Can the Golden State Warriors’ new small-ball lineup carry them back to the NBA Finals?

Can the Golden State Warriors’ new small-ball lineup carry them back to the NBA Finals? post thumbnail image

As Jordan Poole began to describe the confidence boost his teammates have given him following the Golden State Warriors’ Game 3 road win over the Denver Nuggets, Klay Thompson grabbed Poole’s shoulders, jumped up and down and shouted:

“It’s a Poole party! It’s a Poole party!”

This celebration came on the heels of Poole’s 27-point performance that night — his third consecutive 25-point playoff game.

Through the first four games of the series — Poole’s playoffs debut — he’s averaging 24.3 points on 59.6% shooting and 51.9% from 3.

“That’s another lethal weapon,” Warriors All-Star forward Andrew Wiggins says. “He looks like he’s in a world of his own. He’s competing on both ends and he’s taking big shot after big shot, making big play and big play.”

The third-year guard’s development has given the Warriors the ultimate luxury: allowing Curry — who was coming off a month-long absence due to a left foot sprain — to ease back into game action. Curry will play Thursday’s Game 5 with no minute restriction for the first time this postseason.

Poole has also given the Warriors a bonus they weren’t expecting: a third guard who has become the gateway to Golden State’s most lethal rotation, alongside Wiggins and Draymond Green — otherwise known as the Warriors’ new death lineup.

“It’s a scary sight,” Thompson says, “when we really get going.”

How did a group that played no minutes together during the regular season become Golden State’s best fivesome so far in the playoffs? And how will this lineup be tested as the Warriors pursue a return to the NBA Finals after two years in the lottery?

How the Warriors found this lineup

At the 4:23 mark of the second quarter of Game 1 between the Warriors and Nuggets, Poole checked in for Kevon Looney, marking the first time the Warriors would play the lineup of Poole, Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Green.

There had been glimpses of the three-guard combo — Poole, Curry and Thompson played 129 minutes together during the regular season — but because of injury, the Warriors could never manage to get the full small-ball lineup on the court.

It wasn’t an accident.

“We were planning all year on it,” Kerr says. “It just didn’t materialize until the playoffs.”

Small-ball basketball has been part of the Warriors’ DNA since their 2014-15 championship run. The “death lineup” of Curry, Thompson, Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes flipped all of the momentum when Kerr started them during Game 4 of the 2015 Finals with Golden State down 2-1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since that series, it’s been a go-to tool when the Warriors need a boost.

The Hamptons Five lineup, which swapped out Barnes for 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant, was a key factor as Golden State won two more titles.

For the past two seasons, the Warriors didn’t have the correct pieces to put together their death lineup 3.0. Durant left for Brooklyn, Thompson suffered back-to-back injuries, Curry got injured and COVID-19 suspended the NBA.

This year, Wiggins — who was traded to the Warriors in early 2020 — has been playing his best basketball since his rookie year, voted an All-Star starter for the first time this season. Poole has filled in seamlessly for Thompson and Curry while they were sidelined with injuries.

“I’ll call that a fortuitous coincidence and consequence from my injury, in terms of Jordan being able to step up,” Curry says. “I don’t know how many situations you could have the opportunity for someone to step in like that, and then when I do come back, we don’t miss a beat.”

How exactly that lineup would be utilized wasn’t known until preparing for the playoffs.

“We just never got to the point where we could hatch a game plan because we were injured,” Kerr says. “We didn’t bother going down that path.”

For their first-round series against the Nuggets, Kerr wanted to use the small lineup in a similar fashion to how he had used it in the past: as a boost, turning a three-point deficit into an 11-point lead, outscoring Denver by 14 points in just five minutes.

The same exact thing happened in Game 2, with the small-ball lineup going on a 22-8 run in the final six minutes of the first half.

Now, the Warriors will be the first to say that the full potential of this lineup is yet to be seen, especially after facing some challenges in Game 4 in Denver. But, it’s a lineup they will continue to use all throughout their playoff push, just as they did during their dynastic run.

“The fact that me, Dray, Klay and Andre have been through what we’ve been through the last seven years, it’s a little different in terms of the confidence and experience that can help Jordan,” Curry says. “Back then, none of us really knew what it took to win a championship until we did it. That is something you cannot overlook: the experience and ability to orchestrate everything and stay confident in what we’re trying to do.”

Why it’s worked so well

Like all of Golden State’s past small-ball lineups, the success of this group has been built around Green’s ability to defend bigger opponents. On paper, a matchup against Nikola Jokic is the last time a team would want to go small. At 6-foot-6, Green is giving up six inches to the 7-foot Jokic. Still, he’s been successful defending him 1-on-1 and protecting the rim.

Among the 15 defenders who have matched up with Jokic at least 75 times this season according to Second Spectrum tracking (regular season and playoffs), just two — Wendell Carter Jr. and Domantas Sabonis — have limited him to a lower effective field goal percentage (eFG) than the 50% eFG he’s posted against Green. By contrast, Jokic has posted a 70% eFG in matchups against Looney during this series.

Consider that nobody else in that group of most frequent Jokic defenders is shorter than 6-foot-8. Aside from Green, no player shorter than 6-foot-8 has matched up with Jokic more than 36 times this season, per analysis of Second Spectrum data.

Green’s unique ability to contend with a much bigger opponent unlocks the Warriors’ offense. Taking Looney off the court means going from two non-shooters to just one, creating more space for Golden State’s star guards to do their thing.

“Draymond being able to do what he does, that can’t be replaced,” Curry says. “Then if you can hold it down as much as possible on that end, what we get on the other side, it’s pretty dramatic.”

Pretty dramatic might be an understatement. The Warriors’ small lineup has posted an offensive rating of 147.8 points per 100 possessions, easily the most of any five-man unit that has played at least 20 minutes together in the playoffs. (The Dallas Mavericks’ lineup with Maxi Kleber at center is next best at 131.5, per NBA Advanced Stats.)

Past incarnations of Golden State’s small-ball groups have included Iguodala, an iffy 3-point shooter (33% career). Swapping him out for Poole gives the Warriors four feared shooters on the court who combined to average 13.1 3-pointers per game during the regular season — more than two-thirds of the league’s teams averaged total.

With so much space, Golden State’s offensive stats from this lineup look like typos. All five players are shooting at least 60% from the field while playing together, and they’ve shot 13-of-24 (54%) on 3s while taking 23 of their 31 2-point attempts inside five feet.

Curry has led the way, scoring 41 points in the 32 minutes the group has played. The Warriors have handed out 24 assists (11 by Green) against just six turnovers and outscored Denver by 26 points in that span. Through Tuesday, just two other five-man lineups had a better differential so far in the playoffs.

Concerns going forward

As much as exchanging Iguodala for Poole juices the Golden State offense, it presents a challenge on defense. Remember, much of the upside of the Warriors moving Green to center in the past was defensive versatility and specifically the ability to switch. Taking a center off the court left Golden State with four interchangeable defenders alongside the 6-foot-2 Curry.

The equation is different with two smaller guards on the court in Curry and Poole (6-foot-4). The Warriors have switched just 22% of screens so far in this series according to Second Spectrum tracking, far less frequently than they switched with the Hamptons Five on the court in the playoffs from 2017-19 (36%).

Besides bringing more size, Iguodala was also perhaps Golden State’s best perimeter defender during the team’s first three championship runs. Starting Iguodala in smaller lineups allowed him to match up with the likes of LeBron James and James Harden in past playoff series. Poole doesn’t bring that same level of individual defense. With Thompson not yet the kind of stopper he was before his injuries, that leaves the Warriors less capable of containing an elite perimeter scorer.

“There’s an appropriate fear,” Curry says of going small. “You obviously have to be concerned about matchups and the fact that you’re going to give up something. But it does require a collective commitment to boxing out, playing team defense.”

With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. sidelined by injury, the Nuggets have been ill-equipped to take advantage of Golden State’s small-ball weaknesses. That won’t be the case in future rounds, where the Warriors could face Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant and the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star duo of Devin Booker and Chris Paul if they continue to advance.

No matter who’s on the other side, Golden State’s three-guard attack should remain potent offensively. It’s the defensive end of the court that will determine whether this group can be considered in the same pantheon as the Death Lineup and the Hamptons Five — and ultimately whether the Warriors can win another title.

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