A week away from the strenuous grind of the NBA season typically offers teams a chance to recharge physically and refocus mentally; something the visibly fatigued Warriors needed as they stumbled their way into this season’s All-Star Break.
But as the time off of the court allowed the players to get back in the swing of things, it also gave the Golden State coaching staff a chance to make a big personnel decision.
The move: Starting JaVale McGee in place of Zaza Pachulia.
The result: A 134-127 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers (30-27) and the posture of a seemingly disinterested team reinvigorated in 48 minutes.
This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the Warriors’ locker room at Oracle Arena.
The effect of having McGee in the starting lineup was seemingly felt immediately as the typically slow-starting Warriors (45-14) jumped out to an 11-point lead after the first quarter of play.
Four points, two rebounds and one steal in the first warranted seven minutes and 22 seconds of playing time in first for McGee as the fan-favorite provided verticality and agility that Pachulia just doesn’t possess to the center position.
After the game, McGee spoke about how he approached the opportunity of starting next to four All-Stars:
“I just wanted to stay focused and impact the game in a positive way. Rebounding, blocking shots, just being a force.”
With McGee’s constant lob threat attracting interior attention, the rest of the Warriors starting five had a field day with the reeling Clipper defense as both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson found their range early. And for Curry, very often.
Starting 7-for-7 from the field, it took Thompson over 15 minutes of play to miss a shot as he rimmed out his third three-point attempt near the end of the second quarter. Along with a pair of dunks, Thompson scored 17 of his points in the first half.
While McGee’s presence and Thompson’s efficiency gave the Warriors new life, it was up to Curry to remind fans just how lethal a two-time MVP can be. With one heave from near half-court, Curry turned Oracle into “Roaracle” as he hit nothing but net on a 40-foot prayer. It would be three of his game high 44 points.
Regarding the highlight-worthy play, Curry said:
“I’ve shot a lot of them this year. Just sling ’em up and try to get it off in time and see what happens. … When it does happen, it’s just a good vibe to end the quarter.”
Curry also voiced high praise for McGee, even referencing trade rumors that circulated last month and McGee’s resiliency:
“I think JaVale has proven that he gives us a different kind of threat with a guy rolling to the basket or putting pressure on the rim. With shooters all around and Draymond (Green) as the playmaker, its fun way to play. … For a guy, two months ago, talking about trades to stay locked in and understand that his time will come, that’s kind of what our team is all about.”
Curry and Thompson caught fire, making it easy for Steve Kerr and company to continue with their plan, playing the center position by committee as they went to seasoned veteran David West while limiting Pachulia’s minutes to only 7:22 for the game.
In the second half, the gameplan played out very similarly with McGee starting the third quarter. Even when the Clippers made their push in the fourth quarter, Kerr stayed with West also electing to go small with Green at center to close the game.
On the surface, this looks like a sign of the Warriors moving away from an aging Pachulia but there’s no guarantee that Pachulia will stay out of the starting lineup as Kerr has a history of making changes to spark his team.
As of now, with their swagger regained and their focus adjusted McGee’s start may have set the Warriors’ championship hopes back on the tracks according to Kerr:
“Tonight wasn’t perfect, but there were a lot of good things and I think we’re trending in the right direction.”
With a 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game, his second on the night, Klay Thompson surpassed the 10,000-point mark becoming the 10th player in Warrior franchise history to do so.