OAKLAND – With two chances to win one game in the NBA Finals and all summer to rest and rehab their injured and ailing bodies, it behooves Warriors coach Steve Kerr to make the move he typically avoids, with good reason.
It’s time to go small. To turn to the “Death Lineup,” which specializes his hyper-aggressive defense and transition offense, from the opening tip.
And that’s even if starting center Andrew Bogut, who sustained a sprained left knee in Game 4 on Monday night, were 100 percent.
With urgency increasing and the Warriors holding a 3-2 edge as they prepare for Game 6 Thursday at Cleveland, any alternative to the small lineup almost certainly will be less effective than, well, their most effective lineup of the past two seasons.
While Kerr surely is considering his options, he knows what works best. Festus Ezeli or Anderson Varejao would fill any size void left by Bogut, but neither can be expected to fill the production possibilities of Draymond Green at center.
After a league-mandated suspension forced Green to miss the Warriors’ 112-97 defeat in Game 5 on Monday, he will return for Game 6. He’ll be eager to make amends, even if he won’t second-guess his reaction to being flung to the floor and stepped over by Cavaliers star LeBron James in Game 4 in Cleveland.
Knowing his mentality, Green is determined to be the best player on the floor in Game 6.
And, frankly, there have been numerous games when Green undoubtedly was the Warriors’ best player. He arguably was in every Warriors victory in The Finals. Through five games, the Warriors are plus-53 when Green is at center, minus-44 when he is not.
“He’s their best defender,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “And I’ve said it all along that he is the best guy in the NBA as far as reading when to help, triple switches and kicking guys out of mismatches, knowing when to go and when not to go.
“He’s an underrated shot-blocker and he can guard one-through-five, so that can definitely help their defense.”
Defense is the foundation of the Death Lineup: Green at center, Harrison Barnes at power forward, Andre Iguodala at small forward, Klay Thompson at shooting guard and Steph Curry at point guard. The Warriors are at their quickest and most disruptive when this quintet is on the floor. It has become the most devastating lineup in the league.
Which is why Kerr occasionally is asked what keeps him from using this unit more than 15-20 minutes per game. It’s unsustainable, he says, because of the high-energy requirements. It asks far too much of those involved to expect it can be effective for 30-35 minutes per night.
The Death Lineup, Kerr has concluded, cannot sustain its full intensity for the majority of an NBA game.
Kerr is right. The Death Lineup works like NFL special teams. It’s designed to bring a blast of high-velocity action for a brief period. In the NFL, it’s for punt and kickoff plays. In the NBA, with the Warriors, it’s for select minutes generally at the end of specific quarters.
Here’s the other component Green brings, and it’s one that looms particularly large with Bogut out: Green is the director of the small lineup.
The Warriors, players and coaches, cited poor communication as a reason for some of the easy buckets the Cavaliers scored in Game 5. Kerr said there was a lack of “talking on our switches.” Curry described Green as “our center fielder in the back” on defense.
“They were playing in a rhythm all night,” guard Shaun Livingston said of the Cavs in Game 5. “We just weren’t communicating defensively. Obviously, there’s a void there with him being out. But we can still be better.”
The idea of inserting Green as the starting center is not new. Kerr did exactly that in the 2015 NBA Finals, except the insertion of Iguodala into the startling lineup for Bogut after Game 3 was more dissected because of the obvious, and ultimately successful, attempt to neutralize the offensive arsenal of LeBron James. Iguodala also averaged 20.3 points over those final three games.
Green’s play in those games was nearly as important. Kerr is fully aware of that, and his comments after Game 5 indicated that he is acutely aware of his options.
“We’re in the same place we were last year, up 3-2, headed back to Cleveland,” Kerr said. “If you told me this before the series, I would have taken it.
“So we’re in a good spot.”