It all happened in a flash Monday night. Somewhere late in the second quarter of Golden State’s Game 2 playoff matchup with Denver, the Warriors flipped an imaginary switch, caught fire and smelted the Nuggets.
There was a brilliant pass from Jordan Poole. Followed by a long-distance three. Then a steal and breakaway layup. Steph Curry started draining his own rainbows. And Klay Thompson was in the middle of the ballet, hitting shots and finishing at the rim.
Call them the Splash Brothers, the Three Amigos, the Golden Triangle or the Poole Party Poopers. Whatever you call ‘em, the Warriors have found something special in the three-guard lineup that combines two Hall of Famers with an emerging star. Take one part Klay, add one part Jordan, fold them into a bowl of Curry and wait for your mixture to explode.
That’s the recipe head coach Steve Kerr has stumbled into in this first-round playoff series against Denver, which now stands at two games to nil in favor of the San Franciscans.
But like all things Kerr, there’s not a lot of stumbling at play. Facing the league’s preeminent big man in Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Kerr and his staff chose to start Thompson and Poole in the first two games of the Western Conference series, while relying on a quicker, small lineup throughout, and the results have been spectacular. Poole scored 30 in Game 1 Saturday, leading Golden State to a 123-107 blowout. Thompson (19) and Curry (16) stepped aside to let their younger brother splash.
On Monday night, Poole again led the way, scoring 29 while dishing out eight assists and generally playing electrifying basketball. The Warriors trailed for most of the first half, largely unable to stop reigning league MVP Jokic from having his way down low.
But once the three-guard lineup caught fire, the game changed. Using speed and spacing, the Warriors found a way to get the best out of Kerr’s ball-movement offense. The Nuggets simply couldn’t keep up. Curry finished with 34 on 12-17 shooting from the field, including 5-10 from three. (Steph was a shocking +32 in just 23 minutes.) Thompson scored 21 of his own, helping to cushion the lead on the way to a 126-106 rout.
Of Poole, Kerr simply marveled. “Given that this is a playoff game. The importance of the game,” said Kerr. “For him to follow up (with) another game like this? Some of his flurries reminded me of his teammate that came off the bench. He was fantastic tonight.”
The young shooter is taking his newfound fame in stride, remaining soft-spoken in his interviews. Asked how it feels to be out there with Steph and lighting up the scoreboard, he simplified things. “I think it’s really hard for the defense. We’re both playmakers,” said Poole. “Just trying to put the defense in a lot of tough situations.”
The series now heads back to Denver for Game 3, where we’ll see how this circus plays on the road. A frustrated Jokic, who got tossed from Game 2, will surely have something to prove in front of his hometown crowd. We shall see.
So how’s this menage a trey work? Well, Curry is coming off the bench halfway through the first quarter for the time being, still playing limited minutes while recovering from a foot injury. Then the fun starts. When the three sharpshooters join forces, it’s clear their combined super powers are better than their individual skills. Draymond Green plays the five, with Andrew Wiggins at the four. The floor opens up and the pace accelerates. The ball flies around in a bevy of passing. Generally speaking, there’s less isolation and more jubilation. The Thrive Center Five? Um… no.
I’ll go with “Death Lineup II: Electric Boogaloo.”
Postgame, Kerr stressed the importance of Wiggins rebounding with this group, and he did Monday night, collecting eight boards. Coach also marveled at Green’s ability to dominate the game, without filling the stat sheet. “This guy is one of most unique, powerful and impactful players I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a passers paradise for me,” said Green. “You can’t ask for anything more on the offensive end. Any more options. I like it a lot.”
Curry, of course, has seen this movie. He’s starred in it. He appreciates the chess his coach is playing with the three-guard lineup.
“It’s just that feeling when everything starts to click and how fast we can play,” said Curry. “It’s just that emotion, that feeling, that momentum we were able to create got the crowd into it. You could tell it was affecting them on the other side. So that’s playoff basketball. If you can get a team to have to worry about so many different things, (it) makes the game a little easier.”
This, of course, is all very reminiscent of the special combination Kerr came up with during the NBA Finals in 2015, the team’s first championship run. The Warriors found themselves down to the Cavs, two games to one, and seemed to have lost their mojo. On the suggestion of 28-year-old special assistant Nick U’ren, Kerr went small. The original “Death Lineup” featured Curry, Thompson, Green, Harrison Barnes and inserted Andre Iguodala in place of center Andrew Bogut.
Low and behold, the gambit worked and Golden State won its first ring, outrunning the lumbering Cavs and opening up the court for improvised brilliance. Curry, Thompson and Green got a lot of the glory. Iguodala got the Finals MVP. But Kerr, and his plucky staff, had just begun to revolutionize the game. In the coming years, they continued to stretch the court, shot a ridiculous volume of threes, built a defensive powerhouse utilizing the coaching of Ron Adams on the bench and Green on the floor.
The Warriors dynasty remade the game in its own image, relegating giant centers to second-class citizenship in the NBA. (Even the brilliant Jokic can’t seem to bring his position back to relevance against Kerr’s schemes.)
It was a magical ride for all involved. But then we all wandered the desert for the past two seasons, waiting for Thompson, Curry and Green to finally be healthy together again. Little did we know it was a relatively lightly regarded draft pick from Michigan, Poole, who would bring the death back into this lineup.
But that’s what’s happening. Chase Center has felt live for its first-ever playoff contests. And the Warriors are delivering a deadly show, once more.
The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org.