As the Golden State Warriors have torn through the NBA over the past two seasons, they’ve become synonymous with two things: shooting – and making – a historic number of three-pointers, and for being wildly successful playing small.
The funny thing about the Warriors under coach Steve Kerr, though, is for all of the success Golden State has had playing small – specifically with Draymond Green at center – Kerr doesn’t seem fully willing to embrace it.
“We like to play a lot of people,” Kerr said last week. “All year we’ve played 10, 11 guys a night. So we don’t like to cut our rotation way down and play five guys 40 minutes. It’s just not really who we are.
“When we do go smaller, we generally do it in short bursts to change the pace up and change the look, and that can vary from game to game, from series to series. But, yeah, it’s not easy to play small for huge chunks of the game.”
But in the wake of Golden State losing 112-97 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals Monday night, Kerr almost certainly will be forced to play small as the series heads back to Cleveland. With starting center Andrew Bogut suffering what appeared to be a serious knee injury Monday night, his availability for the remainder of the series is in doubt. But judging by how the Warriors have climbed to their 3-2 series lead, being forced to go small could help Golden State clinch the title at Quicken Loans Arena Thursday night in Game 6.
Before Green was suspended from Game 5 for accumulating four flagrant fouls throughout these playoffs, the Warriors had dominated whenever he’d played center in this series. With Green at center during the first four games, Golden State had outscored Cleveland by 51 points and shot 56.5 percent from the field.
Even while LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were incinerating the nets inside Oakland’s Oracle Arena with their ridiculously hot shooting in Game 5, the Warriors still played some of their best minutes of the night defensively when Kerr used small forward Harrison Barnes at center.
Kerr made that move, at least in part, after Bogut’s injury in the third quarter. Bogut, who was scheduled to have an MRI Tuesday, remains one of the preeminent defensive centers in the NBA even as he moves into his mid-30s. With Bogut available, it’s likely Kerr would continue to start him. But with Bogut out and Green available – instead of watching the game from a luxury box suite next door at Oakland Coliseum with Warriors general manager Bob Myers and Oakland native and NFL star Marshawn Lynch – Kerr appears to have little choice but to start Green at center alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Barnes.
The “Death Lineup,” as it’s been nicknamed, is the quintet that turned around this series a year ago, with Kerr embracing it after the Warriors trailed the Cavaliers two games to one heading into Game 4 in Cleveland. Golden State promptly won the next three games to win the title, and over the past two years has often used it to turn the tide at critical junctures in games.
The success stems from the way it allows Golden State to exploit its opponents at both ends. Offensively it provides them with the ability to attack off the dribble or from three-point range with all five players on the court – something the Cavaliers can’t handle with Irving and Kevin Love, both poor defenders, on the floor. Defensively it allows Golden State to switch virtually any screen because of having four similarly long and rangy defenders in Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala and Green. Green’s ability to orchestrate defensive assignments on the fly helps as well.
Communication was something Kerr harped on multiple times during his postgame press conference following Game 5, as the Warriors repeatedly lost the Cavaliers in transition, yielding several easy baskets as a result.
“I mean, he’s usually pretty vocal,” Curry said of Green. “He’s our centerfielder in the back when he’s able to see the whole floor. Tonight it was obviously different rotations and we tried to adjust on the fly with the different matchups, but we just didn’t execute as well.
“Like [Kerr] said, there were a couple switches that we were very lazy on, and when guys get hot like that, if you don’t kind of shore up your defense, especially in pivotal moments where you have momentum and can get one or two stops away from either taking the lead or finishing quarters out strong or what have you, that’s when it comes back to bite you. So that’s what happened tonight.”
The Warriors will hope to see things happen differently in Game 6 Thursday night, where their best chance to come up big is by going small.