- Golden State's Game 3 victory showed how versatile the Warriors roster truly is. The team's skilled size may ultimately prove a dangerous factor in the Finals.
Golden State took the next step toward its inevitable Finals appearance Saturday, dispatching the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs 120–108 to take a 3–0 lead in the West finals. The Warriors (and the Cavaliers) have made the playoffs largely uninteresting due to their unrelenting dominance, and all that’s left to wonder is how the Dubs and Cavs will try to gain the upper hand in their third straight championship showdown.
Though Golden State’s obvious advantage in the threematch comes from adding Kevin Durant during the off-season, a new wrinkle in the Warriors’ identity this season has been the success of their “big” lineups. Last postseason, Steve Kerr’s most-used lineup was the vaunted Death Lineup, when Draymond Green lined up at center alongside Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. With Durant, the Warriors have gone small ever so slightly less frequently this year, and other lineups have often been more successful.
The Dubs’ usual starting five is its own force to be reckon with. Entering Saturday’s mostly effortless win over the Spurs, Golden State’s group of Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green and Zaza Pachulia was absolutely walloping opponents. Before the Game 3 win, that lineup had a net rating of 32.3 in the playoffs, the highest mark out of the team’s five most-used groups. Pachulia sat out Saturday’s win with an injury, but Javale McGee stepped up in his place, scoring 16 points in the first half.
When healthy, Pachulia is not the passer or rim protector Andrew Bogut was during his healthiest days as a Warrior, but Pachulia is still comfortable moving the ball on offense, generally annoying other centers in the paint, and switching onto smaller players on defense.
McGee has been a revelation for most of the season. He struggled in Game 1 against the Spurs and still has moments of ineffectiveness, but for the most part, McGee has been a legitimate difference maker off the bench. His rim running, eagerness to get out in transition and shot-blocking ability gives Golden State the kind of backup center it never had behind Bogut.
How will this translate to the Finals? The impact will still likely come in the margins, as the Warriors should be tempted to go small to keep up with Cleveland’s outside shooting. When Golden State and the Cavs downsize, the advantage will be in the Warriors’ favor, who can defend at a high level while still shooting lights out from behind the arc.
But the Dubs could also have success going big. McGee especially could pose a matchup problem for Tristan Thompson, as his athleticism and springiness is unlike most of the ground-bound or perimeter-oriented centers the Cavs have seen in the East. When McGee is in the game, switching pick-and-rolls won’t be as tenable, and Cleveland will also have to be more diligent about help defense lest they get burned by an alley oop. Cleveland also lacks a traditional backup center, which means the size and length of Pachulia and McGee could pose problems inside, particularly on the glass.
Golden State certainly could have used the ability to stay big and remain effective last postseason. The Death Lineup struggled down the stretch of the Finals, thanks in large part to a back injury to Iguodala. And Kerr’s decision to play Festus Ezeli in the fourth quarter of Game 7 potentially cost the Dubs that game, as Ezeli floundered on defense. This year, in the event of injury or anything else, the Warriors’ bigs have proven they can be relied on, though the Finals could present some more high-leverage situations.
If anything, the emergence of McGee and the stability of Pachulia shows just how difficult Golden State will be to beat this June. For all of LeBron James’s individual brilliance—and he’s warned us not to doubt him—the Warriors can not only counter with an absurd collection of talent, but also a confounding number of ways to deploy that talent. Fortunately, we’re only a few more rote conference final games from seeing how everything plays out.