors ahead for good of their series-clinching victory.
Mostly every Warriors reserve had a signature play or sequence during the Dubs’ sweep of Portland. Quinn Cook had two key fourth quarter buckets during the Dubs’ 18-point comeback victory in Game 3. Jordan Bell parlayed a strong Game 6 performance in Houston into regular minutes against Portland, and a starting assignment in Game 4. Jerebko led Warriors reserves with nine points in Game 1 and impacted other games with his passing and defense. Andrew Bogut had a pair of second quarter dunks in Game 4, including one in which he drove from the 3-point line on a pick-and-roll.
Will the Warriors keep going 11, 12 and 13 players deep in the NBA Finals? Nothing is certain, and the possible returns of DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant would figure to decrease the amount of playing time for the squad’s reserves. But if the team’s most recent five games are any indicator, the Warriors reserves will be ready for whatever opportunities are thrown at them.
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