OAKLAND — Alfonzo McKinnie hammered home a slam dunk with 8:47 to go on Monday night, giving the Golden State Warriors a 25-point lead in what would turn out to be a 117-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. As soon as he hit the floor, he leaned back and roared to the rafters.
McKinnie had scored 14 points — double digits for the second time in four games — and the crowd roared with him.
Five of McKinnie’s points came during one of Golden State’s patented third-quarter runs — its first of the season — and after a lackluster first half, the Warriors easily dispatched a potential playoff foe. Klay Thompson scored a game-high 27 and Kevin Durant was a hyper-efficient plus-25, but the talk after Golden State’s eighth straight victory centered around the former G Leaguer from Chicago.
“My phone’s been blowing up,” said McKinnie. “My phone, all my social media’s been blowing up. It’s been great. I’m just happy I’m in this situation.”
NBA pundit Stephen A. Smith tweeted afterwards: “What the hell is going on. I love BBAll. Competitive BBall. It’s bad enough that the @warriors are the @warriors . But now they’ve got this dude, ALFONSO McKINNEY. Remember this name. If this kid is what I think he is, it ain’t even fair. Just isn’t.#RichGetRicher”
McKinnie responded by correcting the spelling of his name, and said, “But you right
“I cannot believe the guy hasn’t been in the NBA for years now,” Thompson said. “He took a crazy path and he deserves everything because he works really hard. I’m proud of Zo. He’s a great player, and he is going to be a great addition for us all year.”
McKinnie wasn’t even the best player on his high school team, and was largely an afterthought as a junior transfer at Wisconsin-Green Bay. He was not even remotely considered a draft prospect as a senior, when he averaged just 8.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
After playing for a year in Luxembourg — where he was the main option for the first time, and averaged 24.6 points, 15.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.5 blocks — McKinnie played in Mexico and then represented the United States in FIBA 3-on-3. He paid for his own tryout for the newly-created Windy City Bulls of the G League before he caught on with Toronto last fall, playing in 14 games with the Raptors on a two-way contract.
McKinnie entered training camp this year with the Warriors on an Exhibition 10 contract, as one of several potential replacements for the holding-out Patrick McCaw.
Signed to a two-year guaranteed contract on the eve of the season, McKinnie is now averaging 13.3 minutes per game. His 14 points on Monday marked the third time in his last eight that he’s broken double digits.
“It’s still early in the season, and I know how you all get out of hand with the gas, but I think, I know Zo’s not reading too much into that, because it’s not really real,” Durant said. “He just tries to come out there and play extremely hard, stay within himself. He’s shooting the ball with confidence at the moment, and playing defense. I don’t think he’s going to step outside of himself, but we’re all excited for him. We want more for him. I know he wants more for himself.”
McKinnie is now averaging 22 points and 15.5 rebounds for every 48 minutes on the floor. Last week, he bought his mother a house while visiting his home town to play the Bulls. He went off for 19 points and 10 rebounds that night.
On Monday, against a Memphis team that slows down the pace of the game and clogs the lane with veteran big Marc Gasol — which caused trouble for Golden State’s bigs — the 6-foot-8 McKinnie found some space on the perimeter, hitting 2-of-3 from beyond the arc to bring his season total to 12-of-20, as part of a 6-of-9 night from the floor, with three rebounds and a plus-10 rating.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say ‘surprised,'” McKinnie said. “The three ball is something I’ve been working on all summer, and getting a lot of reps up, and it’s just showing now. I’m getting the reps before games, before practices and everything, and showing it in games. Now, the guys encourage me to shoot those shots.”
Early on Monday, shots weren’t going in for most of Golden State’s lineup. Outside of Klay Thompson’s 4-of-7 performance in the first quarter, the rest of the Warriors went 5-of-13. It was the worst first quarter Golden State had put together at home, in large part thanks to a 1-for-7 stanza from Stephen Curry.
Thompson hit a reeling three off a high cross-court pass from Durant to tie things at 58-58, and Curry came up with a chase-down block on Wayne Selden headed into the half, but the Warriors looked out-of-sorts on defense. McKinnie’s length and athleticism — combined with Kevon Looney finding his stroke and going 4-of-5 in the third quarter and scoring all nine of his points — helped spark a 34-15 period.
“The third quarter, we started getting more stops,” McKinnie said. “We started stopping them a little bit more, and we were able to convert on the other end, and I think that was what fueled everything. Defense leads to offense.”
The Grizzlies, averaging the fewest possessions per game in the NBA coming into Monday (99.4), are renowned for their stultifying half-court sets that can grind even the highest-tempo teams to a halt, and they did just that against the Warriors on Monday. Golden State —averaging 105.9 possessions per game — had 58 possessions in the first half, but seven of those ended in turnovers, which resulted in 13 Memphis points.
After allowing the Grizzlies to shoot 52.3 percent (23-of-44) in the first half, though, the Warriors would hold them to just 13-of-36 shooting in the second half, even without Draymond Green. who exited briefly in the second quarter with a right foot contusion, and then did not play the entire second half.
The third-quarter run for Golden State was somewhat of a trademark during last season’s championship run. The Warriors averaged a +5.1 point margin over teams in the third quarter. This season, though, they were on the other side of the equation, with opposing teams outscoring them by an average of 0.7 points in the third.
Thanks to the savvy play of Gasol, the Warriors’ young big men — Jordan Bell, Looney and Damian Jones — had a combined 10 fouls just two minutes into the second half. Jones had already been tagged with five, including two quick ones at the start of the third quarter against Gasol.
Looney, though, managed to find success driving the lane in the third quarter, going 3-of-4 over the first eight minutes of the second half, helping Golden State to a 76-69 lead. McKinnie then hit a 20-foot pull-up jumper, followed by a Curry three to extend the lead to 10. With 27.2 seconds left in the period, McKinnie banged home a running, pull-up 23-foot three-pointer to up the lead to 19.
“In the first half, I had a drive where I should have found Draymond in the corner, so Ron [Adams] told me, ‘You’ve got to keep your head up, find an open shooter when you’re driving, drive and kick,'” said Jonas Jerebko, who assisted on the bucket. “I saw Zo in the middle there, and I wasn’t going to make Ron disappointed.”
With Green on the bench, Thompson initiated much of the offense in the second half, and finished with a game-high 27 on 11-of-21 shooting, while Durant shot 7-of-11 from the floor for 22 points. Curry finished with 19. No Grizzlies player scored more than 18.
“Klay has gotten better and better with his ball handling and his passing, has done a better job this year on finding cutters this year,” Kerr said. “He’s just expanding. I think his game is growing.”
So, too, is McKinnie’s role, and the responsibility the Warriors are now placing on him.
“It’s unbelievable,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to jinx the man, but he makes his first shot every time he comes into the game. Since the preseason, since I’ve been seeing him play. He’s so efficient and fills up such a great role for us, as far as defensive versatility, his ability to rebound and his ability to knock down jumpers.”
His shooting range, his length and quickness — as well as size that can go up against legitimate bigs in the low post — are a much better fit for Kerr’s system than McCaw, a restricted free agent who turned down a one-year, $1.7 million qualifying offer, and then turned down a two-year deal for over $2 million.
“He’s a talent, man, he can play,” Jerebko said. “I’ve seen it from the start. I don’t know what other people have seen, but the kid can really play. The kid can play. He showed it in preseason, he showed it in camp, he’s showing it now.”
As McKinnie walked into the post-game press conference room, with ice wraps around his knees after playing a season-high 29 minutes, he smiled.
“I like being here,” he said.