OAKLAND — On the way back from a Game 7 win over Houston in the Western Conference Finals, Jordan Bell sat at a table on the Golden State Warriors’ plane. Around the table were Quinn Cook, JaVale McGee and Nick Young.
“Everybody just started talking like, ‘This is crazy. Are we really in the Finals?'” Bell said on Wednesday. “None of us have been besides JaVale.”
Bell saw his minutes wax and wane this season, with a pair of frustrating ankle injuries costing him 17 games and his place in the rotation. Now, the former second-round pick, who was inspired by the improbable We Believe Warriors as a child, is set to be an integral part of a Golden State team gunning for its third championship in four straight NBA Finals appearances against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It’s great to be part of history,” Bell said. “Your name is in the record book.”
Bell grew up playing football outside of Los Angeles, and as a youngster, favored the Warriors over the Los Angeles Lakers, mainly to spite his older brother.
“Me and him have a big rivalry,” Bell said. “So whatever team he liked, I liked the opposite.”
As he got older, though, he got hooked by the ‘We Believe’ Warriors of 2006-07.
“They played similar to the way we play now — very unselfish moving the ball, very tough,” Bell said. “They weren’t very good that year, but I was watching them and was like, This is a very unselfish team; I love it.”
The Warriors of today aren’t the improbable underdogs they were in Bell’s youth. They’re favored to win Game 1 of the NBA Finals by 12 points, and they’re a heavy favorite to win the series (a bet of $900 only wins you $100).
While offense may be the calling card of this iteration of the Warriors — Golden State’s playoff offensive efficiency rating is a league-best 110.0, and their regular-season rating was No. 3 at 112.3 — defense has been what’s led to the Warriors’ four straight appearances in the Finals. That was the talk of the table during the flight back to Oakland.
“We were just talking about the whole year — what it took to get here, all the stuff we went through,” Bell said. “The last game, we just really wanted to win. We didn’t care what we had to do. Swag (Nick Young) was talking about playing defense. He’s like, ‘Man, I’ve never played defense a day in my life, and I was trying to do whatever it took to win.’ I was saying the same thing.”
During the regular season, the Warriors were ninth in the NBA in defensive rating, but after holding the high-octane Rockets to under 100 points for four straight games, they own the best defensive rating in this postseason, at 99.7.
Bell is the owner of a 102.2 defensive rating during in 13 postseason games (averaging 9.2 minutes), among the top 50 players in the playoffs. It’s a shade better than his 103.0 rating during the regular season.
“What J.B. has in physical gifts and the ground that he can make up with his athleticism,” said reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, “it’s incredible.”
Bell, who made a Final Four run with Oregon in 2017, was picked 38th overall by the Warriors in the 2017 NBA Draft. Golden State didn’t have a pick before they jumped up and traded cash considerations to the Chicago Bulls. The Warriors have had some pretty good luck with second-round defenders. Green, himself, was picked 35th in 2012.
“I tell people all the time that I felt like I was the number one pick in the draft last year, just because of the situation I’m in,” Bell said. “Having a chance to win an NBA title my first year, to me, this is best situation I’ve ever been put in.”
While the 6-foot-9, 224-pounder’s length will help in switching onto LeBron James, his main responsibility will be stopping 6-foot-9, 238-pound Tristan Thompson from getting rebounds.
Thompson is one of only three current Cavaliers — including James, a concussed Kevin Love (who was finally cleared to play Thursday morning) and JR Smith — that have faced the Warriors in each of the three previous Finals.
He’s averaging just 2.4 field goals per game in the playoffs, but he’s second to James on the glass, averaging 6.1 rebounds, including 2.4 on the offensive boards.
Without Thompson, the shooting of Kyle Korver — 43.6 percent from three — is moot. Without Thompson banging down low, James would be sure to take more pounding.
“He’s really active on the boards,” Bell said of Thompson. “I think playing against him, you might have to worry about just boxing him out instead of getting the rebound. Make sure you let one of our guards or players come in and get it.”
Given the fact that the Warriors like to use defensive rebounds to get out into transition — where they can whip the ball around and get opposing defenses on their heels — boxing out Thompson and then being athletic enough to get down the court could allow Bell could to play a big role in igniting Golden State’s offense.
The Warriors have scored 367 points — and are shooting 54.7 percent from the field — when they get out in transition this postseason. They led the league in effective field goal percentage out of transition during the regular season (65.1 percent), were second in points in transition (1,911) and third in points per transition possession (1.15).
“Jordan, I thought, played exceptionally well in that Houston series,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “[He was] making some plays, setting some screens, creating some offense.”
The Warriors and the Cavaliers will become the first two teams to meet in four straight championships in the history of American professional sports Thursday at 6 p.m. While the starting lineups have yet to be announced, Bell is likely to get a lot of run.
“It’s great to be a part of history,” Bell said. “But I want to be on the other side of history — the part where we win … Like making it to the Final Four last year, nobody really cares. It’s about winning the whole thing.”
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