Golden bench: When quantity meets quality for the defending champs

NBA

PORTLAND — Alfonzo McKinnie wears the satisfied smile of a man who appreciates that his basketball journey has led him to this moment. After bouncing all over the world in hopes of finally landing a consistent place in the NBA, McKinnie has made the most of his opportunity this season with the Golden State Warriors, but especially over the past few weeks of the postseason.

“Man, it’s a great feeling, I know that,” McKinnie said recently. “Just being able to be in this position and playing on this stage. It’s damn near something like I always dreamed about. For me to be here and be able to get on the court and play — it’s an amazing feeling for me. I know all my family and friends they’re just as excited about this whole thing.”

McKinnie’s rise to postseason prominence — he racked up a plus-24 in Saturday’s Game 3 win over the Portland Trail Blazers — is just the latest example of a bench group that has found its stride at the best possible time. With Kevin Durant (strained calf) out since Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, McKinnie, Jonas Jerebko, Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook (as well as Kevon Looney in an increased role) have all taken turns making big plays in different games, giving Steve Kerr and his staff a huge lift in the process.

Kerr has repeatedly praised his reserves for being able to stay ready throughout the long grind of an 82-game season, a message he reinforced with the group as the playoffs began.

“The best thing is that when I say it, they know I mean it because I was them 20 years ago,” Kerr said of his bench players. “I had plenty of playoff runs where I didn’t play for five or six games, and then all of a sudden I get thrown into the mix. It’s a hard job but you have to be ready for it, and that is your job. So the way to stay ready is to stay engaged and get shots up. Whether it’s after the games like Quinn or before practice like Jonas, these guys have their own routines, but part of being a pro in the NBA is being able to deliver when you haven’t played for a stretch.

“And we’ve got a lot of guys who are doing that right now … they can all play or they wouldn’t be in the NBA, and we trust them to come in and deliver.”

To underscore just how much the Warriors’ bench has delivered in the wake of Durant’s injury, consider that the group has scored at least 30 bench points in four straight playoff games, according to ESPN Stats & Information, their second-longest streak under Kerr.

The bench’s ability to stabilize the rest of the group has taken pressure off Warriors All-Stars Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to perform the same way each night without Durant. The production from several players who didn’t get consistent rotation minutes to end the season has become a rallying cry for the team’s best players.

“Everyone is saying it’s thin this year and all this,” Thompson said of the bench. “But they come to work every day. They follow our leaders, and it’s a strength in numbers thing.”

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The chance that McKinnie and his fellow reserves are embracing in the moment is something that resonates with Kerr after all the years he spent in the league trying to carve out his own niche.

“I can relate to those guys much better than I can relate to the starters and the Hall of Famers,” Kerr said. “So I think the bench players play a unique and important role on every team. But on winning teams one of the things I learned from Phil Jackson when I was in Chicago was how important it was to engage the guys on the end of the bench, keep them involved, which means throw them out there. Don’t be afraid to put everybody in the game at some point.

“And there’s going to come a time where every single player on the roster’s going to have to contribute to help your team win.”

Kerr drove that point home in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals when he started center Damian Jones, who hadn’t started a game since tearing his pectoral muscle on Dec. 1 and had played only three minutes since being activated prior to Game 1 of the Blazers series. While the Jones experiment didn’t work the way Kerr hoped, the fact that he gave Jones that chance strengthened the belief that the rest of the group would be given the chance to contribute.

“We’re blessed with a lot of talent, so we’re able to mix and match and play some of our young guys, bench guys routinely, and put them in with other starters and protect them a little bit,” Kerr said. “But I think there’s a real power in that dynamic. It keeps everybody more engaged, more connected, I think more committed to the goal. I think what’s happened the last few games with our bench playing a key role, Game 6 in Houston and then the last two games in Portland, has been galvanizing.”

The collective morale of the Warriors is better than it has been all season, and a large part of that is due to the fact that the entire roster, short of rookie Jacob Evans, is contributing something in the biggest games.

“These are the moments that you’re in the gym [for] in the summer,” Jerebko said. “These are the moments you’re in the gym [for] on a day off. These are the moments after practice you put up [shots for] an extra hour. These are the moments you play for. I don’t care if it’s 30 seconds or if it’s 30 minutes, you got to be ready to do your job.”

It’s a message that has paid off in huge dividends for a proud Warriors group that is on the verge of becoming the first team since the 1960s Boston Celtics to earn five straight trips to the NBA Finals.

“Coach always tells us to stay ready, and to start this series they told us, ‘Everybody be ready,'” McKinnie said. “Me and the other guys, we’ve just been putting the work in every single day and when we do get out there and get our opportunity, I feel like we’re ready because we’ve already been working towards that moment. And it shows when we get in the game.”

While Cook and Bell experienced the happiness that can only come after winning a championship, McKinnie and Jerebko are hoping to have that feeling for the first time in a few weeks. In the meantime, they are enjoying the path that has brought them to this point and have given the group a renewed sense of the joy that was missing at various times during the season.

“It’s the playoffs,” Jerebko said. “We’re playing for a championship. We’re playing for a dream coming true for a lot of us, all of us. Some of these guys have been in this moment before … the bottom [line] is it’s just basketball. So you can’t get caught up in how important the game is, you just got to play your game. We’ve got so many players who can step up and play well … we’ve got 12 guys on that bench who can step up and play.

“I feel like we’ve got the best bench in the league no matter what anybody says. With the minutes and the confidence comes numbers; we’ve got great players on this team all around.”

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