CLEVELAND — Steve Kerr knows his Golden State Warriors haven’t fared well in Game 3s at Quicken Loans Arena over the past two years, and that running roughshod over the Cleveland Cavaliers in two games by the Bay doesn’t guarantee anything now that the series has shifted back to Ohio.
“No matter what happened the first two games, the change of venue changes the dynamics,” Kerr told reporters during the Warriors’ shootaround at the Q ahead of Wednesday night’s Game 3. “It changes the emotion. We’ve been here the last two years and gotten hammered twice in Game 3, so we know what we’re up against.”
Everyone with the Warriors fully expects the Cavs to come out guns blazing. That’s what they did in the 2015 NBA Finals, leading wire-to-wire and by as many as 20 in a 96-91 win. They did it again in 2016, blitzing Golden State with a game-opening 17-4 run en route to a 30-point blowout. This time around, though — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the Warriors have Kevin Durant, who’s been flat-out brilliant through the first two games on both ends of the floor, and who helped tilt Game 2 by stepping into Draymond Green’s slot as Golden State’s small-ball center in the third quarter with Green suffering from foul trouble.
“When Draymond went out, I just tried to do my best to help everybody out,” Durant aid after Game 2. “He’s so good at just sniffing out plays before they happen. And so I just tried to follow his lead with that, and I learned so much from him throughout the season.”
Durant at center — bodying up Kevin Love in the post, rotating on the back line to protect the rim, lurking as a help-defense menace who can take the ball end-to-end for buckets himself — was a look at the Warriors didn’t feature much this season, rolling it out for only eight minutes before the start of playoffs, according to NBAwowy.com. But the combination of Green’s foul trouble and Cleveland’s downsizing in search of more offense-heavy lineups that could go blow-for-blow with the Warriors — one of the factors in the diminishing impact of Cavs center Tristan Thompson — led Kerr to slide KD into the middle.
“We’ve hardly done it all year, but we had to,” Kerr said Wednesday. “You know, they were small. It’s really kind of our best option at that point.”
As you might expect, he liked what he saw. After Game 2, Kerr called Durant’s defense “unreal” and “probably the key to the whole game.” On Wednesday, he explained why that kind of defensive performance didn’t come as a major shock.
“We were great the last couple of years going small with Draymond at the five and Harrison [Barnes] at the four,” he said. “What made our defense stand up the last couple of years with that small unit was the fact that Harrison could guard fours and Draymond could guard fives. Harrison’s strength was a real asset for us. KD’s not as strong as Harrison, but he’s longer, so he’s more of a shot-blocking presence. So it’s a little bit of a different dynamic, but it’s still something that holds up well because of our length and switching ability, and the fact that between the two of them, KD and Draymond, [we] can cover the rim.”
Durant certainly did that, logging five blocks and three steals to go along with his game-high 33 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Not bad for a “backup” center.
“I don’t think there’s many teams in the league who their backup is better than their starter,” Green said after Game 2. “So I think that’s a luxury that we have and with K.D. here and when I went out with foul trouble, obviously he — to say ‘pick up the slack’ is kind of a ridiculous term, because he’s a great player, a MVP, one of the best players in the world […] with me going out, it wasn’t like we were going to skip a beat with him right there taking over my minutes.”
Given his druthers, Kerr would probably like to log more minutes with traditional lineups featuring his multiple veteran bigs. He praised starting center Zaza Pachulia on Wednesday, calling the Georgian big man “great” and “fantastic” for bringing “a level of physicality […] that’s especially important in this series,” particularly in minimizing the impact of Thompson when Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has kept his top big man in the game. Should the circumstances once again conspire to leave Kerr in need of another small (well, “small”)-ball center in Game 3 to turn the Cavs back, though, he’s more than comfortable turning right back to Durant.
“We’d love to keep Draymond out of foul trouble tonight. We don’t want that to happen again,” Kerr said. “But if it does, we’ll do the same thing.”
Having a player of Durant’s caliber as an “in case of emergency, break glass” option on both ends of the floor is the kind of thing that can make a coach feel much more confident in his team’s chances, even in an environment as hostile and charged-up as Quicken Loans Arena promises to be on Wednesday night. Even so, of course, Kerr would prefer his Warriors do whatever’s in their power to avoid finding themselves in need of availing themselves of that fallback option.
“We have a better handle on how you have to approach things,” he said. “I think we understand what’s coming at us tonight, the force that they’re going to bring. We just have to stand up to it […] Understand the emotion that’s going to be in the arena, but also understand what you have to do execution-wise to negate the momentum that the other team’s going to bring with their crowd.
“So, for example: try not to throw the ball to LeBron early in the game and let him dunk with 20,000 people going crazy,” he added with a smile. “That would be helpful.”
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