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Zion, Pelicans bully Warriors en route to comeback victory

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The stands at Chase Center were packed, and the energy before Sunday’s game was at a high level. It was loud and ready to greet for the first time the next great NBA player — Dragan Bender. Zion Williamson was there, too, so maybe it was for him, but who could be sure. What was for sure though was that while the fans saw a 115-101 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, it was at least entertaining, unlike the previous contest with the Rockets.

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the Warriors locker room at Chase Center.
A lot of the entertainment came from Williamson, who made an impact immediately. He had two oops in the first four minutes, dominating the Warriors through the air and drawing two fouls on Eric Paschall in just a handful of possessions. Steve Kerr then decided that it was a good idea to sub in Alen Smailagic and match him up with Williamson. Either that or Smailagic committed some atrocity against every member of the coaching staff at practice. The result was exactly what could have been expected. Williamson bullied him immediately, almost shouldered him to the ground, then hit him with such a nasty jab step that Smailagic teleported across the court like X-Men’s Nightcrawler. The game was filled with Williamson highlights, seemingly leading the Pelicans to a blowout victory. But the Warriors actually had control for much of the game. Damion Lee led the way with 18 points in the first half alone. After a smoking start to the month, Lee has been struggling with his shot the last few games. Not Sunday though, as he hit four 3’s, the third time in February he’s hit at least four 3’s in a game. Steve Kerr said that Lee is someone the team really likes, evidenced by their signing him to a multiple-year deal:
“Damion had a great night for us. That first half he really carried us and helped us get out to that lead, we just couldn’t sustain it.”
Until Stephen Curry returns to the court, Lee may be the most important Warriors player on offense. He’s the only above-average shooter Golden State currently has on the roster, unless you count Bender, who has played one game in the organization and is signed to a 10-day contract. Without Lee contributing 3’s, the Warriors will look a lot like they did against Houston, utterly overmatched and with really no hope to stick close to any decent-caliber team. But when Lee knocks in a handful of shots from the outside, the Warriors turn into a fun, spunky, energetic team, capable of putting up a fight against anyone. Which is what they were for 40 minutes Sunday, until the Pelicans talent differential took over. Bender, the 7-footer, was the first sub off the bench, and immediately had a nice backdoor pass to Andrew Wiggins. He finished the game with six points, five rebounds, three assists and one block in 20 minutes. Bender, got in a brief shooting session with the Warriors before taking the floor, but thinks their style really fits his game:
“It’s fun to be out there, it’s a really good system, just watching those guys play the last couple years. It’s a fun place to be, a fun place to play. I think every player in the NBA, wants to be on a team like this, especially the last couple years.”
His play style seems to fit with what the Warriors value, with his floor spacing ability, passing vision and length. Jordan Poole, who had 19 in another start at point guard, said having a skilled big is huge for everyone, and something he’s used to since college:
“Yeah, I went to Michigan, so they know how to pass, dribble and shoot. So it feels pretty good to play with bigs like Loon, Marquese and Dragan, they make it a lot easier. It’s a game changer. When you have somebody that can make the right play but open up the court at the five and stretch the floor.”
He’s never been able to put it all together in his four-year NBA career, and his star potential is gone, but he could provide some nice depth for the Warriors if they can shape him like Marquese Chriss. That’s the best part about having a depleted roster after the trade deadline, the Warriors get free looks at any and all intriguing prospects over the last month and a half of the season. And at the very least, Bender has intrigue. But he’s not the only one playing for his next contract. Juan Toscano-Anderson has a little more stability since he is under contract for the rest of season. But with nothing guaranteed beyond this year, he’s trying to prove he can stick in the NBA. Since the All-Star break, Toscano-Anderson has made the most of every minute he’s been on the court. He had 16 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocks Sunday. He continues to show off his versatility on both sides of the court and could very easily slot into an end of the bench role next season if he can keep this going. Toscano-Anderson says that versatility is essentially what makes up a good portion of his game:
“I just try to be versatile and find my value in different positions on the floor. If I can play different positions and there’s more minutes available for me, so that’s always something that I’ve tried to. Try to be versatile and just find different spots on the floor coach can put me.”
He plays hard and defends, which is basically the prerequisites for any bench role with the Warriors. And that’s the beauty of the way this roster is constructed this year. They can take as many bites of the apple as they want until they find exactly the right fit for this organization, whether that’s Bender or Toscano-Anderson or someone else who’s in the G-League, the Warriors have the flexibility to find out. And they need all the cheap talent they can find, with their salary for next season approaching record levels.

Up Next

The Sacramento Kings, and old friends Harrison Barnes and Luke Walton, will travel to Chase Tuesday night. The Warriors are 0-2 against them so far this season, having lost by a combined 34 points.

Notes

Stephen Curry went through his normal pregame shooting routine before Sunday’s game after going through a full-contact practice Saturday. March 1, is still the target date for his return, but the team has yet to formally announce a date. … Draymond Green and Marquese Chriss both missed the game due to injury. Green sat out with a pelvic contusion, while Chriss sat with calf soreness.
Curtis Uemura is SFBay’s Golden State Warriors beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @CUemura on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Warriors basketball.
Curtis Uemura

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