As the Warriors look to sustain their recent string of good play through their final 14 games of the season, there is one question that will constantly be asked: who is going to step up other than Steph Curry?
Yes, Curry is on what is arguable the hottest stretch of his career, averaging 40.8 points on 54.9 percent shooting, including 50.3 percent from three, over the last 10 games. And yes, he is the reason the Warriors have won six of their last eight games. But, if the Warriors want to continue this level of success into the play-in games, and possibly a playoff series, they will need production from others, particularly the bench.
Recently, the bench has done just that -- produced.
In the Warriors' last four games, the second unit has either extended a lead they inherited from the starters in their first stretch or worked their way back into the game before the starters check back in.
In their 107-96 win over the 76ers on Monday, the Warriors trailed 16-6 when Damion Lee and Kelly Oubre entered the game with six minutes to go in the first quarter. The score was tied at 24 when Steph Curry and Draymond Green were both on the bench to begin the second quarter, and by the time Curry returned, the Warriors had built a six-point lead.
The production by the rotation players is a 180-degree turn from what was happening just a few weeks ago. Then, Golden State was lucky if the team could stay in the game during the Steph-less and Draymond-less minutes.
"We're starting to build our identity," Kevon Looney said after Monday's win. Looney has been playing in the starting lineup since James Wiseman's season ended because of a meniscus tear, but as one of just two bigs currently available for the Warriors, Looney has still be playing large chunks of time with the second unit.
"We know who's going to get the shots, we know what style of play we want to play in. We've been communicating really good on both ends, so we're starting to get a feel for each other more in that second unit. We've been able to do our job. I feel like when Draymond and Steph are off the court, we just want to keep the game close or try to extend the lead if we can. We've been doing a good job of that the last couple of games."
Looney's point of getting a feel for the other players in the second unit can't be understated. Throughout the season, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has tried out numerous bench lineups searching for something that works together. It was all about finding the right combinations, he said over and over and over again. Yet, nothing felt like it was the right one.
Recently, they've found something.
Jordan Poole has been a revelation for Golden State, averaging 10 points in his 11 games since being called up from the Santa Cruz Warriors in March. He's proven to be someone who can hit down big-time shots while also creating for others if he needs to and thriving in the pick-and-roll with either Wiseman or Looney. Juan Toscano-Anderson had been another standout before being sidelined in the NBA's concussion protocols. And Damion Lee continues to be a reliable scoring option.
Retaining those players needs to be a priority for the Warriors during the offseason. They are the core of the bench unit now, and should be again next year.
From there, the Warriors start to fill in the gaps that those three players don't fulfill. Poole, Toscano-Anderson and Lee are all relatively young and inexperienced, so they need to find consistent veteran presence to anchor that group.
Looney has been in and out of the starting lineup, and when he comes off the bench, he gives Golden State exactly what they need in the backup center spot.
He's a smart defensive player -- he grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds against Philadelphia -- who can add in a few buckets here and there, and most importantly, he's proven that he can stay healthy.
"This is a guy who has helped us win playoff games and finals games," Kerr said Monday night. "So we knew what we had in Loon, we just didn't know if he could stay healthy. Last year was a really tough year for him. So it's so great immense all these crazy injuries we've had over the last few years to see Kevon healthy and playing the way he is. It's awesome."
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The Warriors' game against the Sixers also saw the return of Kelly Oubre Jr., who missed the previous five with a right wrist sprain. He came off the bench as Kent Bazemore retained the starting shooting guard spot, and this gave a glimpse into what the sixth man could look like for the Warriors next season.
When Klay Thompson returns -- whether that's at the start of next season or a few months in -- he will get his starting job back. That means if Oubre is still in Golden State, he would be relegated to the bench. Oubre has said he's a starter in this league. However, if he accepted the sixth man position with the Warriors, it would give them a big boost.
"It's not easy for any player to go from starting to the bench," Kerr said. "He told me, obviously, whatever we need to do to win. His attitude has been great. I'm going to try and help him through the process of coming off the bench and we'll do everything we can to make him as comfortable as possible.
"We need him to perform at a high level ... if we can maintain the same energy we've had at the start of games with that starting lineup and then bring Kelly in to be a force off the bench, I think it could make a big impact for us."
The Warriors' bench has made immense strides over the last week, proving that they can survive the Steph-less minutes. It's clear they have the right foundational pieces and in due time, they should be able to do more than just survive.