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Even short-handed Warriors have strength in numbers

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, drives past Golden State Warriors' JaVale McGee (1) during the first half in Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Wednesday, April 19, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

If the Golden State Warriors were better off staying the course last summer, this is when they were supposed to show it. Bob Myers sacrificed quality depth in order to sign Kevin Durant. Golden State’s franchise-wide motto is “Strength In Numbers,” and conventional wisdom said that replacing Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Leandro Barbosa with Zaza Pachulia, David West and second-round pick Patrick McCaw meant abandoning that creed for star power the likes of which the league had never seen.

Talent wins, and the Warriors have more of it than any team in the NBA. But would Steve Kerr’s team be able to withstand a major loss come playoff time without the reinforcements that propelled it to a Larry O’Brien Trophy and 73 wins? The basketball world has an answer.

Yes.

Golden State, playing without the injured Durant, Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes, beat the Portland Trail Blazers 110-81 on Wednesday night to take a 2-0 lead in the teams’ first-round playoff series. But it wasn’t Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson who made up for their teammates’ absence. In fact, the first half made it hard to believe the Splash Brothers could ever live up to that moniker. Curry and Thompson combined for just 14 points on 19 shots before intermission, but the Warriors still held a 55-48 lead.

Why? Strength in numbers, of course.

Golden State’s commanding 16-point lead was cut to one on a 3-pointer by Evan Turner with 3:38 left in the second quarter. Oracle Arena was stunned and uneasy. Draymond Green was frustrated, while Curry and Thompson were nowhere to be found. Enter McCaw, who calmly stepped into a triple to stem the Portland tide and set the stage for more brilliance from the resurgent JaVale McGee:

McCaw and McGee held a personal 9-0 run after Portland came within a point, stretching their team’s lead back to double digits with hustle, athleticism and opportunistic scoring. Anyone watching for the first time would have been confused by the notion that the Warriors weren’t only missing three rotation players, but somehow had a deeper team just last season. To wit, McGee finished the first half with 13 points and three blocks on 6-of-6 shooting.

But the game wasn’t over until Golden State’s stars finally began playing like it. The Warriors outscored the Blazers 28-12 in the third quarter on the strength of — stop us if you’ve heard this before — suffocating team defense and the otherworldly shot-making of Curry and Thompson. By the time their nights were finished at quarter’s end, Curry and Thompson had added 20 points to their first-half point total. Ho-hum.

Terry Stotts waved the white flag shortly thereafter, bringing in seldom-used Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman alongside the forgotten Meyers Leonard two minutes into the final stanza.

This is exactly the thing that’s so scary about the Warriors. Immensely short-handed and at not even close to its best, this team just won a playoff game by 29 points. If Golden State’s realistic ceiling and floor are both basketball’s highest, just how much of a chance does the competition really have?

Of course, a very similar question was being asked this time last year. One big difference: the addition of Durant, and the sweeping benefits his presence provides to what was already the best core of players in the league. Only time will tell if the Warriors live up to expectations inevitably gleaned from dominant, yet subpar, performances like this one. Thankfully, though, it looks like Golden State won’t have to waste much more of it dealing with Portland.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • It was one of those nights for Lillard.
  • Things weren’t going much better for Curry — individually, that is — in the first half.
  • Better times.
  • Draymond Green, the best 6-foot-7 shot blocker in the NBA.
  • Speaking of shot blockers, this was a hell of a sequence from Thompson.
  • This was a harbinger of things to come in the third quarter.

WARRIORS NOTES

  • It’ll be interesting to see how Kerr uses McGee going forward, assuming Golden State advances to face the Los Angeles Clippers or Utah Jazz. Portland’s best lineup without Jusuf Nurkic features Al-Farouq Aminu at center, which allows the big man guarding him to hang back in the paint while Aminu awkwardly fires away from deep. It’s a perfect matchup for McGee, one that doesn’t tax his basketball mind while fully leveraging his supreme blend of size and athleticism. Los Angeles and Utah don’t employ similar units, and actually involve their centers in countless ball screens and dribble hand-offs. Just because McGee is dominating against the Blazers, basically, doesn’t mean he’ll continue doing so in the second round of the playoffs — or even play a meaningful role at all. Keep an eye on his minutes going forward.
  • Some young players would force the issue in McCaw’s situation, and others would sink under the pressure. The Warriors’ second-round gem, though, played a remarkably composed 34 minutes in the first playoff start of his young career. McCaw probably shouldn’t ever be more than a reliable contributor off the bench, but the fact he’s already there — or was on Wednesday night, at least — is a ringing endorsement of Golden State’s scouting department and player development program.
  • Green’s line after the first quarter: three points (1-of-1 shooting), six rebounds, six assists, one steal and one block. If basketball fans across the globe could get past the complaining, menacing and leg-flailing, they’d get the privilege of appreciating one of the most unique players this league has ever seen. Green is a basketball genius, and his unsurpassed two-way versatility unlocks so much of what makes Golden State great. Don’t let the histrionics distract from what really matters.
  • The Warriors, believe it or not, just aren’t the same defensively when Green and Durant are both on the bench. Andre Iguodala’s small-ball power forward impression was typically solid, but he just doesn’t have the length to protect the paint like Green and Durant do. Golden State can get by without one of them on the floor, but both? No way.

BLAZERS NOTES

  • Stotts, during the coach’s interview, summing up all the ways his team had been beaten in the first quarter: “There’s a lot goin’ on.” Indeed. Portland was down 33-17 and had more turnovers (eight) than made baskets (six)
  • The Blazers made a run behind that super-small lineup in the second quarter, cutting the Warriors’ lead to 43-42 before McCaw and McGee, of all people, took over. With Harkless starting on the wing, one wonders if Aminu’s playing destiny might be best realized as a new-age center. He’s strong enough to provide some resistance to burly low-block scorers, has the feet to keep up with most smalls on the perimeter and is just so long as to bother attackers at the rim when he gets some time to jump. Necessity is the mother of invention, the saying goes, and the absences of Nurkic and Ed Davis, plus the ineffectiveness of Vonleh and Meyers Leonard, just might be the driving force behind Aminu reaching his unforeseen potential.
  • Brent Barry reminded Marv Albert that Leonard wasn’t actually making his Game 2 debut early in the third quarter, but had briefly appeared in the first half before being yanked. Why? McGee, according to Barry, had “three alley-oops” during Leonard’s stint. Play-by-play data says only one of McGee’s multiple lob dunks occurred while Leonard was on the floor in the first half, but Barry’s point remains. When a guy like Pat Connaughton replaces you after 22 seconds of play, you’ve probably made a pretty egregious mistake.
  • What a difference a game makes. McCollum and Lillard shot 9-of-34 on Wednesday night after going 28-of-54 72 hours earlier. The Blazers’ strong second quarter made their supporting cast look much better than it is offensively, but Aminu, Harkless and Turner eventually regressed to their suboptimal means as creators and shot-makers. Needless to say, when both of its star guards are struggling to this extent, Portland has no chance to win.

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