Bench Ballad: How Golden State’s Reserves Are Impacting the NBA Finals
NBA

Bench Ballad: How Golden State’s Reserves Are Impacting the NBA Finals

The Golden State Warriors’ 107-88, Game 2 rollicking on Sunday was built on the backs of their stars: Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.

With 29 points and five triples, Curry led the way offensively. Meanwhile, Green captained the defensive ship by showcasing his versatility, flustering Jaylen Brown into a 5-of-17 night and helping barricade the paint from all of the Boston Celtics. 

Perhaps the differentiator, though, beyond Green’s turnaround from Game 1 was the Warriors’ cast of role players asserting themselves. In Game 1, Boston’s ancillary characters like Derrick White (23 points, five 3s) and Payton Pritchard (eight points, six rebounds, two 3s) flourished. Al Horford (26 points, five 3s) and Marcus Smart (18 points, four 3s) also starred. 

In Game 2, non-stars such as Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II, Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. provided critical minutes. Porter has offered welcomed contributions across both contests, but the other three either hardly saw the floor in Thursday’s defeat or substantially elevated their play in Sunday’s victory.

(Also, kudos to Jordan Poole for his revival by way of 17 points, including five 3s, and three assists. This analysis is simply intended to focus on the more subtle contributions and Poole’s were joyfully, unabashedly sizzling.)

warriors bench performance

Head coach Steve Kerr arranged a couple significant rotation amendments for Sunday. The first was stretching his bench nine deep instead of eight by adding Bjelica to play minutes at the 4 and 5. The second was Payton replacing Andre Iguodala, who missed Game 2 because of knee inflammation. 

For the first time since Game 2 of the second round, Payton saw action and illuminated his value in this series behind seven points, three rebounds and three steals. Despite some rust defensively – over-helping, an erratic closeout, some off-ball inattentiveness – Payton clearly seems like a preferential option over Iguodala on both sides of the floor. 

He brings feisty point-of-attack chops and fills the same short-roll/cutting archetype as Iguodala, while also being more than just a passing threat in those scenarios. Payton shot 78.2% in the restricted area on 206 attempts during the regular season, compared to Andre Iguodala’s 73.5% on just 34 attempts. There’s a wide chasm in aggression between the two. 

During his Game 2 stints, Payton showcased his finishing, bolstered Golden State’s fast-break brigade, and executed rapid decisions in advantageous situations. Boston hardly guarded Iguodala in Game 2 and it bogged down the Warriors’ offense. 

Although Payton doesn’t command hoards of attention, he’s well-equipped to exploit openings in ways Iguodala is not and emphasized that discrepancy.

As he further reintegrates defensively, he should continue to craft a welcomed dynamic, especially if Golden State maintains ideal lineups around him. My favorite quintet involving Payton was Curry-Payton-Andrew Wiggins-Porter-Green. 

During their eight minutes together in Game 2, the Warriors were a plus-9. The proper mix of two-way talent seems to boil here. Another 8-10 minutes for this group in Game 3 could behoove them.

Joining Payton in Sunday’s bench ballad was Porter, who has shot the leather off the ball all year. During the regular season, he drilled 37.0% of his long balls, 56.5% of his 2s and surprisingly finished fifth on the Warriors with a plus-1.8 DRIP (our Daily-updating Rating of Individual Performance).

In the postseason, he’s at 40.5% and 62.1%. Through two Finals appearances, he’s hit 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. 

His scoring was constrained to one make (and attempt) in Game 2, but his floor-spacing aura stretched Boston’s defense and his off-ball rotations led to a trio of steals. As long as Golden State insulates him from having to navigate space on the perimeter defensively, his jumper and feel consistently combine for worthwhile minutes. That proved true Sunday.

On numerous instances, Jayson Tatum aimed to exploit Bjelica in space. And on numerous instances, the superstar wing was thwarted by his 34-year-old foe. Bjelica’s movement looked a little choppy, yet he kept the feet lively and applied his 6-foot-10 frame to physically perturb Tatum. 

Offensively, the threat of his jumper opened some driving lanes for ball handlers. He functioned perceptively around the rim, frequenting open space at suitable moments and scoring in the paint. As the playoffs progress, the magnitude of which players can still boost a team often shrinks.

Bjelica’s night won’t headline anything, but he gave a boost and that’s the crux.

The star of this group was unequivocally Looney. The man who persistently embraces the grunge work of rebounding, screening and sporadic, opportunistic scoring excelled Sunday. He notched 12 points (6-of-6 shooting), corralled seven boards, snagged three steals, picked up a couple assists and added one rejection. 

On switches, he did enough to funnel scorers toward help and influence plays. Off the ball, he ensured the Celtics’ offensive plans would not include prolonged success around the basket. 

Every great team rosters an unsung hero and Looney is that for this Warriors squad. Though unsung may be outdated, given the precedent he’s laid down for many years now. Or, maybe he just warrants even more laudits.

For the fourth time in seven games, Looney also registered double-digit points after doing so 14 times throughout 82 regular season outings.

He showcased impressive craft and patience as a finisher to capitalize on Boston’s defensive breakdowns.

Individually, Curry and Green were the preeminent stars of Game 2. Collectively, this quartet emerged as the third member of that classification. They all fostered distinct, valuable footprints, both by impeding Boston’s personnel and imposing their own styles on the hardwood.

It’ll always be challenging for the Celtics to win when Curry and Green play like they did Sunday. That undertaking swells in complexity when Payton, Porter, Bjelica and Looney all prosper – just as it did for Golden State when Tatum, Brown, Smart, Horford, White and Pritchard prospered in Game 1. 

The story of the Finals already seems extensive. But the reinforcements behind stardom is assuredly an essential component to the result of each game thus far and likely will stand as such the rest of the way. 

Reinforcements helped Boston pluck Game 1. Three days later, the series moved back to a stalemate, in part because the Warriors’ reinforcements won the battle in the background.


Research support provided by Josiah Sukumaran. Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.

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