What Warriors' bench performance in big games means for NBA playoffs

What Warriors' bench performance in big games means for NBA playoffs

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.

The Warriors bench does not deserve all the flak it has been getting lately. 

Following the Warriors' big win over the Houston Rockets in which the bench played a major role, I wanted to look back at the three impressive wins Golden State has had in the last two weeks, and see how the bench performed.

Let's begin on March 2nd, when the Warriors were scuffling on a east coast road trip. They had lost two in a row to mediocre Eastern Conference teams, and were heading to a tough environment against the Philadelphia 76ers. To make matters worse for the Dubs, Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney were not available (though Joel Embiid also did not play).

So how did the depth of the Warriors respond when thrust into a bigger role? Well, actually very admirably.

The bench combined to make 9-of-15 shots from the field, including 6-of-9 from deep. Damion Lee stepped up and had an impressive game, hitting 4-of-5 from 3-point range. Andre Iguodala did Iguodala things, finishing with four rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks. The bench stepped up when needed, and helped propel the Warriors to an important victory. 

The Warriors followed the Philadelphia victory with a rather uninspiring home loss to the Boston Celtics, raising question marks yet again of the focus and execution of the team. So on March 8th, it appeared as if the Dubs were in need of another statement game, this time against the Denver Nuggets, their rivals for the top seed in the Western Conference.

This time around, the Warriors had their full compliment of starters, so the bench played in their routine rotations. And again, in a big game full of intrigue, they answered the call. The bench hit 10-of-16 shots, led by Kevon Looney. He finished with nine points on a perfect 4-for-4 from the field, to go with seven rebounds. Iguodala, as expected, had another effective performance, finishing with seven points, two rebounds, two assists, three steals and a blocked shot. Like the Warriors starters, the bench played with great focus and energy, dominating Denverin a 17-point victory.

That brings us to Wednesday night in Houston. After another  uninspiring and embarrassing home loss, this time to the Phoenix Suns, the Warriors went to Houston in search of their identity. Like the game in Philadelphia, the Warriors were without one of their biggest stars, as Kevin Durant missed the game with an ankle injury.

The Rockets were also the hottest team in basketball, on the verge of making the Warriors look over their shoulder in the West standings. With all eyes on the Warriors' bench, the reserves rose to the occasion.

The bench made 9-of-17 shots, and played some high-energy defense. The effort attacking the glass on the offensive end led to seven of the Warriors' 12 offensive rebounds, with Looney securing five himself.

Quinn Cook, thrust into a role in the second unit that needed some floor spacing, had a particularly good game. Cook drained all three of his shots, and all in pretty big moments of the game. Alfonzo McKinnie hit a three, making a shot from deep for the third consecutive game for the first time since early November. 

[RELATED: Steph turns 31, reveals why 'I try to protect my joy']

To put it simply, when the final plus-minus totals were calculated after the game, the starters combined for a minus-8 and the bench was a plus-18.

Like the Warriors as a whole, the bench performs better under pressure and when high-level focus and execution is required of them. With the playoffs coming around the corner, that is great news for a Warriors team that needs to start living up to the mantra, "Strength in Numbers."

Warriors who could be dark-horse candidates for 2019-20 NBA awards

Warriors who could be dark-horse candidates for 2019-20 NBA awards

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.

Over the last couple seasons, as the Warriors became an historically great team, they began to lose the favor of NBA Awards voters who were looking for players and coaches that did not have the same incredible support around them. There also was a sense of voter fatigue, as voters perhaps became a bit bored casting ballots for a Warriors squad that had been so dominant for multiple years. 

But as the dynamic of the league has changed, and the Warriors are no longer prohibitive favorites to win the title after a massive roster overhaul, some of Golden State's household names are now being thrust back into the NBA Awards conversation for next season. Earlier this week, we examined the MVP, Defensive Player and Coach of the Year preseason NBA Awards watch lists. Now, let's take a look at some Warriors who -- if they elevated their games -- could become darkhorse candidates for NBA Awards this coming season: 

Most Improved Player: Kevon Looney

The stars are aligned for Looney to take a major leap in playing time and production this season, and with that could potentially come some awards attention. 

Looney has already played four seasons in the NBA, including some high-profile playoff runs, and yet will only be 23 years old to start the season. The Warriors prioritized bringing back Looney for the next couple years in order to see him grow into the player they think he is on the brink of becoming. Last season, Looney averaged 6.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in just under 19 minutes a game. 

With Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins no longer with the team, and Klay Thompson injured, there will be plenty of opportunities for Looney to shoot the ball. He only attempted four shots per game last season, and converted a fantastic 62.5 percent of them. If his playing time is raised to somewhere between 25-30 minutes per game, it's not difficult to envision Looney shooting 10-plus shots per game next season. If he is able to mix in some 3-point shooting into his arsenal and get to the line more often, the potential is there for Looney to become a 12 to 15-point scorer, while collecting eight to 10 rebounds on a nightly basis. 

If he is able to raise his game to that level, and couple it with his consistently strong defense, then you can assuredly assume his name will be in the conversation for the Most Improved Player in the NBA next season.

Sixth Man of the Year: Alec Burks 

Over the last five seasons, the Warriors have had a surefire Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Andre Iguodala. His exceptional all-around game and high basketball IQ were highly regarded around the league, but his modest scoring averages kept him from convincing voters to give him the award. This season, the Warriors will have a quintessential bench scorer in Alec Burks, and if he can approach the type of numbers he was putting up in Utah a few seasons ago, he may have an outside chance of entering the conversation. 

Burks has not had a season in which he has averaged more than 14 points per game, but if there ever was an opportunity to do so, it will be this coming year. The Warriors have a gaping hole at the wing position, and a void in scoring off the bench. If Burks can come in and fill the wing spot for about 25 minutes per game, he will have plenty of opportunities to attack on the offensive end. Staying healthy has been an issue for Burks throughout his career, but if he can put a full season together, the chances will be there for him to shine.

Rookie of the Year: Jordan Poole or Eric Paschall

This NBA award is a longshot for the Warriors' rookies, not because they lack the talent to be considered, but simply because they will not have the same opportunity as other top picks. 

[RELATED: What's Dubs rookie Poole's nickname? Fellow draftees guess]

The teams picking at the top of the draft typically are void of top-tier talent on their rosters, so their respective selections are in a better position to get more playing time and on-court responsibilities. Poole and Paschall are joining a team that still has Steph Curry, Draymond Green, D'Angelo Russell and, eventually, a returning Thompson. To be able to crack the rotation and play enough to be considered for hardware at the end of the season, Golden State's rookies will have to blossom early and impress right off the bat. 

Instead of competing for the Rookie of the Year award, Poole and Paschall could instead set their sights on another lofty goal: being selected to an All-Rookie team. Minutes at the wing position and backup guard spot are up for grabs, so if Poole or Paschall can play well enough to earn meaningful minutes, they will have the benefit of the Golden State spotlight to jump into the All-Rookie conversation.

Warriors star Steph Curry has fun playing pick-up basketball with kids

Warriors star Steph Curry has fun playing pick-up basketball with kids

They say in order to be the best, you must compete against the best.

If you go by that logic, the kids you're about to see may have a bright future -- they're competing against Steph Curry.

Recent footage surfaced of a few kids playing a pickup game with the Warriors star, and these kids could hang:

During the pick-up game, you can hear Steph chatting it up like it's an NBA game, saying "I got your help" and celebrating after a 3-pointer.

He didn't take it lightly on the young ones.

Curry, of course, showed off some of his masterful shooting, ball-handling and footwork during the scrimmage.

[RELATED: Curry cements himself as social justice leader]

Imagine being one of the kids who could add that to their résumés before even reaching high school.