Warriors

How Warriors' small-ball lineup found success vs. Nuggets

Warriors
Draymond Green, Nikola Jokic

On paper, the Warriors seemed entirely outmatched Monday against the Denver Nuggets.

One of the best centers in the NBA entered Chase Center, and the Warriors had just one true center available. James Wiseman was out with a meniscus tear, and Eric Paschall, a forward by trade, still is working his way back from a left hip flexor strain. 

Kevon Looney is a good center, but he's no Nikola Jokic. The Warriors have been successful playing small, but with JaVale McGee coming off Denver's bench, would it work?

Clearly what's on paper doesn't tell the full story. The Warriors all but cruised to a 116-107 win on Monday

Of course, 53 points from Steph Curry does wonders when searching for a win, but outside of the Curry-mania -- which saw Curry become the franchise's all-time leading scorer -- the play from Looney, as well as Draymond Green and Juan Toscano-Anderson, was key. 

They showed how this team can not only function without many centers, but thrive.

"There are a lot of great centers in the league right now, a lot of dominant centers, and we aren't going to be able to beat them at their game," Looney said. "So when we got guys as dynamic as Steph, teams have to play our style of basketball. We kind of try to impose our will, and hopefully, it pans out."

 

Ahead of the game, Steve Kerr seemingly joked that the key to slowing down Jokic wasn't actually about slowing down, but instead speeding up the game. As Looney alluded to, that's the Warriors' style.

A big part of speeding up the game was having Green and Toscano-Anderson as small-ball centers. Both played with quickness and aggression that made it difficult for the Nuggets' bigs to do anything spectacular, and also got under the skin of other Nuggets. 

Toscano-Anderson didn't stuff the stat sheet, but as we've established, not everything that shows up on paper paints an accurate picture. 

Green, on the other hand, scored a season-high 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-3 from three, to go along with seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals. 

"It's huge when he is aggressive like he was," Kerr said. "Draymond is such a smart player. He knows when to shoot, when to pass, when to make the move. And I just felt like tonight, he let the game happen and he just played. He didn't think. When he's aggressive like that, even when the shots don't go in, I think it's important to be aggressive and to shoot. Tonight they went in. 

"But even bigger than that, I thought his defensive intensity in the second half was huge. He and Loon, I thought in many ways, controlled the game in the second half with their defense and rebounding and that backline strength they gave us."

In the second half, the Warriors held the Nuggets to just 46 points on 35.6 percent shooting. That was a big improvement from the 61 points on 60.5 percent shooting the Warriors allowed in the first half. 

"We were in the fight in the second half," Kerr said. "[We] got into the ball, cracked back for rebounds, everybody was participating. It was a really good defensive second half."

Looney was responsible for 10 rebounds, which he got in a career-high 31 minutes. While what he produced is exactly what the Warriors need from him during this final stretch of the season, he won't get as much time to do it.

"I don't anticipate playing him that many minutes," Kerr said. "I think Loon is probably more like a 25-minute guy, but tonight required that because of Nikola and what he brings. We had to have all those minutes for Loon."

As Kerr said, when the Warriors aren't playing one of the best centers in the league, having the size that Looney provides isn't necessary. However, it is encouraging that he can do it. And, it's encouraging that the Warriors know they can succeed without it. 

"When you have someone like Draymond anchoring your defense, no matter who's on the court, our lineups tend to work," Looney said. "We got [Andrew Wiggins], [Kelly Oubre Jr.] was missing tonight, but they're great on the wings, creating rebounding wings, great at defending and disrupting the offense. We have always been able to rebound with those wings. And then we got Steph putting so much pressure on the other center, usually, teams have to adjust to us."

 
RELATED: Steph yells 'You can't guard me!' at Nuggets after 3-pointer

During the stretch of games in February in which the Warriors had no true centers available, the Warriors performed admirably. But the difference between now and then is that back then Golden State knew its time without many available centers was finite. Right now, it's not so clear. 

There is no timetable for Wiseman's return, Looney isn't a player Kerr likes to play for long stretches and Paschall's role hasn't been clearly defined. Green and Toscano-Anderson fill in nicely, but as the Warriors eye the play-in tournament and playoffs, retooling at the center position should be a priority. 

For now, though, it's a good sign that the Warriors could be an MVP-caliber center with their small-ball lineup.

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