Two games into the NBA Finals, the Warriors find themselves in a fundamentally familiar situation — win their remaining home games and walk away champions.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot to process before tonight’s resumption of play…
The Beautiful Lie of Strength in Numbers
Steve Kerr is a known liar. A great basketball coach and a heck of a nice guy, sure, but a known liar — he has admitted as much.
On Sunday, when asked about the team’s slogan — Strength in Numbers — Stephen Curry said that it’s “not something you just throw out there to have nice shirts and give out to the crowd at Oracle and have all this marketing stuff … Coach always talks about it, that everybody’s going to have a chance to help us win a championship at some point, and just to stick with it and be patient.”
Except that “Strength in Numbers” is marketing. It’s not just for t-shirts and banners; it’s what Kerr sells to the grown men who make up those “Numbers” throughout the season.
There has been a widespread consensus that this year’s Warriors lack depth, and it’s largely a falsehood. Their depth has been tested with injuries to all-stars and they are running out of bodies at the moment, but they’re as deep as any of their previous Finals teams.
Golden State is criticized for the number of good non-superstars on the roster while totally ignoring the extra superstars. You may prefer Fred VanVleet to Quinn Cook or Norman Powell to Alfonzo McKinnie, but the Warriors have four or five all-stars to the Raptors’ one or two.
I would argue that McKinnie, Kevon Looney, Cook and Jonas Jerebko compare favorably to the original Strength in Numbers core of Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli and Brandon Rush. But even making that comparison ignores the unimaginable upgrades of Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut to Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins.
The Warriors’ title runs have never been about the strength of their numbers — their stars carry them. In the playoffs, that includes Andre Iguodala and sometimes even Shaun Livingston, the cagey vets who collaborated on the game-sealing 3-pointer Sunday night.
Perhaps Kerr’s greatest talent as a coach is his ability to sell Strength in Numbers to that deep bench crew, to keep them ready to provide the sort of critical assistance that Cook did in Game 2, or McKinnie has all year despite inconsistent playing time.
“I think that when you get to this stage… our DNA shows up,” Curry explained, but what he calls DNA could be called coaching. “It’s literally how we approach every day from training camp to June, how we support each other, how guys stay ready throughout the year, whether they play 30 minutes or miss 10 straight games out of the rotation.”
Maybe it’s not a lie if it truly works.
Boogie Hits The Big Time
DeMarcus Cousins returned for Game 1 of the Finals, and it wasn’t great — 0-for-2 from the field with nary a rebound in his eight minutes. Nearly every pundit saw a slow, rusty big man and dismissed him. Who could blame them?
I saw what Steve Kerr saw: “I thought DeMarcus did a really nice job, made some great passes, we could run some offense through him.”
It was a simple comment, easily dismissed as the coach — again, a liar — looking to encourage a guy who can count his career playoff games on one hand. Cousins was a step slow and he did seem rusty; but when he was on the floor, his passing ability gave the Warriors’ offense that “flow” that Kerr is always talking about.
He didn’t totally shake off the rust until Sunday’s second half, and he’s never going to be fast, but Cousins’ effect on the offense is undeniable — whether he’s scoring or running point on a fast break. He also secured several significant rebounds in the final minutes.
The 28 minutes he played seemed like a couple too many for a guy so far removed from consistent action, but he more than did his job. The question moving forward is just how much bigger that job will have to get.
Three Game 4 Scenarios
Kevon Looney is out for the remainder of the playoffs, which hurts — even if Cousins can stand up to 25+ minutes again, there are 10-12 more minutes to divvy up between a rather underwhelming collection of options.
Golden State’s other two injuries are still bigger, though. Whether Klay Thompson is available tonight at Oracle will play a big part in how the team can account for the absence of the surprisingly important Looney, and the very unsurprisingly important Kevin Durant.
If neither Thompson nor Durant play, it seems like too much to overcome. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are probably already being pushed to their limits and would have to take on more responsibility, particularly with regards to Kawhi Leonard. Auxiliary offense would have to come in bunches from Jerebko, McKinnie and Cook. Getting all the step-up performances they would need at once is tough against a team of Toronto’s caliber.
Without KD there to defend some bigger players at the four — in this case Pascal Siakam or Kawhi Leonard — the task on defense becomes much harder, and without his hit-from-anywhere offense, the pressure would be greater on Thompson and Curry, and likely Cousins, as well.
If Thompson can play, the formula for a win gets a lot clearer. In short, it looks like Game 2 but with 8-10 more minutes of Klay and hopefully a much better game from Steph Curry. Jordan Bell will likely have to pick up some of Looney’s minutes and the Warriors will need to resort to a less mobile big (either Cousins or Bogut) a somewhat alarming amount of the time, but you expect role players to be better at home and everyone should have faith in the Curry/Thompson/Draymond Green trio by now.
I believe Klay will play, for no other reason than that I have become accustomed to him playing through almost any injury, particularly in the playoffs. A questionable Klay Thompson is a playable Klay Thompson, in our collective experience.
If that truth holds, the Warriors should hold serve and will hopefully be near full strength by the end of the week. Either way, the possible Game 4 return of Kevin Durant is likely to be the greatest mid-series adjustment in Finals history.
It’s that old familiar spot — do what they do, and we can throw a nice goodbye party at Lake Merritt.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 3p-7p every weekday afternoon with Damon Bruce and Ray Ratto. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.