OAKLAND — With 1:11 left in the opening quarter on Thursday night, Steve Kerr saved Zaza Pachulia from himself.
The Golden State Warriors’ head coach hooked Pachulia and summoned David West, the third center of the first quarter.
The plodding Pachulia, thoroughly out of his depth in the fast-paced affair, would appear just once more — a five-minute burst near the close of the third quarter before he once again gave way to West, this time with 1:33 on the clock.
On a night when a sublime effort from Stephen Curry carried the Warriors to a 134-127 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Pachulia surrendered his starting spot to JaVale McGee and faced the reality that a drastically reduced role is in his future.
McGee was a candidate to be traded — if not released — not that long ago. Now he has re-established himself in the ever-shifting rotation of centers. After the win, Kerr confirmed that McGee will start again on Saturday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Curry praised McGee for staying locked in and seizing the moment, even as the trade rumors swirled.
McGee’s resurgence, at the expense of Pachulia, coincides with the absence of Jordan Bell. The rookie is now on the verge of returning from an ankle injury that has kept him sidelined since Jan 17. As Kerr hinted pregame, Bell will be returning to an increased role.
“He’s going to play,” Kerr declared. “I think he started the game he got hurt. I think he started 10 games. We need that kind of versatility. You see how the league has changed.”
Bell, who’s actually started 11 games, scrimmaged with the rest of the squad on Wednesday night and could be ready to go as soon as Saturday.
“You’ve got to have defensive versatility,” Kerr continued. “[You’ve] got to have guys who can guard multiple spots, protect the rim, get out and challenge 3-point shooters and everything in between. Jordan can do that. He’s got the athleticism and we want to get him more reps.”
Bell fits that mold. Pachulia does not. In an increasingly positionless NBA, Pachulia has turned into a dinosaur overnight.
Pachulia is still the same guy who held down the center spot for all of last year. And that might be the problem.
“I don’t think his game has changed one bit,’” Kerr said. “I think we’ve changed as a team around him. I don’t think we’ve been flying around defensively, like we have the last few years. I think overall defense activity overall, as a group, has really waned. It’s been pretty obvious the last six weeks but that doesn’t have anything to do with Zaza.”
That’s another reason why Bell and McGee are the ideal replacements for the Georgian veteran. Few Warriors spark energy in the rest of the lineup — and and excitement in the crowd — like Bell and McGee.
Bell, the ultra-athletic rookie, is always soaring around, ready to redirect a shot or throw down an acrobatic dunk. McGee, ever since arriving, has fashioned himself into a folklore hero at Oracle Arena. He catches lobs and forever runs the floor.
Against the Clippers, McGee scored six points, grabbed four rebounds and finished +9 in 14 minutes. The lineup switch helped, but McGee’s promotion was’t what determined the outcome.
“I don’t think that stuff is earth-shattering,” Ker said. “I really don’t. I don’t think those little tweaks are the difference between us performing at a championship level and playing where we’ve played the last month.”
Curry was the difference against the Clippers. The two-time MVP poured in 44 points, knocked down 14 of 19 field goals and eight of 11 long-range attempts. His final three triples came in the fourth quarter, thwarting the Clippers’ furious rally.
The first inkling that Curry would deliver one of those special nights came just before the first-quarter buzzer when he sank a 36-footer.
“I’ve shot a lot of them this year — just slinging them up — trying to get them off in time and see what happens,” Curry explained. “Obviously, I feel like every one I take has a chance to go in, but when it does happen it’s just a good vibe to end the quarter, end the half, whatever it is. You’re not really worried about shooting percentages or whatever. Just chuck it and see what happens.”
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