Warriors’ bench steps up vs. Thunder after starting lineup experiment

Warriors’ bench steps up vs. OKC after late lineup experiment originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO — Steve Kerr, for reasons he wishes didn’t occur, was forced to make a totally unexpected change to his starting lineup Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder in what essentially was a must-win game to help avoid the play-in tournament.

Klay Thompson was a surprise late scratch when his lower back flared up right before walkthrough. Kerr was forced to scramble. In the 80th game of the regular season, he turned to a group that hadn’t started a single game together, going with Steph Curry, Jordan Poole, Anthony Lamb, Jonathan Kuminga and Draymond Green.

The experiment failed from the start.

“Well, ironically, we started that group to try to get off to a fast start,” Kerr said Tuesday night.

Instead, the Warriors found themselves in an early hole with no semblance of chemistry as the Thunder got whatever they wanted. Down 17-9, Kerr called timeout and made his first changes of the night with Donte DiVincenzo replacing Poole and Kevon Looney coming in for Kuminga. Moses Moody then entered for Lamb at the 5:37 mark and the Warriors down 21-13. Things quickly turned in favor of the Warriors on their way to yet another comeback victory, beating the Thunder 136-125.

On paper and by the numbers, Kerr’s decision made sense. Size wise, Lamb is the closest the Warriors have to step in for Thompson, especially against the long and strong young Thunder. He, Green and Kuminga especially have been impressive as a trio this season and came into the night with a 36.7 net rating as a three-man lineup.

As a five-man lineup, the starting lineup before Tuesday night’s win had a 52.7 net rating together with a 145.8 offensive rating and 93.1 defensive rating. Kerr trusted the stats and what he has seen on the floor.

“They have been starting the top of the second quarters for us the last couple of weeks,” Kerr said of Lamb, Green and Kuminga. “They have a really good plus/minus, great success as a group. And we liked the combination of the size with JK and Lamb to guard their wings, along with the shooting of Jordan to make up for Klay’s absence.

“We thought it would be a good starting lineup. Didn’t work out that way, but we adjusted from there.”

They sure did. In major ways, too.

Lamb hadn’t started a game since Dec. 28. This was only his fourth start this season and seventh in the NBA. The five-man group that first stepped foot on the floor had only played together for 28 minutes this season. They didn’t last long.

Together, the Curry-Poole-Lamb-Kuminga-Green group played 5:42 and was a minus-8. Lamb didn’t play at all in the second half until the final 1:36 when Kerr emptied his bench.

However, a Curry-Poole-DiVincenzo-Green-Looney five-man group played 8:02 together and was a plus-12.

DiVincenzo had started the previous 22 games in place of Andrew Wiggins, who returned to the Warriors on Tuesday for the first time since mid-February while dealing with a family matter, but was inactive as he gets his conditioning up to speed. DiVincenzo made an immediate impact, scoring eight points in the first quarter off the bench. His work wasn’t done there.

Over 32 minutes off the bench, DiVincenzo was a game-high plus-28 — his best plus/minus in a Warriors jersey. He scored 16 points, going 6 of 10 from the field and 4 of 8 on 3-point attempts. DiVincenzo also added six rebounds, five assists and two steals. One play in particular was the perfect example of why the Warriors were so ready to unleash DiVincenzo and Gary Payton II as a menacing tandem once Payton was healthy enough to play again.

With the score tied at 115 apiece and six-and-a-half minutes remaining, DiVincenzo and Payton both out-jumped the Thunder for a long miss on an errant 3-point attempt from Poole, landing right in Curry’s hands. A step-back 3-pointer gave the Warriors a three-point lead and ignited an 8-0 Golden State run.

“Gary’s great at that,” Kerr said. “And so is Donte. Donte just sees where the ball’s going seemingly before everybody else, so he gets a head start. If it’s a long rebound, he can jump, he can get up. He seems to beat everybody to the ball and just bat it back out where he knows the guards are.”

A smiling, laughing Payton added, “Just energy and effort. Donte, he actually got that one.”

Payton played a little more than four minutes in the first half. Kerr admitted he had to get Payton more playing time in the second half, and it paid off. Payton was a plus-10 playing eight minutes in the fourth quarter, putting the clamps on the Thunder down the stretch.

All of this is without even mentioning the biggest unsung hero of the night, Moses Moody.

Always praised for his maturity and ability to stay ready, Moody played his most meaningful minutes of the season. He was a spark the moment he entered the game, and Kerr couldn’t take him out. His 26 minutes were his most in 2023 and his 13 points were tied for his third-most this season.

Moody was a plus-4 off the bench, shooting 5 of 7 overall and 3 of 5 from deep. Really, it was his hustle and fight that stood out most.

“It was good to get out there and get to play, run up and down the floor and knock down some shots — be in the moment,” Moody said. “That is what I have been waiting and working for.”

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The four-man group of DiVincenzo, Moody, Payton and Looney scored 41 points on a 16-of-27 shooting (59.2 percent). Looney grabbed 11 rebounds. Each were difference-makers in their own regard.

The Warriors’ Strength in Numbers mantra showed up in all the right ways once Kerr made the necessary adjustment, all while Wiggins smiled from the bench with his return on the horizon.

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