OAKLAND — There are secrets so precious that no amount of digging can unearth them. Who shot JFK? How much does Donald Trump pay in taxes? And who would start at center for the Warriors in Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs?
Golden State coach Steve Kerr has a full hand of big-man cards at his disposal these days, and he flatly refused to answer when asked about his starter a couple hours before tipoff on Saturday. When the news finally dropped, it was a small surprise. Getting the nod was JaVale McGee, who had started just one of the Warriors’ final six regular-season games.
“I already knew, but we definitely weren’t gonna tell everybody else who was starting, because we didn’t know who they were starting yet,” McGee said after the game, looking like the world’s tallest jazz man in all-black garb and dark, round sunglasses. His reaction? “I was prepared.”
Sure looked like it. By the time the final buzzer sounded, McGee had made Kerr look like a genius. The elongated 7-footer played a modest 16 minutes and 23 seconds, but they were the crucial minutes of the game. And he dominated them.
McGee won that opening tip against the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge and stayed on the floor until the 3:01 mark of the first quarter, at which point he subbed out for young Kevon Looney. By then, the Warriors owned a 20-11 lead, and McGee had scored nine of those points to go along with three rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
The game never got closer than six points after that, and it was effectively over by the late third quarter. The Warriors won 113-92 to take Game 1 and calm the jittery nerves of Bay Area hoops fans.
McGee wound up with 15 points, his highest output of the season.
The underdog Spurs revealed their intentions early in this one. Even with Stephen Curry out, they weren’t going to let the Warriors win at the 3-point line. They crowded shooters on every defensive switch, daring the home team to redirect the ball inside. The Warriors took advantage. Specifically, McGee took advantage, repeatedly catching bullet passes and finishing with dunks or finger rolls.
Spurs small forward Danny Green confirmed the failed strategy afterward.
“We’ve got to give up something,” he said. “… What we were giving up was JaVale trying to make plays in the middle of the floor, and he made some. He made the right ones. We hope that he doesn’t continue to make those plays.”
The Spurs will need more than hope to separate McGee and the basket.
Anyway, it was on the defensive end that McGee staked his claim Saturday. After the contest, Kerr called Aldridge “the best low-post scorer that we have now in the game.” The power forward averaged better than 23 points a game for the Spurs this year. Behind him, they have very little punch. San Antonio can’t beat the Warriors without Aldridge scoring at a high clip, and in Game 1 he finished with 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
McGee doesn’t get all the credit for that. But he earned the lion’s share. And it wasn’t a new development. The fact is, McGee has defended Aldridge well in the recent past.