OAKLAND, Calif.—It’s hard to lose track of a 7’0”, 260-pound Aussie, but that’s what happens to Andrew Bogut sometimes. The Golden State center often seems like a luxury for the Warriors, a sturdy option for those occasions when they need to switch from their race-car style to four-wheel drive. Bogut isn’t always essential, as his cameo appearance in the Warriors’ Game 1 win over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday showed, but Game 2 on Thursday night was a reminder than when they do need him, they desperately need him.
To recognize that fact, you had to look beyond the final frantic minutes of the Warriors’ 99–98 win, beyond another thrilling down-the-stretch-they-come duel between the two first-team All-NBA guards—the Warriors’ Stephen Curry (33 points) and Rockets' James Harden (38). It was the defensive stop by Curry and Klay Thompson against Harden at the buzzer that sealed the Warriors’ win and gave them a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, but without Bogut’s contributions early and late, Golden State wouldn’t have been in position to hold on at the end.
Bogut’s 14 points, four rebounds, and five blocks helped neutralize Rockets center Dwight Howard, who played valiantly himself with 19 points and 17 rebounds despite a brace on his sprained knee. Howard might have done even more damage without Bogut’s presence, and Golden State also benefited from his all-around energy, taking charges, changing shots and stripping the ball away to stop would-be layups. “I thought Bogut was terrific,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He scored for us and attacked the rim offensively, but it was his rim protection that was really critical for us tonight.”
It was a defensive performance worthy of a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive second team, an honor that was bestowed upon Bogut on Wednesday. Being voted to the team activated a clause in his contract that gave him a bonus of slightly more than $1.9 million (15% of his salary) which he said will likely go toward the purchase of “some nice muscle cars.”
That’s only fitting, since Bogut provided the Warriors with some nice muscle in Game 2, a total reversal from his effort in Game 1, when he played only 16 minutes, missed all three of his shots, and didn’t score a point. “I was horrible,” he said after practice the next day. Flu-like symptoms that required him to take IV fluids on Wednesday may have been part of the reason for that, but it wasn’t so much that Bogut was horrible as that he seemed out of place, especially after Howard was sidelined with the knee injury. Game 1 turned into a small-ball, spread-the-floor affair, a game that literally passed him by. It’s well-known by now that Golden State thrives with its small lineup, which features 6’7” Draymond Green at center and Bogut on the bench. “A lot of people talk about how we like to go small,” Green said. “It’s fun, and it’s great that we’re able to go to it when we need to, but we can’t do that full-time. Make no mistake—we need what Boges gives us.”
Bogut was active from the outset, as if he planned to atone for Game 1 all in the first quarter. He made all three of his shots and blocked two of Houston’s in the period. Then in the fourth, he was on the floor down the stretch, which often isn’t the case. He made a critical block on a Harden drive in the fourth, and added an even more important bucket off a Curry drive-and-dish that gave Golden State a 96–89 lead with 2:25 left. It seemed like that might be enough to put the Rockets away for good, but it really just set up the wildly entertaining final sequence between Curry and Harden. “Sometimes I want to crack open a beer and get a courtside seat,” Bogut said of watching the All-Stars go back and forth, topping each other.
But Curry was happier to watch the rejuvenated Bogut. “He was huge,” Curry said with Bogut sitting beside him at the postgame press conference, a decidedly larger podium partner than Curry’s two-year-old daughter Riley, who stole the show after Game 1. “He's giving us what he's got, and that's what Boges does. Putting his body on the line, going against Dwight for however many minutes, bailing us out in certain drives to the basket, and cleaning up the glass. He was finishing on the offensive end, as well. Huge impact on the game on both ends of the floor. We can’t wait to see a healthy Boges in a couple of days.”
Despite the 2-0 lead, it’s clear that the Warriors will need more of Bogut at his best as the series moves to Houston for Game 3 on Saturday. Howard, whose status was in doubt until game time on Thursday, doesn’t appear to be significantly limited by his knee injury. “Dwight played great,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “You would never know that he is (injured). He came out and gave us everything he had. We are looking for that same effort in Game 3.”
That may have been a veiled message to the enigmatic Howard, whose level of engagement is sometimes, shall we say, unpredictable. But his confidence in his knee seemed to grow as the game progressed. “I didn’t think about it at all,” he said. “We’ll see how it feels tomorrow.” And he’s likely to be a handful for the Warriors in Houston. Green and backup center Festus Ezeli can try to make things difficult for Howard for shorter stretches, but the bulk of that work will probably fall to Bogut. With all of Golden State’s flashier players, you may not always notice his presence, but in this series, the Warriors can’t afford his absence.