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MINNEAPOLIS — The Golden State Warriors have the single most dynamic player in the NBA. By extension, they also must deal with the greatest void. The drop-off from Stephen Curry to the Warriors’ backups is so severe it could cause consistent problems. How could a team replace a player whose approach and skill are so singular? That no one else can do what Curry does makes him incredibly valuable and the minutes without him quite complicated.
Yet over the course of the season, Golden State has quietly worked against a years-long trend to boost its scoring efficiency in those minutes when Curry sits. Generally speaking, the Warriors’ reserves are asked only to hold court. The best lineups will do the heavy lifting of building leads and blowing out opponents, provided that the second unit—as well as hybrid lineups featuring multiple non-Curry starters—can come in and maintain.
Even that was a struggle early on. The opening months of the season saw the Warriors bleed points whenever Curry sat, making his rest something of a race against time. That mattered less when Golden State was routing opponents regularly in the season’s opening months, though something more was needed as the Warriors have allowed opponents to hang around in games more often.
The bench has delivered. Golden State had eked out 100.7 points per 100 possessions without Curry in the season’s opening months, per NBA.com, the equivalent of rolling out five-minute stretches of Lakers-like ineptitude. By the All-Star break, that scoring rate had increased modestly to 102.2 points. Since, the Curry-less Warriors are scoring 106.7 points per 100—and a notch or so better in the month of March. It’s reached the point where even a Warriors bench missing Andre Iguodala and Festus Ezeli could make a critical difference in a Monday night game against the upstart Wolves. The starters uncharacteristically struggled and in Curry’s 35 minutes on the floor, the Warriors merely broke even.
“We’ve got to give [the reserves] a lot of credit to them on a night where our starting five really didn’t get it done,” Draymond Green said. “But with the help of those guys, we were able to pull out a win. That’s what it’s about.”
That—coupled with Curry’s 6-of-17 shooting with five turnovers—might have spelled disaster at an earlier point in the season. Golden State averted that fate on Monday by hanging around throughout, weathering the Wolves’ runs and responding by closing the gap with Curry on the bench. The hallmark was a 8–0 run to close the third quarter, in which a lineup featuring Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights, Harrison Barnes, Leandro Barbosa, and Ian Clark wiped away the entirety of Minnesota’s lead within two minutes.
“The starting group just couldn’t lock in [and] focus and the next group came in and really energized us,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Shaun [Livingston] and [Brandon Rush] and [Marreese Speights] and [Leandro Barbosa], they all came in and gave us a big lift. I’ve said it many times: the strength of our team is the depth and our ability to play a lot of people and that came in handy tonight.”
Typically, the boon of the Warriors’ depth comes through the freedom to play Andrew Bogut sparingly in unfavorable matchups, bring Iguodala off the bench as a luxury reserve, or trot out Livingston as a defensive counter. This holistic value is a different sort of utility—one that may prove essential as Golden State fights against mental and physical fatigue down the stretch of a taxing regular season. The scope of the bench’s involvement will inevitability diminish in the playoffs, when Curry tends to log around 40 minutes or more in any competitive game. Depth, though, may well ensure that the record-seeking Warriors chase history while getting into their playoff run in something resembling top shape.
It’s all a bit random, but a leak-out from Barbosa, a post-up from Livingston, a quick-fire jumper from Speights (is there any other kind?), a timely cut by Rush, or an effort bucket from Anderson Varejao can go a long way when the baseline is set to mere sustenance. The Warriors’ reserves are in the business of buying time. Anything more is an appreciable surplus, not to mention a comfort to a team edging away at one of its few remaining weaknesses.