OAKLAND — After watching superstar forward Kevin Durant limp into the locker room late in the third quarter of Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr called for help from his bench.
“We’ve got to try to mix and match the lineups and try to find some minutes and contributions where we haven’t had them so far.” Kerr said. “Guys will get some opportunities, who haven’t had an opportunity yet.”
With both DeMarcus Cousins and Durant laid up with injury, the Warriors clinched in six games over the Houston Rockets, in large part thanks to their bench. In Golden State’s 116-94 win over the Portland Trailblazers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday night, the Warriors again saw significant contributions from a trio of bench bigs: Kevon Looney, Jonas Jerebko and Jordan Bell.
“They were great,” Kerr said. “Looney has been great throughout the playoffs, every round. Jonas and Jordan have played sporadically in the first two rounds. Both guys came in and gave us a big lift today.”
In Looney’s case, his contributions have been required all season as they Warriors were forced to play through injuries at the center position.
As center DeMarcus Cousins rehabilitated a torn achilles tendon early this season, young Damian Jones — in the midst of having a breakout year — went down with a torn pectoral muscle, thrusting Looney back into the starting lineup for a portion of season.
After Cousins’ return in January, Looney was relegated back to the bench. After Cousins went down in Game 2 against the Clippers with a torn right quadriceps, Looney again saw more minutes.
Against the Clippers in the first round and the Rockets in the second, Looney has averaged 18 minutes off of the bench for the Warriors. In Game 1 against Portland, he played a playoff-high 24 minutes and 20 seconds.
Scoring six points on 3-of-5 shooting from the floor, Looney, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, recorded three steals, two rebounds — both offensive — and dished out an assist. He even led a fastbreak with Warriors point guard Stephen Curry.
“He’s sneaky athletic in terms of the open floor and his speed,” Curry said. “He’s versatile, too. He can do a lot of different things. He can sacrifice his body on screens and block shots, rebound the ball extremely well. And then then the pace picks up, he can keep up.”
Just a few seats down on the bench from Looney, Jerebko was ready to provide an even bigger lift for the Warriors in the second quarter.
Coming off of a Game 6 in Houston where he played a playoff-high 12 minutes, Jerebko entered in the second quarter and scored a bench-high nine points Tuesday night, which included an Oracle-igniting 3-pointer.
“Jonas [Jerebko] came in, knocked down a couple of shots,” Kerr said. “He just came in and executed and defended.”
Jerebko, unlike Looney, has at times this season fallen out out of Kerr’s rotation. In Golden State’s 12 postseason games, he’d been a healthy scratch.
“I’m ready when my number is called,” Jerebko said. “I’m on the team for a reason and these are the games that you want to play in the postseason.”
Jerebko’s night was punctuated by a needle-threading pass from forward Andre Iguodala, who hit the Swedish forward on the break. Finishing with a deft touch at the rim, Jerebko gave the Warriors a seven-point lead midway through the second quarter. Jerebko finished the night as a plus-12 to pace the bench.
Another player who hasn’t seen much playing time as of late, albeit for an entirely different reason, was Bell, who was seemingly erased from the rotation thanks to a turbulent sophomore season.
Following an on-court shouting match with Kerr against the Lakers in late-January as well as a team-issued suspension due to a hotel prank on assistant coach Mike Brown, Bell saw his minutes plummet.
After an inspiring Game 6 off the bench, Bell saw nearly 11 minutes Tuesday night. He scored three points, adding four rebounds and three assists, posting a plus-7 for the night to combine with Jerebko and Looney as a plus-20 for the eventing.
“True professional. He’s a young guy and you usually don’t expect that from young guys,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “I have not one time seen him sulking, one time complaining. He’s stayed upbeat and he’s stayed in the gym working on his game.”
With the right attitude, combined with his production on the floor, Bell may have just earned himself a bigger role — at least in this series — as the Warriors will look to win their fifth-consecutive Western Conference Finals.
The one thing that is certain, however, is that this bench production will needed in the immediate games to come.
“It’s a series where we can [use more guys],” Kerr said. “This is a strategy where we can use
more bench players if we can. We’ll see how it goes.”