SAN FRANCISCO — The Golden State Warriors have a long history of small-ball lineups. During the first championship run of their dynastic era, their little roster was so deadly that it was dubbed the “death roster.”
It’s had several different renditions since then, but as the Warriors head into their first playoff series in three years, it looks like they’ve got the latest version.
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins played just five minutes together in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, but in those minutes they outscored the Nuggets by 14 points . And it was those five minutes that gave the Warriors the momentum at halftime for their eventual 123-107 win on Saturday night.
“It’s a scary sight when we really start,” Thompson said. “It’s really only the first time that we really play together.”
Said Poole of the lineup: “It’s pretty deadly.”
Poole has peppered veteran teammates with playoff questions for the past three years. He wanted to be ready whenever his chance to perform on the NBA’s biggest stage presented itself. But according to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, it wasn’t just his questions that prepared the third-year goaltender. Their two qualifying games last year gave Poole a taste of the pressure he would face on their run this season.
“He’s not afraid of the moment,” Kerr said of Poole. “He’s looking forward to it.”
Curry singled out a play that happened with about three minutes left in the first half, when Poole came on in transition and cut the key for a layup.
“He’s not lacking in confidence,” Curry said. “This game embodied that. Because you just have the creativity and the confidence to make this game. You don’t doubt yourself. You kind of live with the results and we’ve been doing it for years, and it comes into than now. It’s fun to see.
Poole finished the night with a game-high 30 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-7 of 3. Only one player in Warriors history has scored more points in his playoff debut: Wilt Chamberlain (35 points).
On Friday, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he wouldn’t check Poole’s stats against Denver during the regular season because “they were just off the charts.” In the three games he played against the Nuggets, Poole averaged 22.7 points, 58% shooting from the field and 61% shooting from the 3-point line.
Curry said Poole’s play lately – he’s hit a league-high 78 3-pointers since March – is a reason he’s comfortable coming back to his own game more slowly.
Saturday’s outing was Curry’s first time playing a game since March 16, and he came on the bench.
It was Curry’s decision not to start. He said watching Thompson come back from his injuries — specifically how the Warriors would allow Thompson to rest 45 minutes in real time before returning to the floor — gave Curry insight into how to handle his minute restriction. . But it also gave the Warriors the flexibility they wanted within Curry’s one-minute restriction.
Curry played 22 minutes in total, finishing with 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting, including 3 of 6 from 3-pointers.
“I thought he looked great,” Thompson said. “His shooting was short in the first half, but that’s to be expected when you’re coming off a long layoff. But he’s still Steph Curry. … Just his seriousness and the threat of him being there- low are the best. It makes us a championship team.”
As Thompson said, Curry’s biggest impact on the game was simply his presence on the court. That forced the Nuggets to decide whether they wanted to leave him in single coverage — which could have allowed him to catch fire — or throw multiple defenders in his path, leaving another capable shooter wide open.
“It’s really hard to protect ourselves,” Thompson said. “Technically, I guess, we’re undersized, but you have to bring in defensive strength, effort and energy.”
As Curry added, “See [Poole] being able to make plays in the pick-and-roll with me and Klay spaced out and setting Draymond and splashing Wiggs, he ticks a lot of boxes on the list of what would you want for a power offense.
The spacing Curry created was especially evident while playing in the Warriors’ three-guard lineup with Poole and Thompson. Thompson finished with 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting, including five 3-pointers.
Of course, the “death lineup 3.0” was put together by Green, as it has been since the 2014-15 season.
Green didn’t play in any of the four regular season matchups against Denver, and Malone cited that as the reason the Nuggets went 3-1 in the series.
The Nuggets shot just 5 of 19 from the floor on Saturday with Green as the leading defenseman. Nikola Jokic went 3 of 12. On offense, the Warriors were 9 of 14 on field goals on passes from Green, including 5 of 6 on uncontested shots.
“You need tough and smart, and that’s Draymond,” Kerr said.
“He’s taken it up a notch,” Poole said of Green. “Him being our leader, we feed off of his energy and can see the big boss going out there, being aggressive, knocking down huge saves against the MVP, we feed off of that. Being able to have the strength that he’s there- low, and the way he controls our attack helps a lot.”
The Warriors only got a five-minute preview of their potential closing lineup. But in those five minutes, Golden State finally got to see the roster it’s been talking about since Curry went down in March with left foot injuries. It’s been in their playbook for longer – for almost a decade.
Golden State has seen players turn, like Harrison Barnes and Kevin Durant, but ultimately it will always be key for the Warriors in the playoffs.
As for a new nickname for it?
“No,” Curry said. “See, it’s hard to keep doing it over and over again. Hard things that we all have to do.”