Steve Kerr knows Warriors bench, and when to unleash it

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Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors reacts to a play during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on Friday in Oakland, California. AFP PHOTO

Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors reacts to a play during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on Friday in Oakland, California. AFP PHOTO

OKLAHOMA CITY: No doubt about it, Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry were watching the same game Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Asked about the emotions of the Warriors’ 120-111 win against the Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Kerr circled around to his bench.

“We got a lot of good contributions from — you look at Mo (Speights), and LB (Leandro Barbosa) came in and had a couple steals right away. Andre (Iguodala), eight assists and one turnover in 34 minutes. He kind of settles us down. Shaun Livingston hit some big shots in the second half. So really it’s fun to see the bench play well.”

About 25 minutes later, Curry took his turn at the podium. The two-time NBA most valuable player fielded a more direct question about the Warriors’ second-teamers, and his answer nearly echoed Kerr’s.

“They were huge,” Curry said. “Mo came in and gave us a huge boost on some offensive rebounds and put-backs. Dre (Iguodala) playing great defense on KD (Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant) and knocking down some threes, especially at the beginning of the fourth quarter. LB came in and got two steals right away and made an impact on the game. Shaun hit some timely buckets, especially in the fourth quarter.


“Like I said, we have a deep team and when we’re all clicking and having an impact on the game, we’re obviously much better.”

If the coach and the point guard sounded rehearsed, it’s true that they’ve had plenty of practice praising Golden State’s bench. Game 5 reminded everyone of a local truism about Kerr’s two seasons in Oakland: While Curry, power forward Draymond Green and shooting guard Klay Thompson are the stars in the Warriors’ heavens, the reserves have been nearly as crucial to the team’s success.

And if the Warriors hope to break through Saturday in Oklahoma City, where they were whipped so soundly in Games 3 and 4 — that is, if they hope to stay alive in this postseason and bring the West finals home for a climactic Game 7 — those bench players will have to come through one more time.

To be fair, Golden State’s bench wasn’t terrible, even in the blowout losses at OKC.

Everyone might have been talking about Ian Clark’s inspired performance in Game 3 (eight points, four rebounds, crisp passing over nearly 20 minutes) had the otherwise-insipid Warriors not trailed by 37 points after three quarters. And backup center Festus Ezeli was solid in Game 4, with eight points in 10½ minutes.

Kerr routinely rotates nine or 10 players, even in big games. Thunder coach Billy Donovan frequently has gone with eight in the playoffs.

“Look at Billy, he’s not playing his bench much at all right now,” Kerr said Friday after the Warriors had landed here. “The regular season he was playing those guys a lot more. It’s kind of the way it is in the playoffs. For us, though, we have to play a lot of people because that’s kind of who we are. We’re playing our bench. We’re playing multiple players and trying to get a lot of energy off the bench.”

Unfortunately for the Warriors, the marquee players have been the problem. Curry and Green struggled terribly in Games 3 and 4. They were much better in the Game 5 win. And yet with the relentless Thunder mounting challenge after challenge, even that one would have been in peril were it not for the strong play of the Golden State backups.

Consider the start of the fourth quarter. With the Warriors up 81-77, Kerr sent just one of his starters, small forward Harrison Barnes, onto the court. With him were Iguodala, Livingston, Speights and Barbosa. It was an unconventional lineup, especially with Durant on the floor for Oklahoma City.

But Livingston hit a 16-foot pull-up jumper. Barnes stole a bad pass from the Thunder’s Dion Waiters, and Iguodala hit a 3-pointer at the other end. Donovan called a quick timeout and inserted another of his starters, forward Serge Ibaka, but Barnes scored the next basket, a 3-pointer.

Even the taciturn Durant had to admit afterward that the 8-0 run was a turning point.

“Yeah, it was,” the spidery forward said. “They made shots. They made those two threes that were huge for them and kind of stretched their lead. Yeah, that was tough. Their bench came in and made shots.”

Nobody got higher reviews that night than Speights, the 6-10 forward/center who played for Donovan at the University of Florida. Speights had a weird year for the Warriors, regressing from his previous play and sometimes seeming out of the loop.

He was back on Thursday. The eighth-year veteran finished Game 5 with 14 points in 8½ minutes and worked hard on the defensive end, too.

“Mo is instant offense for us,” Kerr said. “He gives us a totally different look. We don’t have shooting from our 5 men (centers). So he allows us to spread the floor and change the pace a little bit, change the look. … He was tremendous tonight. He was aggressive, looked for his shot. I thought he also did a good job defensively getting out on screen-and-rolls.”

As were Iguodala and the rest of the backups. They’ll probably have to be even better Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena, which promises to be on the verge of eruption with the Thunder just one win away from eliminating the Warriors.

The Golden State bench knows its role. And its responsibilities, which are significant.

“We’re not going to have as much firepower as the first group, so we can’t rely on guys making some unbelievable individual plays. We’ve got to rely on each other,” Iguodala said. “That ball has to be moving.”

And so do Kerr’s chess pieces.

TNS

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